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Julie Stall with children Emily (9), Megan (5) and Justin (14) outside Our Lady, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary cathedral in Toledo, Ohio, following mass on Oct. 11, 2012, to celebrate Pope Benedict’s Year of Faith.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Found myself Thursday afternoon in the midst of a fascinating mass in a surprisingly stunning Roman Catholic cathedral in Toledo, Ohio.

The service, celebrated by the bishop, was attended by dozens of area priests robed in white, several Knights of Columbus decked out in gold braid and plumed admiral hats, scores of school children and about 250 other people.

But beneath the pomp and circumstance, a bitter issue is gnawing at the heart of the Catholic community, one that could turn this normally Democrat-voting city and other Catholic centres into Republican supporters.

"Preserve our religious freedom," read several roadside signs on the outskirts of the city. It wasn't quite clear what they meant, but Bishop Leonard Paul Blair, a gentle man with a soft voice, uttered the same phrase during the mass when offering up prayers from the altar.

"As we approach elections," he called out, his hands and eyes facing heavenward, "we pray for the preservation of religious freedom." And the congregation replied: "Lord hear our prayer." Yikes, it was the kind of prayer heard 250 years ago in the original 13 colonies.

Later, Bishop Blair explained, "We are concerned that religious freedom is under threat in several places around the world," referring to situations in Iraq, Egypt and some Saharan countries, where Christians are persecuted.

"But here, in the United States," he said, emphatically, "our freedom is also being threatened by the HHS mandate" issued by the current, Barack Obama administration.

The directive, from the Federal Department of Health and Human Sevices (HHS), falls under the new Affordable Care Act, or "Obama Care," as it's popularly known. It requires all employer health plans to provide free contraceptives, and all hospitals, including Catholic hospitals, to perform abortions. Both contraception and abortion are absolutely forbidden by the Catholic Church.

"Catholic hospitals will close before they carry out abortions," said Sue French, 49, who works for the diocese. "Where is the freedom in that?"

How important is this issue to Toledo Catholics?

Well, just remember, the economy of this city is very dependent on the auto industry, and another measure from the Obama administration was a bailout of the sector that restored thousands of jobs in Toledo.

"The economy's important," acknowledged Julie Stall, a mother of four, "but this [HHS issue] is more important."

"We're talking about respect for all human life," she said.

"If we don't get life right," said Sister Sharon Elizabeth, "nothing else matters."

The sister was one of two cloistered nuns allowed out for the occasion of the mass. She said that she and the other nuns, though cloistered in a convent, had already cast ballots in the upcoming election. "We vote by absentee ballots," she explained.

Bishop Blair wanted to make one thing clear: "We don't tell our parishioners how to vote," he said. "But we do say how concerned we are about this threat to our freedom as a religion."

Toledo, Ohio

Population: 286,000 (650,000 in Metropolitan area)

Demographics (of city): 50 per cent African American; 40 per cent white

Home of: Gloria Steinem, feminist writer and a leader of the 1960s' women's liberation movement; P. J. O'Rourke, author and political satirist

Notable landmarks: Anthony Wayne Bridge, an attractive 1931 suspension bridge over the Maumee River in the downtown; Rosary Cathedral, also completed in 1931, a spectacular Spanish-style structure with richly painted ceilings and walls, dozens of beautiful stained-glass windows and scores of sculptures embedded in the exterior

Just how spectacular? According to Bishop Leonard Paul Blair: "The other bishops [of North America] have cathedral envy."

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