On St. Stanislaus in St. Louis

24 February 2013 - By

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, James Rygelski writes on the St. Stanislaus Church in St. Louis in ‘Do widzenia,’ St. Stanislaus Church

It is a great reflection on what might have been with a little bit of mutual charity and living with the wisdom of original intents in relation to the parishioners ownership of its property. of course this is the wisdom of the Polish National Catholic Church which maintains its catholicity and its democratic tradition.

I never was a registered member of St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish. But the Roman Catholic church founded by Polish immigrants at 20th Street and Cass Avenue was always a part of my life.

My father graduated from its grade school. My maternal grandmother was a longtime parishioner. I grew up in St. Leo Parish, a few blocks west, and we sometimes joined my grandmother for Mass at St. Stanislaus. While registered in my geographical parish as an adult, I occasionally attended St. Stanislaus, and not just the festivals. When the communist government in Poland declared martial law on a cold Sunday morning in December 1981, the appropriate place for me to attend Mass that day was St. Stanislaus.

There was an aura inside St. Stanislaus’ red brick exterior befitting a house of God, enhanced by the inspirational murals, particularly the one behind the main altar depicting Christ before He is nailed to the cross, and augmented by the singing of Polish hymns. But despite its cathedral-like proportions, the church also afforded the solitary kneeling worshipper an intimate visit with the Lord.

For nearly a decade, St. Stanislaus’ lay leaders battled the St. Louis Archdiocese for the church’s property. The fight extended to the parish’s heart and soul. Last week the archdiocese dropped its legal claims. St. Stanislaus Kostka Church is now a denominational free agent, something its members didn’t want when the conflict began. Archbishop Robert Carlson’s recent and sincere reconciliation efforts came too late, after the moat around St. Stanislaus became impassable during the tumultuous reign of his predecessor, Raymond Burke.

Full disclosure: I was editor of the St. Louis Review, the archdiocese’s weekly, when the rival forces stopped posturing and started firing. I asked my reporters to get both sides, until word filtered down that we were to publish only Archbishop Burke’s version. I obeyed but felt like a Polish Benedict Arnold, though I hoped always for a resolution that would keep St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic. Still do.

This was a tragedy in two acts. In Act One, most worshippers – Catholic or otherwise – united in opposing Archbishop Burke’s request that the parish’s lay board of directors turn over the property without his giving written assurance that the church would stay open. Those who declared loyalty to him, mostly recent Polish immigrants who’d had tiffs with the older Polish-Americans over the years, were given their own parish near the Anheuser-Busch brewery. In Act Two, the lay board’s hiring of a renegade Polish priest to make St. Stanislaus a breakaway parish deeply divided both the board and the congregation. Some quit the board and joined the archdiocese in lawsuit to reclaim the parish for the archdiocese.

But there was more to the conflict than just an archbishop trying to take the money and property of a small north St. Louis parish that had been granted a unique contract by Archbishop Peter Kenrick in 1891. That agreement gave the archbishop the right to appoint the pastor but gave the parish’s lay board ownership of the church property and control of its finances. A teacher could fashion a lively course around the resulting legal/ethical issues.

The archdiocese coveted the St. Stanislaus land in 2003 while reorganizing all archdiocesan property to avoid being crippled financially if a jury ruled against it in a massive clergy sex-abuse case. Perhaps if ordained Catholic leaders across the country had properly removed the predators masquerading as priests and prevented the scandal they hushed over during the previous decades the St. Louis Archdiocese wouldn’t have been interested in reclaiming a few acres at 1413 N. 20th St.

The archdiocese’s 2008 lawsuit to restore the original agreement, which it dropped last week, came a few years too late. If it was going to sue, it should have when the St. Stanislaus board wrongly tinkered with the 1891 contract by cutting the pastor and archbishop out of the loop on important matters, which was before Archbishop Burke arrived. That’s when the archdiocese’s lawyers could have said, “If you expect us to play by the 1891 rules you’ll have to also.” Still, one Catholic organization suing another disregards what Christ told His disciples about reconciling with people before going to court (Matthew 5:25).

If some St. Stanislaus board members altered the agreement in hopes of saving the parish amid rumors that the archdiocese would try to sell the property to developers, they only made the situation worse. Nevertheless, they and the congregation wanted only to ensure that the parish remained open, a desirefor which they can’t be faulted. The archdiocese has closed many city parishes abandoned by white people who fled to the suburbs; St. Stanislaus parishioners moved but kept coming back and kept it viable, particularly in the 1970s, when rival gang violence outside left bullet holes in the church walls.

Many St. Stanislaus parishioners descended from the immigrants who’d built and maintained that parish with their own money, labor and faith, which is what those attending St. Stanislaus have done since. This was shown in the magnificent church restoration in the late 1970 the parishioners and friends fully financed on their own, and their fully financing the decade-old Polish Heritage Center on the parish grounds. My grandmother and parents donated to the former, and I to the latter.

Some have criticized St. Stanislaus people for “disobedience to authority” in not turning over the property when first Archbishop Justin Rigali then Archbishop Burke requested it. Yet the parishioners were engaged in no collective sinful, immoral or heretical activity before the issue arose. If they had and been ordered to cease, they’d have no recourse but to comply, and no sympathy from many of us if they hadn’t. Archbishop Burke and his predecessors didn’t like the 1891 agreement, but it was valid. When the archdiocese has acquired property for its churches and schools, it’s had to comply with the law. When it comes to property, to give God what is His, the church hierarchy has first had to give Caesar what is his.

Archbishop Burke could have granted them in writing the assurance that the parish would stay open if parishioners could continue financing its operation. It was a unique situation, and granting that assurance would have neither affected other parishes nor undermined his authority. It might have gained him respect as a shepherd making sure that the 100th sheep not be separated from the other 99 (Luke 15:4-7) rather than bringing him criticism for threatening people with eternal damnation over a few acres.

Poles have been devoted to the Catholic Church. Their liturgical language may have been Polish, but rites and beliefs were always fully Roman Catholic. They’ve rebelled when they perceived that ruling clergy got in the way of that devotion. There’s precedent for the St. Stanislaus action: some Polish immigrants in America in the 1890s founded the Polish National Catholic Church to protest what they thought was the ruling Irish clergy’s indifference to them. A local PNCC parish, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, operates near St. Stanislaus.

Last week’s legal victory of St. Stanislaus is nothing to celebrate, though. Regardless how Catholic St. Stanislaus looks, it’s now an orphan church. You can’t pretend to be something you’re not…

When the PNCC broke away, it established a creed close to that of Roman Catholicism and required its bishops, priests and lay people to follow it. St. Stanislaus’ freelance pastor, former priest Marek Bozek, can remake St. Stanislaus Kostka Non-Denominational Church as he wants it, with no ecclesiastical oversight or guidance. How will that church’s board replace him, if he leaves on his own or it fires him because it doesn’t like what he’s doing? How many excommunicated Polish priests are there to fill that post?

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