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St. Stanislaus celebrates court victory while archdiocese plans to appeal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 15, 2012 -Tonight, many of the 550 members of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church are celebrating today’s court opinion that retains their lay parish board’s ownership of the north St. Louis parish. Judge Bryan L. Hettenbach of the 22nd Judicial Circuit said that the parish remains within the Roman Catholic Church, but the archdiocese does not own the property nor can it determine who its pastor is.

“It took a long time (to get the decision), but it came out right. We are very happy,” said Carol Pawlowski Cusamono, who grew up in the parish and in 1958 married at the red brick church at 1413 N. 20th Street just north of downtown.

The pastor was delighted.

“We are happy to be independent though in our hearts we have always been Catholic and cherish our traditions, but we are more flexible than other Roman Catholic churches,” said Rev. Marek Bozek, the pastor, as he prepared for an evening Mass of thanksgiving.

The parish’s lay board chose him without the permission of the then-archbishop, now Cardinal Raymond Burke, even though Bozek had excommunicated himself before arriving at St. Stanislaus. Eventually, the Vatican removed Bozek from the priesthood.

The case is not over, Archbishop Robert Carlson said. 

The St. Louis Archdiocese will appeal the case and take it all the way to the Supreme Court if that is necessary, Carlson said at a news conference at the Cardinal Rigali Center this afternoon.

“The court’s decision today is disappointing for Polish-American Catholics who wished to see St. Stanislaus returned to communion with the Roman Catholic Church,” the archbishop said. He called Hettenbach’s opinion “a great sadness to all in the Archdiocese of St. Louis who had hoped for reconciliation and healing in this matter.”

Conflict goes back more than a decade

Since 1880, the church has been the site of Polish-American weddings, funerals and traditional festivities, drawing generations of the same families. Even when they moved to far-flung suburban parishes, they’d return for special events. But, by the middle of the last decade, the late Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope, said it was no longer Catholic.

That division came in 2001, when the St. Stanislaus’ lay board amended its bylaws, originally written in 1891 when other ethnic parishes also had more control over their parish property.

While none had the right to pick their own pastors without the archbishop’s approval, they sometimes conducted searches in their mother countries because they needed priests who spoke languages other than English. In the end, though, the bishop in the home country and St. Louis archbishop would approve the priest, provided all his seminary papers were in order.

Several bishops beginning with Cardinal Joseph Ritter tried to get the Poles to centralize ownership under the archbishop; many like Archbishop John May looked at the age of mostly elderly St. Stanislaus parishioners and thought that they’d wait them out. Then-Archbishop Justin Rigali started to force the issue around 1995. 

In 2001, St. Stanislaus’ amended bylaws revoked the archbishop’s right to appoint board members and appoint pastors, making it an independent church.

First Rigali and then his successor, Burke, met with the parish’s leadership to try to have them rescind their amendment. Rigali assigned a high-profile Polish-American, Monsignor Ted L. Wojcicki as pastor, a priest who later would head Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, to persuade the parishioners to change. The bylaw change upset many Polish-American Catholic parishioners who left their beloved parish and began attending Mass elsewhere.

The lay men and women in leadership at St. Stanislaus thought they could get around church law because they had a “friend” in Rome. John Paul II had visited the parish in 1969 when he was Krakow’s archbishop. Early in the century, the Polish pope had Vatican departments look into the parishioners’ request to keep their governance and he sent back a strongly worded letter saying that they were no longer Catholic. He told them to repair the damage.

Scores originally agreed with the policy but eventually decided to try to take the parish back under the Catholic Church. Long-time parishioners Bernice Krauze, Stanley Rozanski, Robert Zabielski, Eugene Brzyski, Edward Florek and Joseph Skudrzyk joined Carlson as plaintiffs in the court case handed down Thursday. They hoped to make their parish a Catholic Church again and give the archbishop control over pastoral appointments.

Though many Polish Americans left, St. Stanislaus parish rolls have grown with many newcomers, some with no Polish or Catholic connections. The parish has more than doubled from about 250 to 550 members since he took the post, Bozek said. Members’ average age is between 50 and 60, he said.

“We are a welcoming inclusive church; I know of a few Episcopalians in our church,” he said. “I have talked with the Episcopal bishop, very nice bishop.  We don’t ask what church you (used to) attend. We offer communion to all.”

Since he took over, not a Sunday has gone by without Mass, he said.

While Bozek was removed from the Catholic Church -- what Protestants called de-frocked -- he has no immediate plans to affiliate with other denominations, he said.

“I know the archbishop has the right to appeal, but we hope now that we can have adult conversations about our future,” Bozek said. “Not the conversation between a father and a child but between two adults. The archbishop (Carlson) is more reasonable than Burke.”

Bozek said he introduced himself to the archbishop at the trial last year but has not met with him.

Canon law, court of law

At the press conference, Carlson said he has the full backing of the Vatican in the matter of returning the parish to the Catholic faith. He just returned late Wednesday from his 10-day visit to the pope with other Missouri bishops in the regular rotating five-year review of each of the world’s dioceses, called the ad lumina. 

In the ruling today, Hettenbach cited Catholic canon law and said the parish was Catholic. That contradicted a 2005 letter from the Vatican Congregation under John Paul II that said that the parish was no longer Catholic, which was presented at trial.

Archdiocesan leaders were flabbergasted that any civil judge, who had not studied canon law, could define what makes a parish Roman Catholic.

“Judge Hettenbach, in the opinion issued today, has disregarded these ecclesiastical determinations and has substituted his own analysis of church law, finding that the bylaws are not in conflict with the parish corporate purpose of maintain a Roman Catholic church,” Carlson said.

His secular court opinion seems to put aside the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment, church leaders said.

Some archdiocesan leaders and advisers are taking heart from a recent Supreme Court case in which the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, based in Kirkwood, was found within its right as a church to fire a Michigan teacher at a Lutheran school, regardless of the merits of her employment complaint. In that case all Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously in favor of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

In the calmest of voices, Carlson called for reconciliation: “We are committed in prayer and pastoral outreach to reconcile the members of St. Stanislaus to full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.”

At St. Stanislaus the victory is what mattered Thursday.

“Sunday at Mass we were saying it was time to hear the decision but this is good news, it’s what the lay board wanted,” said Patrick Schneider, who has been going to St. Stanislaus for about six years when he feared it would close.

Jeanette Rudawski, who went to St. Stanislaus grade school in the 1940s and ‘50s  and whose husband Joseph, as a parish board member, was a defendant in the court case was excited about to hear the case went in the lay board’s favor.

“We don’t believe in the excommunications," she said.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.