Cover story --
Issue Date: October 1, 2004
parish. It’s rich, vibrant. And the archbishop wants the title to it.
By GERI L. DREILING
Three flags fly in front of the rectory at St. Stanislaus Kostka
Catholic Church here: the Polish flag, the Stars and Stripes, and the
papal flag. But inside the rectory, there is no Roman Catholic priest.
Next door, the 100-plus-year-old red brick church, complete with three
domes and two spires, announces on a white sign with black letters that
the early Sunday Mass is said in English, the later Mass that day is
celebrated in Polish. And yet, there hasn’t been a Mass celebrated
inside since late July.
Just inside the wooden double doors, five framed photographs are
prominently displayed. They commemorate a visit in 1969 by Polish
Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. Next to the photographs, a framed description
tells visitors that he said a Mass here. When the cardinal became Pope
John Paul II, it was and still is a source of pride for these
Polish-Americans. Now some wonder whether their beloved pope has
The parishioners still gather on Sundays, reciting the rosary in
Polish, participating in prayer services that alternate between English
and Polish, and meeting in the new cultural heritage center to discuss
parish affairs over coffee and donuts. Old women push four-legged
walkers and young parents chase toddlers. Invariably one parishioner,
whether from the altar at the front of the church or from a speakers
stand in the cultural center, will call out to the others, urging them
to “continue to worship in solidarity.”
By using the word solidarity in this largely Polish crowd, the cry
packs an extra emotional punch. But it
isn’t communism they are uniting to oppose. It is St. Louis Archbishop
What has them angry and defiant is his demand that the parish lay board
transfer the parish property to the archdiocese. According to an 1891
deed, St. Louis Archbishop Peter Kenrick “forever” transferred that
property to a parish-run corporation.
But forever has passed.
Now Burke not only wants the church and real estate, valued at
approximately $8 million, he also wants them to hand over $1.5 million
socked away in a restoration fund.
The reason, according to Burke, is that the current structure -- one in
which the parish’s lay board controls the property -- violates church
law. He stated that the money and property must be transferred to the
archdiocese, a process that’s been dubbed “regularization.” The
archdiocese will then create a St. Stanislaus trust that is controlled
by the archbishop.
Power over the pulpit
Because the parish legally owns the property, there is nothing under
civil law to compel parishioners to make the transfer. Instead, the
archbishop used his power over the pulpit. Each side has so far been
willing to flex its muscles.
In July, the board of directors
took away control of the Sunday
collection from the pastor after they objected to his
expenditures. Parishioners, by a vote of 199 to 17, amended the bylaws,
removing the archdiocese as the recipient of the property in the event
the church closed.
At the beginning of August, the archbishop removed the parochial
administrator and another priest from the church. Masses would no
longer be said; weddings, baptisms and funerals that hadn’t already
been scheduled would be placed on hold.
“We’re terribly sad and we’re terribly angry,” said Roger Krasnicki, a
parishioner and an attorney who advises the board of directors at St.
Stanislaus. “I’m 62 years old. I never thought, never in my entire
life, never dreamed we would be faced with this.”
There is much today that Catholics of former eras never dreamed the
church would face: the sex abuse scandal, migration to the suburbs, a
priest shortage, huge payouts to victims of abuse, and dioceses
declaring bankruptcy. Few of those ills have visited St. Stanislaus,
yet it finds itself in the eye of the same kind of storm that has
touched down increasingly to roil the calm waters of church life
throughout the United States. Adding fury to these storms are questions
about the role of hierarchy and laity; about who owns what and who has
ultimate authority over property and treasury; and over how transparent
church leadership should be in matters of finance and administration.
While the answers may not be apparent, the effect of the lingering
questions is a growing distrust between lay people and priests in their
relationships with bishops and other church leaders.
According to the lore passed
around by St. Stanislaus’ parishioners, Kenrick deeded the property to
the parishioner-led corporation because he wanted to promote the growth
of a Polish-American neighborhood. With the church as a beacon, Polish
immigrants would be drawn to the area.
The move also had another
consequence: It removed any need for the parishioners to follow the
example of Polish immigrants in other areas of the country who were
revolting against the Catholic church. After being told in the late
19th century that the churches they financed and built belonged to the
diocese and not them, they rebelled. The uprising eventually lead to
the establishment of the Polish National Catholic church. www.pncc.org
Whether Kenrick intended it or not, handing over control of the
property helped keep Poles in St. Louis a faithful part of the fold.
But the parish and surrounding neighborhood would not escape the
ravages of suburban flight. Beginning in the 1940s, people fled the
city. With population dwindling, St. Stanislaus’ elementary school
closed in the 1950s.
In 1956, the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project was completed across the
street from the church. One of the most infamous housing projects in
America, Pruitt-Igoe soon became synonymous with danger, vandalism and
According to Krasnicki, the church was scarred by bullet holes and the
roof was in a state of disrepair. The number of families belonging to
the church had dwindled to 67. Krasnicki said the board of directors
asked the archdiocese for help and money, but was rebuffed.
In 1972, three of the high rises in the Pruitt-Igoe complex were torn
down. The others would eventually be razed. People who had grown up in
the church of their parents and grandparents began traveling from the
suburbs to the city for Mass. The parish now boasts more than 250
An expensive facelift
In 2002, work was completed on a $2.5 million Polish Heritage Center
that serves as both a church hall and banquet center. In addition, the
church is currently receiving an expensive facelift. Inside,
scaffolding soars up into the farthest reaches of the highest dome so
that painters can repair murals. Crumbling bricks and mortar are
receiving much-needed repairs. In the last fiscal year, the board of
directors has spent almost $300,000 so far on waterproofing, painting
and other maintenance needs. Through careful investing, the money in
the various funds managed by the directors rose from $1.4 million to
$1.5 million over the last fiscal year, even after the big expenditures
From about 1993 to 2002, Msgr. Ted Wojcicki, a Polish-speaking priest,
led the flock. On the 25th anniversary of his ordination, parishioners
gave him a substantial cash gift estimated at about $20,000. In 2002,
he was promoted to president and rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary. As
a parting gift, the parish presented him with a 2002 Toyota Avalon.
In his place stepped Fr. Phillip Bene, a young priest and canon lawyer
who was given the title parochial administrator.
“He wasn’t Polish, he was half Polish and spoke no Polish,” Krasnicki
said. “We all wondered: What is the agenda?”
In July 2003, Archbishop Justin Rigali informed the parish board of
directors that the archdiocese wanted the property back and control of
the finances. When Rigali was named a cardinal and transferred to
Philadelphia, the plans weren’t abandoned. Bene and archdiocesan vicar
general Msgr. Richard Stika met with the board. Krasnicki said the
board was advised that they must approve the transfer.
“Vicar General Stika said, ‘Either the board does it or we
excommunicate you,’ ” Krasnicki said. “Well the board went about crazy
over that and things just went downhill from there.”
The archdiocese did not answer NCR’s written question about the
incident, as well as other issues, instead referring a reporter to a
question-and-answer series that ran in the St. Louis Review, the
archdiocese’s newspaper. However, that set of questions does not
address the excommunication threat.
When Burke arrived, he made it
clear that he wanted to speak to all of the parishioners, not just the
board members. Krasnicki said the board suggested meeting in the
cultural center. But he said Burke refused. He would speak to the
parishioners in church.
With the archdiocese’s civil
lawyer looking on, Burke delivered his message of “regularization.”
“People were booing him and
jeering him,” Krasnicki said. “The parochial administrator got up and
said if you don’t love Archbishop Burke you don’t love Jesus.”
Burke, in the question and answer series, said that Kenrick never
anticipated the church property would be completely controlled by a lay
board. When the deed was drawn up, he said, Kenrick retained the power
to appoint the directors. And if the directors disagreed on an action,
the archbishop would weigh in and make the final decision.
But over the past century, the bylaws governing the board of directors
have changed. It operated as a self-sustaining board that selected its
officers without any vote from parishioners. In April
2004, the bylaws were changed to allow parishioners to run for a seat,
elected by popular vote.
Control of the Sunday collection
Capital fundraising pays for care of the property and the priest’s
living expenses and salary. Until recently, the priest tended to
religious matters and the Sunday collection. After parishioners and the
archbishop began feuding, the board of directors also objected to the
manner in which Bene spent the parish’s money. In July, they wrested
the Sunday collection from his control.
That will not be permitted if the property and cash are handed to the
archdiocese. According to draft legal documents prepared by the
archdiocese and obtained by NCR, the archbishop would gain almost total
control of the church’s affairs. A new corporation, St. Stanislaus
Kostka Catholic Church, would be formed. A three-member committee
consisting of the dean of the area, vicar general and the pastor would
administer the funds and property, but the archbishop could veto the
committee. He would control church closing decisions.
What some parishioners suspect is
that the archdiocese is cash-strapped and that St. Stanislaus is a
golden egg destined to be carved up.
Burke said in the Q&A that he would not close the parish so long as
it is an active parish community. He said he offered to put that
promise in writing.
But the majority of parishioners at St. Stanislaus are unimpressed.
They look to LaCrosse, Wis., where a Polish church was bulldozed while
Burke was bishop. They suspect that St. Stanislaus’ assets are needed
to pay legal settlements resulting from the clergy sex abuse scandal.
The St. Louis archdiocese recently announced that it had settled 18
lawsuits for $2 million. One third of the amount will come from
insurance and the rest will be paid through the archdiocese’s general
reserve fund. There are at lease 13 cases pending.
The St. Louis archdiocese isn’t the only place where the reservoir of
trust that once existed between the church leaders and lay people has
been polluted by scandal.
Parishioners at St. Albert the Great parish in Weymouth, Mass., are
lashing out after learning that their church is to be closed, and like
the parishioners at St. Stanislaus, the people of St. Albert are
challenging the closure.
On the other side of the country,
Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore., transferred legal ownership of
parish properties away from the diocese to the individual parishes. Not
only could it help the diocese escape monetary liability for sex abuse
lawsuits seeking millions of dollars, Vasa justified the move on the
grounds that a 1911 provision in canon law favors a structure where
parish property is transferred to the parishes under a trustee system.
The trustees of that time were typically parish men appointed by the
Vasa’s action appears on its face
to directly contradict Burke’s effort to divest St. Stanislaus of the
property. Both stated that church law supports their position.
Further complicating matters is that the incorporation form means
little without reading the bylaws that outline who controls the
property. So far, no one has been able to reconcile the positions.
James Coriden said there is precedent under canon law that would
protect St. Stanislaus parishioners. Coriden, professor of canon law at
the Washington Theological Union and coauthor of the New Commentary on
the Code of Canon Law, pointed to Canon 1256, which states: “Under the
supreme authority of the Roman pontiff, ownership of goods belongs to
that juridic person which has acquired them legitimately.”
addition, the commentary that accompanies the canon provides: “Thus,
property legitimately acquired by a parish -- which by law is a juridic
person -- is owned by the parish, not by the diocese, which is a
distinct juridic person.”
that interpretation, Coriden said, “The parish has got a right to the
property; it is theirs. In canon law the entity that acquires the
property has the right to own it and operate it.”
However, he added that Burke worked in the Sacred Roma Rota, a tribunal
that hears canonical appeals. “Burke is as smart as they come in canon
law, a lot smarter than I am and he may well have a very good canonical
Burke said in his Q&A that by the time the 1917 Code of Canon Law
was adopted, civil corporations with lay boards were deemed not to
conform to church law. In order to comply with the dictates, he said,
“parish funds are deposited in the St. Louis Archdiocesan Fund, which
is a charitable trust under Missouri law.”
He added that those funds can only be used exclusively for the parish.
However, the draft documents received by NCR contain a clause that says
the purpose of the proposed parish corporation includes “but is not
limited to the operation of St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church and
its related activities.” In addition, if the corporation is dissolved,
the archbishop is the person who selects what charitable, religious,
educational or scientific organization will receive the net assets.
Behind-the-scenes appeal in Illinois
The parishioners have not yet agreed to this change. Krasnicki has
started an administrative appeals process in Rome that is currently
Coriden also noted that when a similar fight erupted between a parish
in Chicago Heights, Ill., and their cardinal over control of assets,
parishioners eventually won a ruling in their favor from Rome. In that
case, Coriden said, “it was a decent, behind-the-scenes, legitimate
“Where the people are cast in the role of opposing the bishop, of
defying his authority, that really prejudices the issue and I’m not
blaming anybody for that,” Coriden said. “That kind of thing goes over
very, very badly in Rome. They don’t like it when it seems to threaten
the archbishop’s authority.”
Burke has also stirred local and national controversy when he announced
that Catholic pro-choice politicians cannot receive Communion and
Catholics who vote for those candidates are committing a grave sin. So
when the parishioners passed out red buttons and bumper stickers that
say, “Save St. Stanislaus,” they had a sympathetic audience. They put
up a Web site to update the community about the struggle and hired an
outside attorney who represented St. Louis University when it was sued
by the archdiocese to stop the sale of the university hospital, a fight
that the Jesuit institution won.
At the annual meeting in August, after giving a presentation on parish
finances and unveiling the results of an independent accounting audit
that found the books in good order, board president Bob Zabielski asked
the congregation for authority to use restoration funds to pay for the
civil lawyers that have been hired to negotiate with the archdiocese.
By a vote of approximately 125 to 3, the measure was approved.
The board recently presented a compromise to Burke. They would agree to
transfer the property to the archdiocese so long as the deed contained
a clause that if the church were closed, the property would revert to
the parish corporation. In addition, they would transfer money in
installments, and it would also have a revert clause. Finally, they
wanted to bring in a religious order from Kraków, Poland -- the
Franciscan Conventuals -- which would supply a priest. According to
Krasnicki, the archbishop has blocked other religious orders from
James Orso, the archdiocesan spokesperson, wrote in an e-mail to NCR,
“This issue in my opinion really looks like it might be resolved soon,
based on some quiet but intense discussions from reps from the two
sides, and the archbishop is working at this time on a document that
the St. Stanislaus people want (‘something in writing’) that would
offer assurances on the two key issues in this situation: that St.
Stanislaus would not be closed; that its assets would be secure.”
Krasnicki characterized the negotiations differently. He said they
received a “very, very artfully done legalistic piece.” According to
Krasnicki, the revert provision and the request to bring in the
Franciscans were ignored. However, the archbishop would allow the
parish to phase in cash payments: a half-million dollar initial payment
with the remainder to be paid in over five years. Burke stipulated that
canon law, not civil law, would apply to the transaction.
The board of directors met during the second week of September with its
outside lawyer and rejected the proposal, Krasnicki said.
Krasnicki said that at this point, St. Stanislaus faces very difficult
choices. If it retains its assets, it will stop functioning as a church
and instead become a “Polish museum.” He also mentioned the Polish
National Catholic church. But joining that church seems unlikely. In
part, Pope John Paul II keeps them firmly tethered to Roman
Catholicism. Krasnicki has visited the pope to hand-deliver a plea for
“I think it is an unreasonable hope,” Krasnicki, referring to
intervention by the pope. “But [the parishioners] are desperate for
hope and desperate for faith.” The board of directors recently
announced that they are sending another delegation to Rome to plead
But for now, they continue to gather, praying in English and in Polish.
On one of those Sundays in August, Carol Crossley, who grew up in the
parish and attended the elementary school, said: “Our grandparents came here 100 years
ago to escape religious and political oppression. Now we have
Archbishop Burke and he’s telling us how to vote and trying to take
away our church.”
Geri Dreiling is a St. Louis lawyer and freelance writer.
Related Web sites:
St. Louis archdiocese
Save St. Stanislaus Kostka Church
National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 2004
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