Cover story -- Saving Parishes.
Issue Date:  October 1, 2004

Polish parish. It’s rich, vibrant. And the archbishop wants the title to it.

St. Louis

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 forgotten them.

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 Raymond Burke.

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.

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 crime.

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 families.

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 were subtracted.

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 bishop.

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.

Fr. 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.”

In 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.”

Under 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 argument.”

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 being reviewed.

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 canonical appeal.”

“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 getting involved.

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 help.

“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 their case.

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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