St. Stanislaus grows despite diocese fight.

Published Sunday, December 31, 2006. 

Linda Leicht - News-Leader

A year ago, Father Marek Bozek presided over the Christmas Eve Mass at St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church in St. Louis.

It was the first Mass celebrated at the church in two years, and Bozek had to risk expulsion from the church to do it.

A year later, the church is growing.

Bozek, a native of Poland who came to the United States in 2000 to join the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Catholic Diocese, left his post as associate pastor at St. Agnes Cathedral in Springfield to serve the Polish congregation last December. That action was taken despite the bishops of both the Springfield and the St. Louis dioceses refusing their permission.

Bozek felt the needs of the congregation were more compelling than the rules of his church. The people of St. Stanislaus agreed. The parish has been in a tug of war with the St. Louis Archdiocese over the ownership of the parish property for several years. In 2004, Archbishop Raymond Burke removed their priest and ordered that no sacraments could be performed there until the church agreed to his demands to turn control of the property over to the archdiocese.

The fallout after Bozek accepted the congregation's call to be their priest included a declaration of automatic excommunication by Burke and a still-pending appeal by the parish to the Vatican.

But hundreds of Catholics refused to be dissuaded by the archbishop's warning not to take Communion at St. Stanislaus from the maverick priest. Just days after arriving, Bozek gave the sacrament to more than 2,000 people on Christmas Eve as news media from around the world reported the event.

This year it was again a full house on Christmas Eve, with more than 1,000 people attending. Bozek said he was especially pleased to see so many children there.

In the past year, the church has doubled in size to about 550 families, Bozek said. And it has become a welcoming home for people who have felt unwelcome in the traditional Catholic church. That includes divorced and remarried couples and gay couples.

"My philosophy ... is that (the members of the parish) have now had first-hand experience of being excluded and persecuted," Bozek said. "It helped them to realize that there are others who are also unjustly excluded and persecuted."

There have been other changes at St. Stan's, as well. Dozens of people have joined who are not ethnically Polish.

"We are trying to redefine ourselves to be a welcoming Catholic parish of Polish heritage," Bozek said. "We want to celebrate our roots, our heritage, but at the same time we want to say if you are looking for a spiritual home, you are welcome with us."

Bozek leads a traditional Latin Mass on Friday nights and a Polish language service every Sunday, including many old Polish traditions in worship style.

"Sometimes I joke that we are more Polish in our traditions and customs than a typical parish in Poland," he said.

The growing number of people finding a spiritual home at St. Stanislaus has been Bozek's greatest joy, especially the children. The church began a Sunday school program for children, the first in about 15 years. There are now about 20 children attending.

"For parishioners to see children in the church again is a great joy," he said.

Another area of growth has been among non-Catholics.

"It's almost an irony of fate," said Bozek. "A church that has been called schismatic has drawn people to itself who want to become Catholic ... .

"That is the major proof that we are doing something good over here."

2006 Springfield News-Leader