Parishioners Challenge Archbishop over Control of Polish Church

By Cheryl Wittenauer
Associated Press, carried in Kansas City Star [Kansas City MO]
Downloaded March 29, 2004

ST. LOUIS - In a stunning show of defiance and solidarity, members of an independent Polish parish fiercely challenged Archbishop Raymond Burke on Sunday over demands that they relinquish control of $9 million in assets and a lay board's leadership.

Hundreds of parishioners filled the pews and aisles of St. Stanislaus Kostka church on the city's north side for a heated exchange with Burke over the future of their church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The church was established in the late 1800s when Irish and Polish immigrants settled the neighborhood. In 1891, then-Archbishop Peter Kenrick and parish leaders signed a deed conveying church property from the archdiocese to a private parish corporation with a board of lay church members.

The archdiocese, under former St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali, announced to the congregation last year that the structure wasn't in accordance with canon, or church, law, that came more than 20 years later.

Burke, only two months into his St. Louis post, reiterated Sunday that the pope, archbishop and priest - not a lay board - must administer a parish's property and money. In a March 19 letter to the parish, he wrote: "It is simply not right that a parish call itself Catholic and be so recognized by church authority, and at the same time, be under the exclusive direction of a civil corporation. ..."

He said that if the lay board of directors and parishioners refuse to conform with canon law, he would declare St. Stanislaus no longer a Roman Catholic parish and establish a Polish-speaking parish elsewhere.

In remarks after the 1 1/2-hour meeting, which Burke described as "difficult," he said he had no deadline but saw no room for compromise, either. He said the parish's assets would be held in an archdiocesan charitable trust. The present lay board would have to resign, and he would appoint new directors.

One by one, speaking alternately in English and Polish, parishioners took the microphone to protest what they perceive as a hostile takeover of a system that has worked at St. Stanislaus for more than a century. They fear their beautiful church and Polish Heritage Center will be closed, its assets sold to beef up archdiocesan coffers.

"We've lived under this binding legal deed for 112 years," longtime parishioner Stan Rozanski said to rousing applause. "How could we trust you when you are willing to breach that contract?"

Members of the congregation, some Polish Americans, others relatively new arrivals from Poland, held placards in church that called this crisis "Our Polish parish's 9-11" and admonishing Burke to "pray with us, don't prey on us."

They booed, heckled and laughed at Burke and interrupted his remarks with shouts of "rip-off," "We are the church, not you," and "That's communism."

They booed loudly when their priest, the Rev. Philip Bene, said "He who rejects the bishop, rejects Christ."

Several parishioners said Bene came to St. Stanislaus two years ago to undo its corporation, which he denies. They said he has divided the older parishioners from the newer Polish arrivals, which he also denies.

The parish is fiercely proud of its Polish heritage and draws members from throughout the metropolitan area whose families have attended for generations. The parish built its Polish Heritage Center with the help of non-Catholics, including Polish Jews.

Mary McGrath remembers the parish's lean years, when the church was kept so cold in the winter that she dressed her babies in extra clothing. She said St. Stanislaus weathered urban flight to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s and the proliferation and eventual implosion of the much-criticized Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex next door.

"My great-grandfather helped set the cornerstone for this church," McGrath said. "That's why I'm here. I'm here for him, my father, and my grandchildren."

Two members of the La Crosse, Wis., diocese scolded Burke and warned the crowd about the two dozen parishes he closed in his former diocese.

Bob Blattner of St. Louis, a former Franciscan cleric who is now married, offered his priestly services if St. Stanislaus finds itself without a priest.

"There's a drama being played out here," said John Dale, a 30-year parishioner.

"We thought the money-changers had been kicked out of the temple," he said. "They're back, with a vengeance. That's not what the Catholic church is about. It's just not right."