Polish parish in standoff with archbishop asks Vatican for help

Sunday, April 25, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- An independent Polish parish, no closer to reaching a compromise with Archbishop Raymond Burke over its control and future, is seeking support from the Roman Catholic Church's highest authority -- the pope, who is Polish.

St. Stanislaus Kostka is sending one of its members to Rome next month for an audience with Pope John Paul II and a separate meeting with the pope's advisers.

St. Stanislaus' feisty parishioners -- a mix of old world Catholics and U.S.-born descendants of Poles -- are vigorously challenging Burke's demand that they relinquish control of $9 million in assets and a lay board's leadership. They call it an unlawful takeover.

"If this was a civil setting, this would be considered extortion," said Roger Krasnicki, a parishioner and retired attorney. "They're saying 'Give us the property or we take your priests.' That's not very Christian."

The church was established in 1880 when Irish and Polish immigrants settled the neighborhood. On May 1, 1891, then-Archbishop Peter Kenrick and parish leaders signed a deed "forever" conveying church property from the archdiocese to a private parish corporation with a board of lay church members.

The archdiocese 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 three months into his St. Louis post, has said that the archdiocese 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.

The matter came to a boil during a fractious meeting March 28 inside St. Stanislaus between Burke and his canon lawyer, and angry parishioners. 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 demanded to know why a system sanctioned by the archdiocese for more than a century was now a problem. They said the archdiocese didn't help them during the surrounding neighborhood's decline in the 1960s, but now that property values have risen with development, the archdiocese wants to tap its resources -- $8 million in real estate, and $1.4 million in coffers.

During the March 28 meeting, Burke said he had no plans to close St. Stanislaus if the parish yielded control to the archdiocese. He said the parish's assets would be held in an archdiocesan charitable trust. He also said afterward he saw no room for compromise.

Burke was visibly shaken by his reception at the parish, later calling it "difficult."

Parishioner Stan Rozanski said the parish wrote Burke thanking him for the meeting and asking his cooperation to resolve their differences. Rozanski said they got a scathing letter in response, criticizing parishioners for their treatment of him.

Archdiocesan spokesman Jim Orso said Friday there's been no movement to reconcile the two positions.

On Sunday, parishioners will vote on several bylaw changes, including one that would release St. Stanislaus' assets to a Catholic charitable organization, rather than the archdiocese, in the event the parish or its corporation was dissolved.

In recent weeks, the parish has contacted religious orders of priests not controlled by the archdiocese to serve them in the event Burke pulls their archdiocesan priest.

Krasnicki, whose cousin, a priest, was murdered in eastern Europe and is considered a "modern martyr" of the church, said: "We know what obedience means, and we know people who have gone the distance. It pains us to be told we're disobedient and unfaithful."

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