Judge rules against archdiocese in St. Stanislaus case

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Updated at 3:30 p.m. with statement from Archbishop Robert J. Carlson.

A court decision on the status of St. Stanislaus Church is a disappointment for Polish American Catholics who wish to see it returned to communion with the Roman Catholic Church and will be appealed, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson said in a statement March 15.

Judge Bryan Hettenbach ruled that morning against the Archdiocese of St. Louis and former St. Stanislaus parishioners who had asked the court to declare the St. Stanislaus Parish Corporation's amended bylaws void and restore the original bylaws, a move that the archdiocese believed would have returned St. Stanislaus to full communion with the Church.

The ruling "brings great sadness to all in the Archdiocese of St. Louis who had hoped for reconciliation and healing in this matter," Archbishop Carlson noted in a statement he read at a press conference.

The statement noted that the judge has agreed that the corporate purpose of the parish corporation is to maintain a Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican has determined that the corporation, by revising its bylaws in 2001 and 2004, has transformed St. Stanislaus into an entity which has no resemblance to a Roman Catholic parish, it noted. Archbishop Carlson has supported the determination of the Vatican and has tried to work with the parish to bring it into communion with the Church once again.

The judge also ruled against a judgment removing the directors and officers of the board of the parish corporation and a judgment declaring that the St. Stanislaus Church property be subject to a charitable trust with the archbishop as trustee.

Hettenbach ruled that all interest in the original St. Stanislaus Church property vests with the St. Stanislaus corporation.

"It would not, however, be inaccurate to say that in 1891 the predecessors of today's litigants struck a tacit bargain that, in regard to St. Stanislaus, the Archdiocese would not overreach into civil corporate matters and the Parish Corporation would leave religious matters to the Archbishop," he wrote in the ruling.

The statement from the archdiocese said that Judge Hettenbach, in his opinion, "has disregarded these ecclesiastical determinations and has substituted his own analysis of Church law, finding that the bylaws are not in conflict with the parish corporate purpose of maintaining a Roman Catholic Church. We plan to appeal this decision and will take this case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary."

In late January 2011, the trial on the lawsuit over control of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church ended and rested in the hands of Judge Hettenbach, who heard the case in St. Louis Circuit Court.

The two-and-a-half-week trial focused on a return to the 1891 bylaws established at the time of the incorporation of the parish.

Archbishop Carlson issued a statement after the trial last year noting that the archdiocese and six former members of St. Stanislaus Parish "asked the court to set aside parish bylaws that we believe were adopted improperly, and to restore the original bylaws approved in 1891 by Archbishop Peter Kenrick. Our objective is to provide parishioners of St. Stanislaus with a way to return to full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. We pray that the court's decision will help us initiate a process of reconciliation and healing."

Bernard Huger, archdiocesan attorney, spoke to the Review Jan. 27, 2011, the day after the trial ended. He called it a case of whether the St. Stanislaus Board could amend the bylaws without the approval of the archbishop, changing it from having a hierarchical structure common to all Catholic parishes to a congregational church responsible only to themselves.

Huger noted that the Holy See earlier ruled that "changes to the bylaws removed the authority of the pastor and archbishop and converted the parish into an entity that is no longer recognized as a Roman Catholic parish and is not in conformity with canon law."

Huger told the Review at the start of the trial that "Archbishop Carlson is fully committed to keeping the parish open, working with the old corporate documents."

The original Articles of Agreement, which were still in effect, require the corporation to maintain a Polish Roman Catholic Church.

The six parishioners of St. Stanislaus who are plaintiffs with the archdiocese included four former board members of St. Stanislaus.

Polish Catholics began settling on the northern edge of the city in the 1800s. Polish Franciscan Fathers offered the first masses for the immigrants in the basement of St. Patrick's school. A few years later, work began on St. Stanislaus Church on 20th Street near Cass. The church was consecrated by Bishop Patrick Ryan on November 12, 1882. Four years later, Father Urban Stanowski became pastor. He remained in the post for 40 years.

At the time, Archbishop Kenrick continued a practice of having special congregations for Catholics of different nationalities. These churches served German, Bohemian, Polish Catholics and others.

Pastoral care of Catholics of Polish heritage was temporarily moved in 2004, and the parish was suppressed in 2005 after the board hired Marek Bozek as its pastor. Since that date, St. Stanislaus has existed outside the Church's canonical structure. In 2010 Archbishop Carlson detailed an offer to re-establish St. Stanislaus as a parish for Polish Catholics.

Cardinal Raymond L. Burke told St. Stanislaus Kostka parishioners March 28, 2004, that if a restructuring plan there is in effect "you can count on my fullest support for your parish."

The cardinal's message — that bringing the corporate structure of the parish into compliance with Church law will not result in a closure of the parish or seizure of the parish's funds — often was hard to hear over some people who shouted out while he spoke.

Cardinal Burke went to the church to celebrate Midday Prayer, explain the reasons for the incorporation change and answer questions.

In an earlier letter to parishioners, Cardinal Burke expressed his pride in St. Stanislaus as a personal parish for Polish-speaking faithful and Catholics of Polish heritage in the archdiocese.

Cardinal Burke noted that the effort to seek compliance with canon law began with his predecessor as part of a legal restructuring of all parishes in the archdiocese. He said he is committed to St. Stanislaus' future and, even though there is a smaller number of priests available, was committed to providing priests for the parish.

He noted that parish priests cannot be seen as employees of the parish, under a lay board of trustees' authority rather than the bishop. Under the change, the cardinal said, the parish would continue to be responsible for its property and funds. A bishop is not permitted to take the funds for another purpose, he noted.

In a letter to parishioners earlier in March, Cardinal Burke noted that every other parish complies with Church law regarding its structure.

In August of 2004, Cardinal Burke wrote all registered parishioners of St. Stanislaus to inform them that the apostolate on behalf of Polish-speaking Catholics and Catholics of Polish heritage had temporarily been transferred to St. John Apostle and Evangelist Parish Downtown. He emphasized that he was hoping that the civil corporation of St. Stanislaus would be reconciled with the Church but that recent actions by the board preventing the parish administrator for carrying out his duties were in direct violation of universal Church discipline. The apostolate later was transferred to St. Agatha Polish Roman Catholic Church in south St. Louis.

In November of 2004, the Vatican Congregation of the Clergy affirmed the restructuring so the parish would be in compliance with all norms of Church law. Cardinal Burke then offered to establish an irrevocable charitable trust to hold all parish assets for the benefit of St. Stanislaus, and should it cease to exist as a parish then the assets of the trust would be used exclusively to provide religious and charitable services and programs for persons of Polish ethnicity or language in the archdiocese.

On Dec. 29, 2005, the parish, which had been administered from 1891 to 2005 by the St. Stanislaus Parish Corporation, was declared to be no longer a part of the Roman Catholic Church because its board committed the delict of schism, or self-separation from the Catholic Church. The six directors of the board, along with their pastor were declared to have excommunicated themselves from the Church after the directors offered the job of pastor to him. Once a priest of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Marek Bozek already was not in good standing with the Catholic Church and committed schism by accepting the offer. In the Catholic Church only a bishop can appoint priests to parishes.

Pope Benedict XVI later dismissed Bozek from the clerical state.

In July 2008, three board members of the St. Stanislaus Kostka Corporation reconciled themselves with the Church and asked the archbishop for help in reconciling the parish with the archdiocese. The lawsuit on the bylaws was filed. 

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