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Obituary of Joe Rudawski: Fought and won battle for control of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 25, 2012 - Joe Rudawski, the longest-serving parish board member of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church who would neither relent nor repent in the face of excommunication in a long-running battle for control of the church by the St. Louis Archdiocese, died Sunday at his home in Town and Country. He was 86.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated for Mr. Rudawski on Saturday at St. Stanislaus.

Mr. Rudawski was a defendant in an archdiocese lawsuit that sought control of St. Stanislaus. He lived long enough to see a court judgment in favor of ownership of the Polish church by the parish board. He had been a member for more than 40 years and had worked nearly that long to assure that the church remained in the hands of laity.

“He invested so much of his life and energy in the church,” said Winston Calvert, part of the Armstrong Teasdale legal team that won the judgment. “Joe told people in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s that he knew one day the church would need the structure to defend itself.”

Grace under fire

A late 19th century arrangement gave the parish board control of church property, allowing the church to be self-sustaining.  From time to time, the archdiocese would attempt to exercise control over St. Stanislaus as it had with other churches; each time, St. Stanislaus resisted.

The archdiocese claimed that it was merely trying to see St. Stanislaus “returned to communion with the Roman Catholic Church.” Mr. Rudawski said the moves were simple greed.

In 2003, the dispute came to a head. Then Archbishop Justin Rigali became more insistent. His successor, then Archbishop Raymond Burke, turned up the heat; the court called it “escalation.”

A spokesperson for the archdiocese accused board members of attempting “to hijack a Catholic church.”

“The archdiocese sent a leader to say in no uncertain terms, ‘give us your property or you will be excommunicated,’” Calvert said.

The warning was ignored and just before Christmas in 2005, Mr. Rudawski and his five fellow board members were excommunicated.

"I'm being unjustly crucified, and I've done nothing wrong," Mr. Rudawski told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, noting that the interdict mattered little to him. "That's why I keep fighting this.”

The archdiocese filed suit against the rogue board in 2008, but this year’s Ides of March was a fortunate day for Mr. Rudawski: on March 15 the St. Louis 22nd Judicial Circuit agreed with Mr. Rudawski.

The court ruled that the parish would remain within the Roman Catholic Church, but that the archdiocese does not own the church’s property and cannot determine its pastor.

Jeanette Rudawski, Mr. Rudawski’s wife of 62 years, expressed their excitement at the ruling.  She told the Beacon, "We don’t believe in the excommunications."

Even people who wanted St. Stanislaus to reconcile with the archdiocese admired Mr. Rudawski’s dedication.

“Joseph was always looking for a chance to improve things for Polish people in St. Louis,” said Edward Florek, who joined the St. Stanislaus board in 2004, just as things were heating up. “He was outspoken about Polish needs.”

Outspoken, but quietly so.

“Through it all, Joe Rudawski was calm,” Calvert said. “When Burke came to talk to the parish, there was Joe sitting in a pew, long legs crossed, hands in his lap, just watching, observing, taking it all in respectfully.

“Nothing was going to shake Joe’s grace and cool.”

Saving St. Stanislaus

Calvert believes there would have been no court fight if Mr. Rudawski had not saved St. Stanislaus in the 1970s.

In a 1977 letter to the city seeking to purchase some adjoining church property, Mr. Rudawski called St. Stanislaus “a powerful, visible support for the people and the neighborhood.”

The church was built in 1880 in the 1400 block of 20th Street near Cass at the northern edge of downtown.

The neighborhood changed around it, with the majestic structure sitting for 17 years in the shadow of the now-infamous Pruitt-Igoe low-income housing project. The Pruitt apartments were for blacks; Igoe for whites. For the most part, whites simply fled the city in droves, leaving St. Stanislaus and other area Catholic churches nearly empty.

Almost all but St. Stanislaus were shuttered or demolished. Mr. Rudawski was determined that his church not suffer a similar fate, despite having few members and even less money.

“The church was in very, very bad shape,” said John Baras, who served on the board with Mr. Rudawski for more than 20 years. “Some of the board went to the archdiocese to get money and they wouldn’t even look at them.”

Mr. Rudawski decided they would appeal directly to members, which Baras estimated to be down to about 100 families.

“They collected three-quarters of a million dollars,” Baras said.

In 1979, he succeeded in getting the church placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A friend to all

Joseph Rudawski was born June 19, 1926, and grew up near St. Stanislaus. After graduating from McKinley High School, he was a paratrooper in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in France during World War II.

He returned to St. Louis and married Jeanette Walczyk. Long after Pruitt-Igoe was leveled in 1973, they chose to live in the old neighborhood.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Washington University and received his master’s and doctorate degrees in mathematics from St. Louis University.

Mr. Rudawski began his career in education teaching math in Popular Bluff, Mo. He returned to St. Louis to teach in the old Berkeley School District, later becoming principal at Berkeley Junior High School. While at Berkeley, he taught evening classes at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley and extension classes for Northeast Missouri State University.

After retiring from 30 years in education, he entered a second career that lasted nearly as long. He became director of buildings and grounds for Visitation Academy. 

“Joe was a friend to all at Visitation and the ultimate gentleman and professional,” said Rosalie Henry, Visitation Head of School.

Mr. Rudawski, a Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus, was preceded in death by his parents, Frank and Anna Rudawski, and brother, Eugene Rudawski.

In addition to his wife, Jeanette (nee Walczyk) Rudawski, Mr. Rudawski’s survivors include his daughter, Janet M. (William) Bialczak, of Town and Country; sister, Albina Illinger, of south St. Louis, and grandchildren, Elizabeth Bialczak and David A. (Madeline) Bialczak.

Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. on Thurs., Oct. 25, and 2 to 8 p.m. on Fri., Oct. 26. Funeral Mass will be celebrated at 9 a.m. Sat., Oct. 27. Visitations and Mass will be at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, 1413 North 20th Street, St. Louis, Mo. 63106. Interment will be at Resurrection Cemetery.

Memorials to St. Stanislaus Restoration Fund would be appreciated to the address above.

Gloria S. Ross special to the Beacon

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