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No longer Roman Catholic, St. Stanislaus looks for a denomination to join

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The saga of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, just north of downtown, has picked up steam again. This time its pastor, the Rev. Marek Bozek, said the parish is seeking a bishop and a wider denomination or federation to join.

The search has ironic notes since at least one of the bishops they are talking to -- Episcopal Missouri Diocese’s Bishop Wayne Smith -- took a parish to court and won the right to continue to own a church when its membership determined to flee his diocese.

“We are going very slow. Nothing will be decided until next summer at the earliest and all the members will have a vote,” Bozek said. “And all parishioners will have a vote. It won’t be my decision.”

About 200 to 300 attend Mass at St. Stan's on Sunday, he said. About six to eight new members have joined each Easter over the past eight years, he said. Still, more than 200 former members, mostly Polish-Americans, left as the church moved out of the Vatican and archdiocesan supervision.

Last spring St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Bryan Hettenbach ruled St. Stanislaus’ board owned parish property, not the St. Louis Archdiocese. The archdiocese, which had long tried to find agreement with St. Stan's lay board, dropped its right to appeal Hettenbach’s decision after the parish agreed to stop identifying itself as Catholic, under the pope or part of the archdiocese.

Now a half year later, the parish, founded in 1880, is looking to join a larger Christian body.

“We have many viable options, any outcome is a long time away,” Bozek said Wednesday in his office. “For the first time, Catholic lay people are taken seriously. We give our lay people all the power because that is how we identify ourselves, what our members decide.”

The one thing Bozek is certain about is that his parish must put itself in the pastoral care of a bishop.

“To be Catholic is to be connected to a wider community,” Bozek said from his office at the red brick church at 1413 N. 20th St. 

He acknowledged the irony that his parish was seeking a new bishop after its fierce determination to rule itself and not bow to six previous St. Louis archdiocesan archbishops.

“Still, to be Catholic you have to have a bishop,” Bozek said, although he added it will take some education to help his parishioners understand their need for a bishop. “Many people know about their faith, but they don’t understand church organization.”

He is telling parishioners: “We need a bishop. Just because you go to one doctor who is a crook does not mean you don’t need a doctor. Of course, you need a doctor. To be Catholic, we need a bishop. It’s our tradition.”

Bozek sees several options, various church bodies or federations, that his parish might join.

He has visited St. Clare and St. Francis Church, a member of the 10-year-old independent Ecumenical Catholic Communion, which is not under the Vatican. It rents worship space at the Evangelical United Church of Christ in Webster Groves and is led by the Rev. Frank Krebs. The denomination has 50 congregations in this country and others in northern Europe.

Many of St. Stanislaus' long-time members are interested in aligning with the Polish National Catholic Church, which was formed a century ago in Scranton, Pa., from a group of former Roman Catholic Polish-American churches that wanted to worship in Polish and control their church property.

Like St. Stanislaus, this denomination celebrates Polish traditions that Polish-American members cherish. After leaving Vatican leadership, it joined the Union of Utrecht, a federation of former Catholic churches that left papal supervision in 1880s after their European bishops and priests disagreed with the bishops at the First Vatican Council.

“In the late 19th century they found a structure that allowed them to be Catholic without accepting (papal infallibility) without being under the Vatican,” said Bozek, who has studied three times at Utrecht.

“The Old Polish Catholic Church is a strong option,” Bozek said. It has the cultural traditions that members at St. Stanislaus have loved since the parish’s founding on the North City site, then a Polish immigrants neighborhood. 

The Episcopal option

More recently, the Episcopal option has gained visibility -- due in part because of Smith's recent visit to the parish and his discussion on his diocese’s website about the possibility of providing pastoral care to the parish. Smith is the shepherd of 13,000 Episcopalians from Jefferson City to the Mississippi River.

In an interview Wednesday, Bozek explained that he reached out to Smith because the Episcopal Church in America is the official link to the Old Catholic denomination under the Union of Utrecht with its headquarters in Utrecht, Holland.

Smith announced his visit to Missouri Episcopal priests over the weekend explaining that his talks “could lead to the church coming into union with the diocese, should both parties agree that this is in their best interests and in best service to Christ.”

The bishop made it clear that the parish would not have to worship with the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer but could continue its traditional rites.

“Given St. Stanislaus’ rich heritage, the ability to retain their cherished Polish identity, along with practices and rites are surely an important matter,” Smith wrote to his members over the weekend.

His office would offer its “pastoral provision for a parish which needs the ministrations of a bishop” and that offer will come “without disparaging anyone's identity in a prior Church body. Indeed, we will pursue these discussions with our eyes fixed firmly on a potential future in union together with the people of St. Stanislaus and without regard to past affiliations.”

Before such a union the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA based in New York would have to approve the affiliation.

While several churches in the U.S. claim links to the Old Catholics, the only one the Union of Utrecht recognizes is the Episcopal Church, Bozek said, adding “That’s why we are talking to (Smith).”

“St. Stanislaus is a pretty independent group they don’t want anyone in England or South America or the Vatican telling us what to do,” Patrick Schneider, who has attended Mass at St. Stanislaus most Sundays for seven years. He met Smith the day of the Episcopal bishop’s visit and found him “very nice, you know, but I don’t think most members are interested.”

The discussion with Episcopalians is wrought with irony. Smith went to the Missouri courts in 2003 to hold on to church property, the Church of the Good Shepherd in Town and Country. Its parishioners scrambled to exit the U.S. denomination and align with a different bishop, one from the wider Anglican community. The Town and Country congregation called the U.S. Episcopal Church heretical because it had supported the ordination of Gene Robinson, a priest living in a long time homosexual relationship, as bishop of New Hampshire.

The Missouri courts awarded the Town and Country building and land to the diocese in the name of Smith. Doors were locked and members moved their services to a West County hotel.

No response from archdiocese

Last winter after losing his case in the courts, Archbishop Robert Carlson declined his right to appeal the case after St. Stanislaus agreed it would “not hold itself out as affiliated in any way with the archdiocese of St. Louis or the Roman Catholic Church. Neither side made any payments to the other as part of this resolution.”

This week, when asked about the latest developments, Carlson’s office said: “The archdiocese does not comment on other churches.”

Don’t expect a swift decision on where the parish goes next.  “We are going to take our time,” Bozek said.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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