Excommunication in St. Louis

What first began as a parish property dispute in northwest St. Louis has led to excommunication for the six members of the board of directors of the civil corporation of St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish and the diocesan priest whom they hired. In a column written in the December 16 issue of the archdiocesan newspaper, St. Louis Review, Archbishop Raymond Burke declared that the board and the suspended priest were in schism and therefore incurred the penalty of excommunication.

The Fact of the Schism

Archbishop Burke stated that the parish is no longer a Roman Catholic parish of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

The battle began long before Archbishop Burke was appointed. Archbishop Burke inherited the crisis after his installation in January, 2004. The conflict arises from an 1891 agreement that deeded the church property to the parish board. Prior to Archbishop Burke’s appointment, then-Archbishop Justin Rigali made attempts to have St. Stanislaus conform with universal Church law by bringing the parish under the archdiocese’s auspices. In response, the St. Stanislaus board of directors altered their by-laws, eliminating any recognition of the authority of the archbishop and pastor.

“I write, with heavy heart, about a situation which I, as bishop, had hoped that I would never have to address,” wrote Archbishop Burke in his column. “The fact of the schism, however, must be addressed by me now, because it has immediate effects in the whole Church, especially the Archdiocese of St. Louis.”

Although rare, the penalty of excommunication has been used before by US bishops. In 1996, after issuing a warning, Lincoln Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz excommunicated members of Call to Action, Planned Parenthood, and several other organizations. In 1999, Rochester Bishop Matthew Clark excommunicated suspended priest Father James Callan and parishioners who had started their own church.

Those who are excommunicated may not participate in the Eucharist, or celebrate or receive the sacraments unless they are in danger of death.

“It doesn’t strike me that Archbishop Burke is trying to be mean,” said canon lawyer Pete Vere, author of Surprised by Canon Law. “As legislator, he’s trying to apply one law for all the parishes in the diocese. Essentially, this is the Polish National Catholic Church controversy all over again.”

The Polish National Catholic Church was formed in 1897 after parishioners at Sacred Hearts Parish in Scranton, Pennsylvania, had a dispute with the Roman Catholic Church over cemetery funds and parish property. Father Franciszek Hodur organized a schismatic church in Scranton, also named St. Stanislaus, and called for legal ownership of church properties, parishioner-led governance, and parishioner involvement in the appointment of priests. Father Hodur was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church in 1898. The schismatic Polish National Catholic Church today has 30 parishes and 25,000 members throughout the US and Canada.

“Historically, many ethnic parishes have been run by lay trustees,” said Vere. “Rome has become increasingly less tolerant with that since the revision of the Code of Canon Law. The model that was used then is no longer relevant today. Laws can be revoked or changed.”

An Issue of Authority

That doesn’t sit well with people like third-generation St. Stanislaus Kostka parishioner Roger Krasnicki, attorney and spokesman for the board of directors.

“In 1891, Archbishop Kenrick deeded all the property to a civil corporation which he was instrumental in having formed,” said Krasnicki. “Archbishop Rigali brought it up. Archbishop Burke has vigorously and viciously pursued it.”

“Archbishop Burke is attempting to change, redirect, and disrupt the status quo that we were guaranteed in legal writing by Archbishop Kenrick,” the board of directors wrote in an open letter. As a result, the board of directors has resisted any archdiocesan proposals to have the parish placed under the auspices of the archdiocese. In trying to plead their case, Krasnicki went to Rome.

In November, 2004, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy wrote Krasnicki that “the actions of the Board of Directors in attempting to take control of the Parish represents a clear affront to the authority of the Church,” and advised the board to follow the bishop’s directives. “You have attempted…to transform St. Stanislaus Parish into an entity which has no resemblance to a parish.”

Archbishop Burke offered to place the church property in a charitable trust that he would control. The directors rejected the offer, saying that it gave the archbishop the final say regarding board membership. The archbishop warned that refusal would lead St. Stanislaus parish to no longer be Roman Catholic. In January, the parish voted not to cede the property to the archbishop. That led Archbishop Burke to place the board’s six members under interdict, asking them to repent.

In November, the board took the further step of hiring a suspended priest from a neighboring diocese. Father Marek Bozek of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, was expected to begin serving the parish on December 20. Father Bozek’s first Mass at the parish was expected to be on Christmas Eve.

“The parish was asked whether they wanted the board of directors to find a Roman Catholic priest who could minister to the parish, explaining that it could result in excommunication. Seventy-seven point four percent of the 336 parishioners who voted, gave the directors the authority to do so,” said Krasnicki.

Both sides in the conflict see the central issue differently. Those at St. Stanislaus believe it’s largely about money. The parish’s assets have reportedly grown to $9 million.

“What started off as a money issue has evolved into an issue of power and ego,” said Krasnicki.

Archbishop Burke stated that the conflict is not about money.

“There has never been a question that the money and all the other temporal goods of the parish belong to the parish, as is the case with every other parish in the archdiocese,” wrote Archbishop Burke.

Rather, Archbishop Burke says it is an issue of obedience.

“They have rejected both my direction and the direction of the Apostolic See,” wrote Burke. “Their conflict is with the Roman Catholic Church. The members of the board of directors refuse to accept the governance of the parish by the Roman Catholic Church insisting that they remain devout Roman Catholics by governing the parish themselves. They have, thereby, broken the bond of communion with the Apostolic See and the Archdiocese of St. Louis.”

Remaining Faithful

While reconciliation seems a long way off, not all St. Stanislaus parishioners oppose the archbishop. Prior to August, 2004, Jarek Czernikiewicz and his family had been parishioners at St. Stanislaus. Their three children were baptized there.

When Archbishop Burke removed St. Stanislaus’s priest during the summer of 2004, Czernikiewicz and his family, and more than 100 others, decided to follow the archbishop’s directives. They left St. Stanislaus and have been attending Mass at St. Agatha’s parish, which the archbishop designated as the chief Polish church in the diocese.

“It was emotional to leave, but I saw it as a matter of respect,” said Czernikiewicz, a structural engineer. “I saw [the board show] disrespect for our spiritual father, Archbishop Burke.”

As a result, last April, the board of directors at St. Stanislaus sent a letter to those who left saying that they are no longer members of St. Stanislaus parish.

Local Catholics have been following the conflict. Among them, Larry Slattery feels the archdiocese has been more than fair. “The archdiocese has gone out of their way to make concessions,” said Slattery. “It boils down to an issue of obedience.”

Krasnicki said that he expects to file an appeal of the excommunication with Rome.

Tim Drake is the author of Young and Catholic: The Face of Tomorrow’s Church (Sophia Institute Press, 2004). He serves as staff writer with the National Catholic Register and Faith and Family Magazine. He writes from Saint Cloud, Minnesota.

Young and Catholic can be ordered by calling 1-800-888-9344 or visiting Sophia Institute Press.

(This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.)

Tim Drake

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Tim Drake is an award-winning journalist, the author of six books on religion and culture, and a former radio host. Widely published, and a long-time contributor to the National Catholic Register, he serves as Senior Editor/Director of News Operations for the Cardinal Newman Society.

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