Property Dispute Leads to Excommunication

ST. LOUIS — What began as a property dispute between the Archdiocese of St. Louis and an ethnic parish has led to excommunication.

In a column written in the Dec. 16 issue of the archdiocesan newspaper, St. Louis Review, Archbishop Raymond Burke declared that the six members of the board of directors of the civil corporation of St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish and the diocesan priest they hired were in schism and therefore incurred the penalty of excommunication. Archbishop Burke stated that the parish is no longer a Catholic parish of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

The battle began long before Archbishop Burke was appointed. The former bishop of LaCrosse, Wis., inherited the crisis in St. Louis 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, St. Stanislaus’ board of directors altered their bylaws, 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 U.S. bishops. In 1996, after issuing a warning, Lincoln Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz excommunicated members of organizations opposed to Church teaching.

Those who are excommunicated may not 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, Pa., had a dispute with the 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 in 1898. The schismatic Polish National Catholic Church today has 30 parishes and 25,000 members throughout the United States and Canada.

“Historically, many ethnic parishes have been run by lay trustees,” said Vere. “Rome has become increasingly less tolerant with that since the (1983) revision of the Code of Canon Law. The model that was used then is no longer relevant today. Laws can be revoked or changed.”

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 [Peter] 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 has resisted any archdiocesan proposals to have the parish placed under the auspices of the archdiocese. In pleading their case, Krasnicki went to Rome.

In November, 2004, the Congregation for the Clergy wrote Krasnicki that “the actions of the board of directors in attempting to take control of the parish represent 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 property in a charitable trust that he would control. The directors rejected the offer, saying it gave the archbishop the final say regarding board membership. The archbishop warned that refusal would lead St. Stanislaus to no longer be 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, prohibiting them from receiving the sacraments until they repent.

In November, the board took the further step of hiring a Father Marek Bozak, a priest from the neighboring Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo. When informed of Father Bozek’s intention of becoming pastor of St. Stanislaus, Bishop John Leibrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau suspended him. He was also excommunicated by Archbishop Burke.

“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.” He said 77.4% of the 336 parishioners who voted “gave the directors the authority to do so.”

Those at St. Stanislaus believe the conflict is 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 sees it differently.

“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,” he wrote. Rather, Archbishop Burke says it is an issue of obedience. “They have rejected both my direction and the direction of the Apostolic See,” he wrote. “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.”

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

While reconciliation seems a long way off, not all of St. Stanislaus’ parishioners oppose the archbishop. Prior to August 2004, Jarek Czernikiewicz and his family had been parishioners.

When Archbishop Burke removed St. Stanislaus’ 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. “I saw [the board show] disrespect for our spiritual father, Archbishop Burke.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.