Wednesday February 16, 2011

ADAMS -- The sun shone on St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church on Tuesday, as news of a Vatican ruling that could re-open the Wlodyka Square church spread quickly through this town's tight-knit Polish community.

Celebratory church bells rang out as the front doors to St. Stan's, as locals refer to their beloved church, were flung open and brilliant light flooded the vestibule leading to the sanctuary, where more than 100 parishioners gathered to rejoice.

"Today is a very good day," said Laurie Haas, who led the campaign to keep St. Stan's open after the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield announced in August 2008, that the church would close.

The twin-spired Catholic church, built in 1902 by Polish immigrants at the corner of Summer and Hoosac streets, celebrated its last Mass on Dec. 26, 2008. Immediately afterward, parishioners launched an around-the-clock vigil, now in its 783rd day, that prevented the diocese from locking the doors to the church.


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A four-page decree issued by the Vatican on Tuesday declared that the church must re-open as a place of worship, but also stated that the diocese could appeal to the Vatican's high court, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.

The complexly written decree from the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy voiced clear support for a Sept. 8, 2008, appeal filed by St. Stan's parishioners, who've mounted an around-the-clock vigil to keep the church open since that last Mass in December 2008.

The Vatican decree, signed by prefect Mauro Cardinal Piacenza, determined that Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell wasn't justified in closing St. Stan's, whose Mass attendance and financial health was better than the town's two other Catholic churches. But McDonnell ultimately decided to include St. Stan's in a round of 2008 church closings in the sprawling Western Massachusetts diocese.

Since 2000, McDonnell has closed or merged more than 60 Catholic churches in Berkshire, Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties, citing declining membership, a dearth of priests and financial difficulties.

"Our parish was in the black; we didn't owe anything," said Fran Hajdas, 74, referring to St. Stanislaus's overall financial health at the time of its closing.

Hajdas, born in Adams to Polish immigrants, is among the parishioners who've taken part in the 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week vigils held at the towering church, a community landmark renowned for its ornate interior, elaborate altar and high stained-glass windows.

"We just hoped, you know," said Hajdas, who'll continue to take part in the vigils until the church formally re-opens.

‘A prayer being answered'

Dick and Barbara Wisniowski are among the parishioners who've camped out at St. Stan's since the vigils began, sleeping in pews or on cots and air mattresses. Quilts, blankets, sleeping bags and pillows line pews along the west side of the church, and a sign near the altar marks the number of vigil days since Dec. 26, 2008.

"I've slept here probably twice a week since the beginning," said Dick Wisniowski, 68, who's often joined by his wife.

"It's a prayer being answered," Barbara Wisniowski, 62, said of the decree.

Like many others in Adams, which has the highest Polish-American population per capita of any municipality in Massachusetts, the Wisniowskis have marked their family milestones at St. Stan's, where the couple was married and Dick served as an altar boy.

"This is our Polish legacy right here," Barbara said.

St. Stanislaus's history is awash in the blood, sweat and tears of people whose ancestors left Poland for a new life in the Berkshires. Surnames such as Meczywor, Zepka, Winarski, Kozik and Dabrowski are listed in old church records and appear on photos displayed in the sanctuary, and many of the parish's older members speak Polish, which flowed freely on Tuesday.

Haas, who's originally from the Albany area, said the vigils will continue until Masses are once again held at St. Stan's and daily church life resumes to the way it was pre-2008.

The decree must have been the "providence of God," she said, adding that parishioners are prepared to carry on their struggle if necessary.

"They're ready to go on for five more years," Haas said.

Asked "why" by a reporter, her reply was, "Because they love their church."

A community rejoices

As Haas spoke to reporters, church bells rang out loudly in the background and the sanctuary's main doors on Hoosac Street were opened wide, allowing sunlight and frigid air to rush into the building. Outside, passing motorists acknowledged the news by honking their horns, while people stopped to chat on the sidewalks, despite a bitterly cold wind. A crossing guard halted traffic so the church's Catholic school children could cross the street, while local merchants discussed the prospect of getting their church back. The school was kept open after the church was closed in 2008.

"This is just like after the war," said a parishioner, referring to the impromptu street celebrations that erupted at the end of World War II.

The staff at the Chop Shop, a hair salon on Summer Street, welcomed the news.

"This is a great thing," said owner Don Daunais. "All the hard work of the [parishioners] has paid off."

"I just think it's wonderful. Faith is promising," added Kathy Dean.

Haas said she was "deeply grateful" that the Vatican heard the parishioners' case and rendered a favorable ruling. Prior to the September 2008 appeal to the Vatican, parishioners filed an Aug. 15 appeal with McDonnell, who apparently was unmoved by the gesture.

In a brief statement Tuesday, diocesan spokesman Mark E. Dupont confirmed that the Vatican had "electronically transmitted" the decision to the diocese, whose canonical lawyers now must review the decree before taking any action.

"At this time, we will reserve formal comment until they have carefully reviewed these matters," Dupont said.

Haas described the decree as a "historic moment" in the Catholic Church.

"It is our understanding that a decree decision like this has just been issued to only two other dioceses in the entire U.S., so this is truly monumental," she said. "We are very grateful to almighty God for this wonderful blessing and the return of our beloved St. Stanislaus Kostka Church."

During the 2008 round of church closings, McDonnell consolidated all three of Adams' Catholic parishes into the newly formed Pope John Paul the Great Parish, which is based out of the former Notre Dame de Sacre Couer Church on Columbia Street.

Although Tuesday's decree states that McDonnell wasn't justified in closing St. Stan's, the document doesn't define how McDonnell should proceed.

Friction evident

Evidence of the friction between St. Stan's parishioners and McDonnell is apparent throughout the church, including a sign near a section of votive candles that reads: "Please do not light any more candles. We do not want to give the bishop any excuse to remove us because of safety issues."

Elsewhere in the church, parishioners expressed joy over the good news from the Vatican. A sign near the eastern door declares in Polish: "My Babci [grandmother] and Dziadziu [grandfather] are turning in their graves."

Haas, who even enlisted support from Poland's U.S. ambassador, said she's optimistic McDonnell will do the right thing.

"I hope the bishop would want to reconcile this matter and bring peace back to our little town," she said.

All appeal documents can be viewed at www.adamscatholics.org.

To reach Conor Berry:
cberry@berkshireeagle.com;
(413) 496-6249.

St. Stan's closure timeline

Aug. 9, 2008: Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield announces it would consolidate the parishes of Notre Dame, St. Thomas and St. Stanislaus Kostka in Adams.

Jan. 1, 2009: All three parishes consolidated into the newly formed parish of Pope John Paul the Great at the former Notre Dame Church.

Aug. 15, 2008: St. Stan's parishioners begin the process by appealing the closure to the Most Rev. Timothy McDonnell. That appeal goes unanswered.

Sept. 12, 2008: The group files an appeal with the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome.

Dec. 26, 2008: Before the last Mass at St. Stan, a group of 50 parishioners began occupying the church on a 24-hour basis, as a way to prevent the diocese from closing the building and removing the remaining sacred objects. The diocese lets the vigil continue uninterrupted.

July 10, 2009: St. Stan's, represented by an advocate in Rome, submits its extensive legal brief to the Congregation of the Clergy.

Tuesday: News of Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy made public.

Source: Laurie Haas