Time Magazine Records Parishioners' Fight
The battle to keep St. Stan's open received national attention in this week's issue of Time Magazine. The story, "Postcard: Adams," is featured in the magazine's print and online publications for Jan. 8
Reporter Stefanie Friedhoff interviewed several people leading the vigil at the Adams, Mass., church, including Fran Hajdas and Hank Tomkowicz. She also speaks to Council of Parishes leader Peter Borre, who has been advising the church's members on conducting their vigil and appeal of the closure.
Likening the church's closing to a death in the family, Monsignor John Bonzagni, the Springfield Diocese's director of pastoral planning, told Friedhoff that "If the parishioners at St. Stan's need to mourn this way, we will do nothing to interfere."
For the Time photo slideshow, click here.
Posted 12:55, Jan. 9, 2009
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Vigils End in New Orleans
Two churches in the Big Easy were back in the hands of the local archdiocese after a 10-week vigil ended with police ordering parishioners out.
The news was disconcerting to the protesters at St. Stanislaus' Church who had pointed to the New Orleans vigils as examples. They and the two Southern parishes were being advised by Peter Borre of the Council of Parishes, a grassroots group formed to fight church closings in the Boston area.
For more on the story, click here.
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St. Stan's Closes with Tears and Defiance
Even as Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell entreated the congregation to come together as a family, a group of parishioners stood in the rain across the street signifying their displeasure with the Diocese of Springfield's decision to close the 105-year-old church.
"The world is crying for us," said Henry "Hank" Tomkowicz, as a light rain fell from the gloomy skies. Tomkowicz, 78, a lifelong member of the church and who sang in its choir for 25 years, is praying the diocese and the Vatican will see the light and reverse the decision to close a church filled with the Polish community's history, heritage and memories.
But those prayers were not to come true on Sunday. McDonnell eschewed the pulpit to speak directly to the 500 or more children and adults. Pacing before the altar he said he knew the church was beautiful and he respected the Polish heritage contained with in it, but the church would close.
"I'm sorry I don't have the news you were hoping to hear, but I hope you will find that God never closes a door without opening another," he said.
Berkshire County parishes been grappling with the same issues that have plagued larger dioceses nationwide — declining attendance, aging parishioners and a lack of priests. A wave of closures has spread through Massachusetts, spurred in part by the sex-abuse scandal and resulting settlements.
The bottom line, however, is the numbers. There just aren't enough Catholics here to continue operating multiple parishes in each community. It started years ago as parishes became yoked so fewer priests were needed. But a wave of clerical retirements in North County and mounting financial troubles revealed the cracks in the church's foundation here.
McDonnell pointed out how Adams has changed since the huge Berkshire Hathaway mills moved out 50 years. The county has lost a third of its Catholics population, 140,000, in the past 28 years. Parishes built around immigrants have to merge along new lines to be reinvigorated. "There has never been a question that one church is needed," said McDonnell. "The question has been, which church?"
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Four Years and Counting
The low point was a rancorous Christmas Eve Mass during which the pastor reportedly chastised the parish for its intransigence and was responded to in kind. A notice was passed out Sunday asking the attendees to show dignity and respect during the closing Mass.
The Rev. Daniel J. Boyle, pastor of the Catholic Community of Adams, spoke only briefly. Also in attendance was Monsignor John J. Bonzagni, diocesan director of pastoral planning, the Rev. C.J. Waitekus of St. Anne's Church in Lenox and Adams native the Rev. Alexei Michalenko, who was ordained at St. Stan's.
McDonnell was confronted by one man near the end of his 30-minute homily; several others waited until after the Mass to demand answers.
"Why are you taking this church away from my son?" asked Neil Kupiec, pointing to 15-month-old Timothy in the arms of his wife, Anne, herself in tears at the loss of the church in which she was baptized and married. Kupiec was going to stand in the doorway and force the procession to go around ("to force them to change their plan") but his mother-in-law, Irene Cwalinski, pulled him away.
There were a lot of tears on Sunday, and soft sobs as McDonnell declared the closing of St. Stan's and the opening of the Parish of Pope John Paul the Great before exiting the church.
Tomkowicz and some 50 people stood in the rain with signs denouncing the decision to close St. Stan's, chanting "Save our Church" as McDonnell walked to the rectory shortly before the final Mass at 3 p.m.
The group, Friends of St. Stan's, have mounted a round-the-clock vigil to prevent the doors from closing while the parish presses its appeal in Rome.
McDonnell is trying to seal the rift by reminding his flock that it's their faith — not their buildings or their ethnic heritage — that's important.
"The key to its being a church is the community that gathers and not the four walls and the great stained glass and the wondrous decorations and the magnificent chandeliers," he told them. "What makes this special is what happens on the alter; what makes this special is the Eucharist - all else is meaningless. ... we gather that Christ can be present here on the altar."
Mary, he reminded them, went through many travails and heartbreaks before becoming mother of the church through the risen Christ. "We are one family of Christ through Mary our mother.
"That doesn't mean there won't be pain. That doesn't mean there won't be misunderstandings and that doesn't mean there won't be disagreements," said McDonnell. "... because that is part and parcel of every family and of our church life as well and we've seen it here ... in Adams."
St. Stan's members fear the loss of their heritage if their church gloriously painted with Polish saints, the stained-glass windows their ancestors saved nickels and dimes to buy and the historic organ are carted away. Rumors are already flying that the organ's on eBay. (Not true.)
The Poles who came to Adams in the late 19th century left their churches to create new ones here based on their heritage, said McDonnell. "If those traditions could be carried 6,000 miles across the ocean why cannot they be carried two blocks away?"
The diocese is hoping to revitalize the parishes by combining them, part of a five-year process of reorganizing and restructuring. St. Stan's contents will be evaluated by a curator and removed for use at Notre Dame or other churches, as the large murals from the closed Holy Family in Pittsfield were installed at St. Joseph's. St. Stanislaus School is owned by the diocese but all other property, including St. Stanislaus Cemetery, will be owned by the new Parish of Pope John Paul the Great.
McDonnell said he didn't know what the response will be to the parishioners holding vigil.
"The new parish will start and we'll leave it to the will of God," he said. "It's like a death in the family and we react in different ways" though with the new parish "so there's life as well as death. I hope that will help."
Many lingered in the sanctuary afterward, reluctant to pass through the doors for the last time. Some wandered about taking pictures and video of the church, still bedecked in Christmas decorations, its altar space a profusion of poinsettias.
Two women hesitated before the altar, unsure of the propriety of entering that sacred space.
"I guess we can," said one. "It's not a church anymore."
Editor's Note: This article also appear on iBerkshires here.
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Parishioners Set Vigil to Save St. Stan's
The day after Christmas, 2008, a group called the Friends of St. Stan's entered the church vowing to not to leave until every last avenue to save the historic Polish church had been tried.
Last week, three days after the church's official closing by the Diocese of Springfield, nearly a dozen group members were working on a schedule that keep the building occupied by at least three people at all times.
"We've got a lot of support," said Francis Hajdas, the group's spokesman. "People have been bringing us coffee and doughnuts."
He and Henry "Hank" Tomkowicz were pouring over large schedule board, trying to plug in empty time slots with volunteers. There were a lot of holes to plug, but the group was undaunted.
With good reason, it appears - more people are joining the effort.
Hajda, contacted on Monday, Jan. 5, said about 130 people had gathered at the church to sing carols on Sunday evening. "It was a really good showing," said Hajdas. The event was so successful, the singing will resume next Sunday but at 2 p.m., an easier hour for the former parish's elderly to attend.
The church will also be in the national spotlight. A reporter from Time magazine spent the entire afternoon on Friday interviewing parishioners; a photographer showed up Sunday.
A strategy meeting last week was attended by close to 100 people, said Hajdass. At least that many are expected for this week's meeting; meetings are held at 7 p.m. on Mondays.
The diocese, meanwhile, has said it won't interfere with the vigil unless safety issues arise. The Most Rev. Timothy A. McDonnell, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, said, "We'll leave it to the will of God."
The appeals process in Rome could last more than a year; the diocese has said it is unlikely to overturn the local decision.
St. Stan's was one of six churches closed this fall as the diocese restructured parishes in light of declining attendance and a lack of priests. St. Thomas in Adams closed the week before St. Stan's; both parishes along with Notre Dame, were consolidated into the Parish of Pope John Paul the Great. Notre Dame was designated as the new parish church.
In North Adams, St. Francis of Assisi and Our Lady of Mercy were closed and consolidated at St. Anthony's Church, now known as St. Elizabeth of Hungary.
Those closings, while heartbreaking for many parishioners, were not met with the same level of bitterness as at St. Stan's. Parishioners there fear losing their church also means losing their heritage.
And so the Friends of St. Stan's are determined to go on. Hajdas spent four night in the airy, but chilly, church last week.
"Church pews can be surprising comfortable," he said.
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Parishioners Set Vigil to Save St. Stan's
The parish was shocked to learn in August that the church would among the closures in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield's 10 regions. Appeals have been made to the Vatican but the parish's last Mass will be held on Sunday afternoon at 3 as it and Notre Dame-St. Thomas are folded into a new parish based at Notre Dame Church.
While St. Thomas' Church closed quietly last Sunday, the Friends of St. Stan's have launched a peaceful vigil on Friday morning to keep its doors from being locked and the church's impressive interior from being ripped away.
"Why do they want to destroy our church?" lamented Loretta Ryz-Vinette, 78, one of 50 or so church members clustered on its steps Friday afternoon. "My father came from Poland in 1890. ... He helped build this beautiful church so we could have something to pass onto our generations."
It's the loss of Polish traditions that go with St. Stan's which many feel will be as a great a blow as the losing the building itself, said Francis Hajdas, head of the Vigil Committee.
Daily rosary services in spring and fall, visiting priests, Stations of the Cross on Friday and weekly lamentations have been hallmarks of the Polish church, said Hajdas, traditions that are already disappearing since the parish was yoked with the Parish of Notre Dame-St. Thomas. "Tbe purpose of our peaceful vigil is to protect our rich heritage by preventing the closing of our parish."
St. Stan's has disputed the diocese's reasoning for consolidating the town's two parishes in one church and members have prepared several reports on finances and attendance to press its case.
The diocese stands by its decisions, made after years of planning, said diocesan spokesman Mark E. Dupont in an e-mailed statement.
"Bishop Timothy McDonnell was saddened today to learn of the intentions of some members of the St. Stanislaus parish community in Adams to begin staging a sit-in at the church," he said. "We can all understand how tremendously disappointed they are about the impending closure of their beloved parish and church. However, there is no justification within the context of our Christian faith, most especially during this Christmas season, for this action and their disruption just yesterday of the sacred celebration of Christmas Mass. We should never put a building ahead of our reverence for God present in a special way during our Eucharistic celebrations."
(There was apparently some give and take between communicants and the Rev. Daniel Boyle at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve according to a number of Internet postings.)
Hajdas stressed that the vigil would be peaceful and "in keeping with the Catholic tradition of sanctuary in places of worship to protest injustice."
He said some three dozen members had indicated they would join the vigil.
The tactic has been used in five churches in Boston, where the first major closings began after the church sex-abuse scandal broke some eight years ago. Two more churches in New Orleans have also mounted vigils in a bid to keep their churches open, said Peter Borre, co-chairman of the Council of Parishes, a Boston-area grassroots organization formed to fight closures.
Borre, who was at Friday's announcement, has been advising the Friends of St. Stan's. He said there had been rumors of a private security force being hired by the diocese to clear the church after Sunday's last Mass. The bishop should act as honorably as his brothers have, he said. "The Catholics should be treated with dignity."
Several parishioners said their voices hadn't been heard by the diocese and that it should have been more open about the closings and renaming of parishes. (The new Adams parish is to be named for Pope John Paul II.)
"This whole thing would have been averted if it had been a democratic process," said Joan Bejgrowicz.
For friends Kyle Pero and Adam Gwozdz, the church's closure means losing an important element of their heritage and potentially endangering their alma mater, St. Stanislaus School, one of the few parochial schools left in the county.
"It's a tragedy that nobody consulted the people," said Pero, a student at the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y. "Isn't the Church of God the people, not the heirarchy?"
His grandmother, Bernice Trczinski, sporting a red "Save St. Stan's" ribbon, had married into the church.
"I married three daughters and buried my husband in this church so I'm really connected with it," she said, her voice breaking with emotion. "It feels like a member of my family died."
But the fight for St. Stan's is causing divisions within the Adams Catholic community; after all, one of the justifications for keeping St. Stan's open would be to close another church instead. It's also apparently causing sharp words between the churches.
"What we're doing to other people over this is wrong and what we're doing to Father Dan is wrong," said Tammy Scalise, who sent four children through the parish school and has a son buried in its cemetery. "There's nothing wrong with peaceful protest but not during Mass. We are called to be inside — being outside is disrespectful."
As much as she loves her church, it's the people not the building that's most important, she said. "This is consigned to dust. ... the most beautiful artwork is not the artwork in the sanctuary, the most beautiful artwork is the artwork of the human soul."
The separate parishes of North Adams will also officially close this weekend and the newly formed Parish of St. Elizabeth of Hungary opened. St. Francis' Church and Our Lady of Mercy will be closed and the new parish be moved to St. Anthony's. "The Bishop continues to remember in prayer all those impacted by these closings and will be joining with many of these communities in the coming days,” said Dupont.
This post originally appeared on iBerkshires here.
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