By: Andy McKeever On: 11:26PM / Thursday December 23, 2010
ADAMS, Mass. — The altar at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church is once again covered with a bevy of cheery red poinsettias. It's been a tradition over the years to turn the front of the sanctuary into an overflowing garden at Christmastime.
But as the Friends of St. Stan's enter their third year of protest over the historic church's closure, the setting out of the poinsettias has become a benchmark in a lengthening vigil.
Sunday will mark two years that vigilkeepers have been staying in the church in hopes of convincing the Vatican that the house of worship their grandparents and great-grandparents built a century ago will be around for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There is no sign of an end to the vigil as the cold creeps back into the pews.
"It's still going strong and we're entering our third winter now," said Eugene Michalenko, one of the spokesman for the vigil effort, on Thursday. "We have heard nothing yet."
St. Stan's was ordered closed as part of a consolidation in the Springfield Diocese; the parish and that of Notre Dame and St. Thomas were to be joined up the street at Notre Dame, newly renamed as Pope John Paul the Great. The use of the first Polish pope's name didn't appease some in the congregation, who immediately set up the vigil.
So for two years now, at least one person has been in the Polish church to keep the diocese from locking the doors. The vigilers will hold a small celebration and sing Christmas carols at 1 p.m. on the anniversary.
Volunteers are there round the clock, taking turns and even sleeping in the cold church. This year, a space heater warms a small room behind the altar to give the faithful some respite.
The group is waiting on a decision from the Vatican that could take years. Parishioners joined eight other churches in the state in appealing their closures to the Apostolic Signatory but that decision has been delayed multiple times. The Signatory is the last step in the appeals process.
Cold weather will not stop the St. Stan's vigil as it enters its third year. The church was closed by the Springfield Diocese on Dec. 30 two years ago.
The building is no longer a church in the eyes of the Springfield Diocese and Mass is not held there, but parishioners do still pray there.
If St. Stan's is empty, church officials will lock the doors and strip the interior of religious relics before it sells the building.
Vigilers fear their Polish heritage will be stripped along with icons and stained glass.
In Boston, vigils continue in a handful of churches; in other parts of the country, vigil attempts have been cut short by police action. The Friends of St. Stan's were concerned about that at first but an uneasy truce with the diocese has left both playing a waiting game.
The massive chandeliers, the painted ceiling and all the decorations and architecture has created one of the most beautiful churches in the county. Vigilkeepers say it's priceless and by staying in the building, the church will remain intact.
And so the annual tradition of decorating the altar still continues, but change is inevitable. Zepka J & Sons Florists used to bring thousands of flowers into the church every winter but this year it had to be scaled back, Michalenko said.
The 100-year-old florist closed this fall; owner Matthew Zepka, a longtime usher and Eucharistic minister at St. Stan's, died last December at the age of 89.
Thomas Zepka, his son, used his connections with wholesalers to bring in about 60 red poinsettias this year.
"Now people are buying them individually and bringing them in," Michalenko said. "It's not as big as it used to be. The alter used to be full."