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Parishioners Seek Solution to Save St. Stan's

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Peter Borre
ADAMS — Nearly 200 people packed the front hall of the Elks Club on Sunday night hoping to find a way to keep their parishes open.

They left after three hours with a sense of purpose.

"It's given us some hope," said Linda Zepka Chalifoux as she and family members conferred with other St. Stanislaus Kostka parishioners outside the Elks. "Maybe we can do something."

Members of both St. Stan's and North Adams' St. Francis of Assisi have taken the first step by submitting appeals to the bishop of the Springfield Diocese. The two churches are among six in Berkshire County slated for closure by the diocese by the first of the year.

But parishioners were warned they had a long, hard road ahead — with no guarantee of success.

"In my experience, a diocesan bishop will do everything to derail an appeal by parishioners," said Peter Borre of Charlestown, co-chairman of the Council of Parishes, a grassroots group that's taken on the Archdiocese of Boston. The volunteer organization has been a thorn in the archdiocese's side since it announced 83 parishes would close in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal that rocked the foundation of the Bay State's Catholic community.

For nearly five years, the group's been helping parishes plan appeals and vigils in an effort that's grown beyond Boston. But its victories have been few, said Borre. Of the 83 churches, nine have gone the furthest to appeal to the Vatican's highest level, the apostolic signatory; of four 24/7 vigils in Boston churches, three are still going. Still, he said, the group's work has forced the archdiocese to slow down its plans, made it rethink a handful of closings and to reveal its finances.

   Parishioners filled the hall at the Elks Club in Adams on Sunday night.
It's important to get ahead of diocesan actions, said Borre. "They'll play dirty pool."

There's a limited window in which to submit appeals and parishes can lose their case before they even realize it. They also need to formally request the documentation to find out whether their parishes are being suppressed or merged, which will decide who gets the assets — the parish or the diocese.

(Bishop Timothy McDonnell of the Springfield Diocese has stated the parishes will retain the sale proceeds of any buildings.)

St. Stan's, with Borre's help, appears to have gotten in its appeal within the 10-day window.

"God was with me and a miracle occurred because I did it and I got it in by Saturday morning so it could go express mail to the diocese because they are actually going to get it one day before the deadline," said Laurie Haas, a member of the Catholic Faith Communities Spiritual Life Committee.

In both a personal letter and a letter of appeal, Haas listed the reasoning for keeping St. Stanislaus open. The diocese's plan is to close both St. Stan's and St. Thomas' churches and merge their parishes with Notre Dame, creating the Parish of John Paul II the Great.

But, Haas, pointed out in her letters, St. Stan's offers a complete parish — church, school, rectory, hall, chapel and convent. The parish has been fiscally responsible, consistently in the black and held successful fundraising drives for building repairs.

Appeals Process
Parishes have some options to protest their closings.
Appeal to the bishop within 10 days of a decree of suppression or merger. He's got 30 days to get back to you - or not. 
If the answer is still no, the parish then has 10 days to appeal to the Congregation of Clergy in Rome. They could take years to respond and usually back the bishop.
All is not lost. The next step is to appeal to the Apostolic Signatory, the Vatican's "supreme court." It is headed by St. Louis' former Archbishop Raymond Burke, who leans conservative.
If the first appeal for a hearing fails, the last step is a plea to the full bench of the signatory. The process can cost thousands.
"It is patently obvious to any observer that St. Stan's is both architecturally and artistically superior and, as such, better expresses the glory of God and tends to support a more appropriate atmosphere for a house of worship," she read to those assembled. The diocese's decision to keep the school open and close the church makes little sense, since the church's Kolbe Hall is used for a wide range of activities.

"If St. Stan's Church is closed, sold or demolished, our children will lose the life blood of their school. If we lose St. Stanislaus School, we lose the life blood of our future and our faith!" Haas read.

Borre detailed the ongoing battle with the Boston Archdiocese and how it might relate to the future of the Berkshire County parishes. While the bulk of those attending were from St. Stan's, about a dozen parishioners from St. Francis were on hand as well as three women who had driven from Feeding Hills to learn what they could do to keep their parish, All Saints, open.

Borre recommended the parishes not bother with an expensive civil lawsuit because the secular judicial system rarely intervened in what are essentially administrative matters with dioceses. A law in Massachusetts also gives bishops wide-ranging powers over real property within a diocese.

Better to save your money for high-level appeals to Rome, said Borre, should parishioners decide to go that far. An appeal before the apostolic signatory, described as the Vatican's "supreme court," can cost thousands of dollars. Only a dozen or so people are qualified to plea before the bench and the briefs have to be written in Latin.

During the process, the diocese can still close the churches but are not supposed to be able to remove items or sell the property.

He advised parishioners to follow the church's procedures, organize, keep their activities in the news, consider a vigil to prevent the church's doors from being locked or respectful protests — and stop putting dollars in the offertory basket.

"Take a trip to the Bahamas, go down to Foxwoods, don't give it to people who are irresponsible with money," he said, warning it might make the diocese close the parish sooner. Give it to the "Friends of St. Stanislaus," Borre said, to prove good faith. "I would play the money card starting now."

He recalled how Pope John Paul II bucked the then-Communist government of Poland to re-enter the country of his birth to give an open-air Mass. With upwards of a million faithful wondering what would happen, the pope told them, "Don't be afraid."

In fact, his tale of the trials ahead didn't seem to daunt the faithful of St. Stan's. "When does the sleep-in start?" asked one woman. Another parishioner vowed to never set foot in Notre Dame should St. Stan's close.

McDonnell had described the church buildings as bricks and mortar, saying the people were the important part of the parish.

But Becky Zepka disagreed. "We are the bricks of this church," she said, her generation just as much as the "elderly people who put so much of their lives into this church."

"If you take it away, it's like cutting us off at the knees," said Chalifoux.

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