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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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."
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