Fells Point parish to be shut in May

Bishop announces plan to members of St. Stanislaus Kostka

`Shook a lot of people'

Dwindling numbers, lack of outreach effort are listed as factors

March 13, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church, a Fells Point parish that has served Baltimore's Polish community for more than 120 years but whose congregation has dwindled in recent years, is being closed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Bishop Gordon D. Bennett told parishioners after the 10 a.m. Mass yesterday that the final service will be held May 7, two weeks after Easter. The last Roman Catholic church to close in the city was St. Bernard's in Waverly in 1997.

"I feel so bad," said Mel DeMartin, a lifelong parishioner. "I'm 84 years old, and I was born and raised down the street. I was baptized here, had my First Communion here, and that's the way it is with a lot of the people here."

"I think it stinks," said a woman who asked not to be identified. "They shouldn't close us down. Why didn't they close St. Leo's [in Little Italy] or St. Patrick's [in Upper Fells Point]?"

St. Stanislaus' status has been in jeopardy for several years. It was on a list of 14 parishes that the Archdiocese considered closing among its 54 city churches six years ago and was "twinned" in 1995 with St. Casimir Catholic Church in Canton, meaning the two parishes shared a pastor. Of those 14 parishes, only Our Lady of Lourdes in Ashburton was closed.

Still, yesterday's news was a shock to many.

"The bishop got up and the first words out of his mouth were, `I'm here to tell you St. Stanislaus is closing,' " De-Martin said. "That's what shook a lot of people up. A lot of them just stood up and walked out."

Reaction to the closing was "what one would expect by people who have a great deal of affection for and loyalty to their parish. I think they were disappointed," Bennett said at a news conference yesterday afternoon at St. Casimir.

"However, I don't believe any of them should have been surprised," he said. "This has been a decision that has been nine years in the making and was forestalled five years ago by twinning with St. Casimir. So, it stands to reason that they should have known to some extent that there were questions being asked about the viability of the parish."

Demographics are what did in St. Stanislaus, Bennett said.

What was once a thriving ethnic parish, founded in 1879 by Polish immigrants, has seen its numbers shrink as parishioners moved to the suburbs.

Between 250 and 300 people attended Mass on weekends, a minuscule number compared with the thousands who pack a typical suburban parish. The numbers steadily declined during the past decade, said the Rev. Ross M. Syracuse, pastor of St. Stanislaus and St. Casimir.

Many city churches have dwindling congregations, though. What made the difference at St. Stanislaus was that it wasn't active enough, Bennett said.

"The entire city is experiencing dwindling numbers, but there are other criteria," he said. "For example, some of them have outstanding outreach programs. They're doing wonderful work in evangelism, they're doing wonderful work with the poor, they're doing wonderful work with the [drug] addicted which in a sense justifies their existence, even amid numbers that are dwindling. That was not the case with St. Stanislaus."

Bennett added that the archdiocese is not contemplating closing any more city parishes at the moment.

"We do acknowledge, however, that in our continual efforts to strengthen the church, which is, of course, our sacred obligation, we must always continue to pay attention to the signs of the times and to make the sometimes difficult decisions these signs dictate," he said.

The buildings in the St. Stanislaus complex are old and need repair.

"The repairs that are eventually going to be needed are probably so expensive that what they're raising now by themselves would never begin to cover it," Bennett said.

Parishioners argued that young people moving into the Fells Point area offered a chance at revitalization. But Bennett said he didn't see that happening.

"Whatever is happening in the area has not resulted in any kind of increase in the numbers of the congregation of the parish," he said. "Nor has there been any impulse on the part of the parishioners of St. Stanislaus to bring these people in. And that's one of the issues."

The property is owned by the Conventual Franciscans, the religious order that administered the parish. The order will seek a buyer for the complex, which includes the church, a rectory, a school building, hall and convent. Those plans would include consultation with Mother Seton Academy, a Catholic middle school that leases the convent, Bennett said.

When it closes, parishioners of St. Stanislaus will be invited to go to two other nearby Polish Catholic congregations, Holy Rosary and St. Casimir.

"It's like losing a friend," said Lisa Hubbard, a parishioner for all of her 42 years. "You go through grieving, denial, anger. But I guess in time you'll heal and move on.

"At least you'll have your memories," she said. "They can't close them."

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