Rallying to keep church open

Closing: Parishioners march to save St. Stanislaus Kostka, which the archdiocese plans to shut in May.

March 20, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Looking back on her 86 years, Leona Kulinski says most of the highlights of her life happened in St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church in Fells Point.

"I was baptized here, I took my First Communion here, I went to school here and I was married here," said Kulinski, who lives on Wolfe Street. "Now where am I going to be buried?"

Kulinski was one of about 70 people who protested yesterday the announced closing of the church. Braving chilly winds and gray skies, they walked in front of the church carrying signs that read: "Our Interest is in the Almighty God, not the Almighty Dollar," and "Keep Stanislaus Church Open."

Most protesters were descendants of the Polish immigrants who founded the church in 1879 and constructed the present church in 1889, scraping together money they earned from laboring in bean fields and canning factories.

"It's history and tradition," said Monica Carr, 32, a parishioner whose grandparents attended St. Stanislaus. "It's not a secondhand car or a secondhand home. It was blessed."

Although attendance at the church at 700 S. Ann St. had declined to about 250 to 300 people on weekends and it shared its priests with another church, members said they were stunned when Bishop Gordon D. Bennett, who oversees city parishes, stood before the congregation March 12 to tell them that St. Stanislaus would close May 7. Bennett said the decision was based on declining church membership and the lack of community outreach programs.

"It hurts," said Kulinski, whose parents and grandparents belonged to St. Stanislaus. "I got up and walked out."

Before the rally yesterday, parishioners met in a community center to plan ways to stop the closing. They vowed to appeal to Cardinal William H. Keeler, head of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and enlist the help of historical preservationists and Polish heritage societies.

Caught by surprise

Members said they are baffled about why the archdiocese decided to close only St. Stanislaus from a list of 14 parishes it has considered closing. They argued that their church has more members than others in the city and that, unlike other parishes, it receives no subsidy from the archdiocese.

Some said they felt betrayed by their pastors, who did not tell them the church was closing. They accused the Conventual Franciscans, who own the property, of wanting to sell the building to make money.

"We were raised to look up to and listen to the priests and the sisters. Their word was gospel," said Joe Zarachowicz, 59, a member of St. Stanislaus' Pastoral Counsel. "But now I feel like they're not telling all the truth."

`Statement still stands'

Yesterday, a spokesman for the archdiocese said officials are willing to talk to the parishioners and consider new evidence, but said the decision is unlikely to change.

"The Archdiocese of Baltimore understands they are upset," said spokesman Kenneth R. Smith. "But Bishop Bennett's statement still stands. They haven't developed a viable outreach program."

Smith said the archdiocese disputed parishioners' assertions that the church is in good financial shape. "The parish doesn't have the resources to maintain the building," he said.

While the congregation knew that the archdiocese was concerned about attendance and participation, many members said they believed the church was improving -- attendance and donations were up and bingo games and crab feasts seemed to generate plenty of money.

Members disputed the archdiocese's assertions of a lack of community outreach programs, noting those that provide meals for senior citizens, sponsor Christmas parties for children and provide meeting space for community programs.

With more people moving into Fells Point, St. Stanislaus is poised for a comeback, members argued.

"I think it is at the beginning of a new and exciting beginning," said Ben Podowski, 68, noting a number of expensive homes being built in the area.

But as the area increases in popularity, the church's property becomes more valuable, he said. "It's the dollar they're trying to get," he said.

Christy Wolfe, 48, who said she is not a church member but lives in Fells Point, joined parishioners in demanding that the church remain open. "What makes a neighborhood is having a church," she said.

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