Future of closed church still unknown

After more than 4 years, St. Stanislaus Kostka site sits empty in Fells Point

July 19, 2004|By Amy Segreti | Amy Segreti,SUN STAFF

A question mark scrawled on a piece of paper is often taped to a window of the church that was once the heart of the Polish-American community in Fells Point - a building that is now considered an "eyesore" to some residents.

"The debris and wine bottles have been out of sight. There's grass growing up between the bricks, and it looks like no one takes care of it," said Gloria Weber, owner of the Weber funeral home across the street from the church. "I just can't believe they would let it go so long."

St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church on South Ann Street was closed in 2000 after Easter Sunday Mass, and since has been the subject of a lengthy struggle involving people interested in transforming it into a museum or cultural location.

In the meantime, residents have been concerned about what's going to happen to the building.

"The Archdiocese was in such a hurry to close it - bam bam, that's it, the doors are shut. Four years later, we don't have any idea what's happening," said Anthony Murawski, a resident of the neighborhood. "The thing's just standing there collecting dust."

Since 1905, the parish has been under the care of the Franciscan friars. The building was closed because of changing demographics, according to the Archdiocese of Baltimore. More people were moving to the suburbs, but on average, only a few hundred attended Sunday services. The friars have accepted a bid made by a group of former parishioners led by Michael Sarnecki, who plans to turn the building into a Polish-Slavic museum.

But the Rev. Robert A. Twele of the St. Anthony of Padua Province - the friars who own the property - said he is waiting to see if Sarnecki's group can pull together the last few pieces, including proof of finances, "so we can sit down with them and sign a contract."

Two groups have been vying for the church since it was closed, one led by Daniel Kuc, president of a group that incorporated as the St. Stanislaus Society, the other led by the Very Rev. Jan Ivan Dornic, an Eastern Rite priest. Sarnecki was part of Dornic's original group, now named St. Stanislaus Kostka Church Museum Inc. The group was interested in preserving the church for a religious and cultural museum, but parted because of personal reasons and differing business strategy ideas, Twele said.

Sarnecki confirmed that he is behind the bid, but refused to discuss it until a deal is completed.

Now, Murawski and Weber said they've seen homeless people take up shelter behind the church building. "The Catholic Church usually takes care of its abandoned buildings, or else they fence them off and tear them down," Murawski said. "This is disrespectful to the Polish community."

The person who checks on the building was on vacation for two weeks, Twele said. "The buildings are basically mothballed," he said. "They have maintenance-level services." The question mark and debris was removed, but Murawski saw the mark taped back up again Wednesday.

"Above all, the community and both the groups' intention was and still is to keep the church standing," said Jim Maslousky, a member of a prayer group formed when the church was closed.

A few community members said the rosary in front of the church every Sunday at noon for four years, "until we knew for sure the church building would be saved," said Maslousky. The prayer group offered its last rosary July 11, with the hope that St. Stanislaus Kostka Church Museum Inc. would soon be assuming ownership of the church. Twele says that it has taken four years because of the differences between the groups and their inability to put together a proposal.

Kuc's group had made a bid in October for $107,000 that was rejected. Twele thinks Kuc's group should have researched a fair appraisal value. "An 18-foot-wide townhouse in that neighborhood sells for two or three times that much," Twele said. "It didn't encourage us to believe that they were being serious."

Kuc said he hopes the new owners of St. Stanislaus Church are successful in maintaining and restoring the historic structure for present and future generations in Fells Point. "There have been too many negative things thrown back and forth between people, and it's time to move on and think positively," Kuc said.

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