Parishioners lose battle to buy church building

Friars retain right to sell to developers, court rules

June 27, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,sun reporter

Maryland's Court of Special Appeals has ended a lengthy effort by former parishioners of a Fells Point church to spare their old sanctuary from redevelopment and turn it into a Slavic heritage museum.

Early last year, a grass-roots group - members of the closed St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church - sued the Franciscan friars who own the South Ann Street building. The group claimed that the friars reneged on a deal to sell the building to them, giving it instead to developers with plans to expand a nearby parochial school and build townhouses.

The Court of Special Appeals ruled in a 15-page opinion that the parishioners do not have grounds to contest the friars' contract with the developers. The judge who wrote the opinion did, however, sympathize with the group's desire to preserve St. Stanislaus, the first Roman Catholic parish in Baltimore and once the heart of the city's robust Polish community.

"The Circuit Court reflected its sorrow in disappointing the Parishioners of St. Stanislaus," Judge J. Frederick Sharer wrote. "We share that compassion but though we may sympathize with the Parishioners in their attempt to preserve the heritage of the St. Stanislaus Koska parish, we, too, must apply the law."

The Archdiocese of Baltimore closed the church in 2000 because of dwindling attendance. In 2004, the parishioners thought they had persuaded the Franciscans to sell it to them for $400,000, even though the friars worried the parishioners were trying to reopen the church and had the group promise that no religious observances would take place in the building.

After months of heated negotiations, parishioners raised enough money for a down payment and sent the friars a contract, but the Franciscans never signed it.

The Rev. Robert A. Twele, treasurer of the Franciscans' St. Anthony of Padua Province, said yesterday he is pleased with the court's decision.

"The court applied the law as we always understood it to be," he said. "For there to be a contract, there has to be a real meeting of the minds."

Michael Sarnecki, a leader of the parishioners' group, said yesterday that there probably will not be any more appeals, even though he believes his side had a valid claim on the church.

"We did everything that they said, and they reneged," he said. "They lied. Yet they came up as winner."

While the case was in litigation, the friars could not go ahead with plans to sell the St. Stanislaus complex, valuable Fells Point real estate that, in addition to the church, includes a former school and a social hall. There was a rectory, but the friars demolished it last year to make way for the development.

Twele said the friars will now resume talks with the Hampton Co., developers associated with Mother Seton Academy, a free Catholic school for low-income children that has operated since 1991 at the St. Stanislaus complex.

In addition to building 23 luxury condos, the developers have promised to renovate the old church and turn it into a better home for the academy.

Twele said he hopes the deal can go through. "[The developer] expressed concerns about changes in the economy," he said. "That was the unfortunate piece of waiting for the courts."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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