ST. LOUIS • It has stood up to three Catholic bishops. It has weathered a decade-long legal storm. It has embraced doctrine far afield from its Roman roots.
Now St. Stanislaus Kostka Church is on the verge of aligning with a different denomination entirely, joining forces with the Episcopal church.
Bishop George Wayne Smith, who leads the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, posted a letter to clergy on the diocese’s website over the weekend telling them that St. Stanislaus Kostka Church may be “coming into union” with the diocese.
Under such an arrangement, Smith said the historically Polish church would have the flexibility to retain its own rites, even as it comes under the wing of the Episcopal church.
“I know that given St. Stanislaus’ rich heritage, the ability to retain their cherished Polish identity, along with practices and rites are surely an important matter,” Smith wrote in his letter. “Alternately of course, St. Stanislaus could also choose any or all the liturgies available to the Episcopal Church.”
In February, the St. Louis Archdiocese dismissed its appeal of a 2012 St. Louis Circuit Court decision handing over control of St. Stanislaus, at 1413 North 20th Street, to its own lay board, and ending a decade-long legal battle between the church and the archdiocese.
As part of the agreement, St. Stanislaus agreed to abstain from representing itself as affiliated with the Roman Catholic church. In the eyes of the Vatican, the church lost that affiliation in 2005, as part of a battle with then-St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke.
The Rev. Marek Bozek, the former Roman Catholic priest who has led St. Stanislaus since parishioners hired him in 2005, in violation of Roman Catholic canon law, was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
But in a “September Reflection” letter posted on the parish’s website, he makes reference to the issue — posting a photo of Smith’s visit last month to the church to meet with parishioners.
Bozek said the church has lacked that kind of authority, and has been “struggling to survive without a bishop for over nine years.”
“One cannot be a Catholic without having a bishop,” he continued, citing a description of a bishop’s ministry in the “Book of Common Prayer.” “It is my hope that by the time this process is completed, we, St. Stanislaus Parish, will have a caring and wise bishop and that we will be a part of a diocese.”
Bozek said in the letter that clergy representing other faith groups — the Ecumenical Diocese of America, the Ecumenical Catholic Communion and the Polish National Catholic Church — would be visiting the church throughout the rest of the year to discuss its future.
Ida McNab, 72, who lives in Ferguson and has been attending church at St. Stanislaus for five years, said Thursday that she and her husband had been “mulling over” the changes that Bozek is proposing.
“I was brought up Catholic, but I’ve been to Episcopal churches, and I think it’s very much like the Catholic church,” she said. “I love Father Marek, and I’ve said I’d like to stay with St. Stanislaus no matter what. ... If the Mass stays pretty much the same and the teaching stays pretty much the same, I think we will stay.”
The Episcopal church, with about 2.3 million members, is the U.S. branch of the 85 million-member Anglican Communion, with roots in the Church of England. The Roman Catholic church claims 1 billion members. The Episcopal diocese of Missouri, which encompasses the eastern half of the state, has 12,000 members and 44 congregations.
Smith was out of town and unreachable for comment Tuesday, but in his letter, the bishop said the laws, or canons, of the Episcopal church allow a Christian congregation that holds to “the Catholic creeds” and recognizes “the Scriptures as containing all things necessary to salvation” to affiliate with the Episcopal church while retaining its own rite.
Smith wrote that one connection between his diocese and St. Stanislaus is the Union of Utrecht, a group of Old Catholic churches that don’t recognize the authority of the pope. The Anglican Communion has been in full communion with the Union of Utrecht since 1931.
Bozek recently traveled to the Netherlands to attend the Old Catholic Theology program at the University of Utrecht.
Smith wrote in his letter that the Episcopal church and St. Stanislaus also had in common a “commitment to the marginalized.”
In July 2012, the Episcopal church approved liturgical rites for blessing same-sex couples, though bishops do not have to allow them in their diocese. Nor can priests be forced to perform them. Smith is known as one of the Episcopal church’s more liberal bishops.
Since its separation from the St. Louis Archdiocese over money, property and control, St. Stanislaus has moved even farther from Roman Catholic teaching under Bozek, who was declared excommunicated by former St. Louis Archbishop Burke, and later laicized (or defrocked) by Pope Benedict XVI.
On its website, St. Stanislaus says “those entering into second marriages, those experiencing religious differences with some churches, and others will find openness and acceptance here.”
The catechism of the Roman Catholic Church calls homosexual acts “acts of grave depravity,” but also says homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
The possibility of an Episcopal diocese taking in St. Stanislaus mirrors, on a small scale, Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 creation of a “personal ordinariate” for disaffected Anglicans.
Benedict welcomed traditionalist Anglicans unhappy with their church’s stance on female clergy and homosexuality, and who might want to join the Roman Catholic church while retaining some of their own rituals and worship traditions.
The move angered many Anglicans, who accused the Vatican of sheep-stealing and said if Roman Catholicism attracted entire Anglican churches or dioceses, rather than just individuals, ownership questions could arise over church property.
In 2008, the St. Louis Archdiocese sued the St. Stanislaus Parish Corp. to regain control of the church’s assets and property, but last March, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Bryan Hettenbach ruled against the archdiocese in a sweeping decision affirming St. Stanislaus’ ownership of its property.
“The Archbishop may own the souls of wayward St. Stanislaus parishioners, but the St. Stanislaus Parish Corporation owns its own property, ” the judge wrote in his decision.
At the time of Hettenbach’s decision, Archbishop Robert Carlson told reporters at a news conference that he would appeal it “all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.” But earlier this year, the archbishop reversed course and dismissed the appeal.
On Tuesday, the archdiocese issued a statement that declined to weigh in on the possibility of the Polish church’s affiliation with the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri.