Renegade Priest Leads a Split St. Louis Parish
By MALCOLM GAY
Published: August 13, 2010
ST. LOUIS — Some say he is on a mission from God. Others say he is the devil. But no matter whom you ask in this city’s tight-knit community of Polish Catholics, the name of Marek Bozek is seldom met with a shrug.
To supporters he is a holy man who has risked his soul’s damnation to rescue St. Stanislaus Kostka church during a long-running dispute over financial control with the Archdiocese of St. Louis. To detractors he is a charlatan — a disgraced priest who has wrested command of the parish and ushered in a vision of Roman Catholicism so progressive as to be unrecognizable to the faithful.
But one thing is clear: Last Sunday, parishioners rejected a proposed settlement that would have ended a lawsuit brought by the archdiocese and returned them to the archbishop’s good graces. Instead, they opted to yoke their church’s fate to the portly priest with thinning hair and a fashionable patch of whiskers just beneath his lower lip.
“They give the church to the devil,” fumed Mary Bach, 75, in heavily accented English after casting her vote to accept the settlement. “People are blind. They don’t see what he’s doing. This is belief in Bozek, not in God.”
The vote nearly brought some parishioners to blows. Nevertheless, it is but the latest chapter in the extraordinary history of St. Stanislaus, a cause célèbre for those with progressive leanings in this deeply Catholic city by the river, and a source of scandal for traditionalists.
“The people of St. Stanislaus had been abandoned for almost two years,” said Mr. Bozek, 35, who said his first Mass at the embattled church at a 2005 Christmas Eve service that attracted an estimated 2,000 people. “As a Catholic priest I felt responsible to provide the sacraments to people who have been spiritually starved by their shepherds.”
In anticipation of the renegade Mass, Archbishop Burke, a canon lawyer by training who now serves in the Vatican as prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the church’s highest judicial authority, proclaimed in December 2005 that the actions of the board and Mr. Bozek constituted “schism,” which carries with it “the automatic penalty of excommunication.” The archbishop added that as an excommunicated priest celebrating Mass, Mr. Bozek would commit “a most grave sin.”
The Vatican has since affirmed Archbishop Burke’s order of excommunication, and last year Pope Benedict XVI formally laicized Mr. Bozek, prohibiting him from functioning as a Roman Catholic priest.
“His actions have caused great harm, scandal and sadness within the Church,” Bishop James V. Johnston of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese, wrote in a statement announcing the Vatican’s decision. “While Marek Bozek no longer has the status of a priest, I continue to hope for his reconciliation with the Catholic Church.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Bozek continues to preside over the holy sacraments at St. Stanislaus. Dressed in gleaming green raiment, he baptized a child on a recent Sunday, and he boasts that under his stewardship the church’s membership has swelled to roughly 500 families.
“I just do not acknowledge the validity of the penalties,” Mr. Bozek said. “I was born Catholic. I am a Catholic priest, and I don’t believe that one piece of paper signed by one human being undoes my priesthood.”
In the subsequent years, Mr. Bozek has become an increasingly vocal advocate for a more progressive Catholic church. In 2008 he presented parishioners with what he called his “vision,” which included the right of priests to marry, and that of women and homosexuals to become priests.
“He has opened our eyes,” said Melissa Kirkiewicz, 35. “His vision is what we perceive as the future of the church. He’s going in the direction I want to go as a Catholic.”
For many others, however, Mr. Bozek’s progressive views, coupled with his excommunication, have become too much to tolerate.
“He has his own agenda,” Grzegorz Koltuniak, 53, said after the vote. “He’s not a priest anymore, but he’s fooled everyone. Why are we even talking about religion? This is about property, but he makes it about religion.”
Though Mr. Bozek says church membership has grown since his arrival, about 200 families have stopped attending the church since the dispute first arose. In 2008, Mr. Bozek cast the deciding vote to dissolve the board, which was later reconstituted with a majority of members who support him. Several former board members have now reconciled with the archdiocese and joined as plaintiffs in the lawsuit for control of St. Stanislaus.
“It’s been hellacious,” said Robert Zabielski, a former board member who is now a plaintiff with the archdiocese. He added that somewhere along the line the question had ceased to be about “power and money” and was now “about the man.”
“I don’t trust the archdiocese,” Patrick Schneider said. “I’ve witnessed how it’s closed other parishes. All they needed to do was bring somebody down to speak — instead they sent lawyers.”
Mr. Bozek said he was prepared to leave if the congregation had accepted the archdiocese’s offer.
“The only reason for my coming to this parish was because they were abandoned by their shepherds for almost two years without sacrament and without Mass,” Mr. Bozek said. “I have fulfilled my role, I believe.”
But congregants like John McCall said they were not willing to accept a settlement at this point that did not include Mr. Bozek.
“The man is the faith,” said Mr. McCall, 76, who voted against accepting the settlement. “I’ll follow Father Marek wherever he goes. I told him, ‘Don’t stop fast because I’ll run into you.’ ”