Gaining by losing

Grieved parishioner finds renewed faith in merged parish

By Joe Lukasik
SUN contributing writer

BINGHAMTON — For as far back as I can remember, I was taught that there are only three things that matter in life: family, friends and faith. I have been blessed with the best in families and friends, and my faith has grown with time. Recent events have helped me to realize that my faith has been influenced by a new family and new friends.

When I entered the world on Oct. 19, 1936, my parents, Frank and Catherine, were very proud members of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church. Immigrants from Poland who had settled in this area looking for a better life founded St. Stanislaus in June 1914. A combined church and school was dedicated on July 4, 1916. Being of Polish descent, my parents joined St. Stan’s upon arriving in the area. My brothers Frank and Mike and I were baptized at St. Stan’s and attended grammar school there. Church was a very important part of our lives.

When I entered the first grade, I became an altar boy. I was so small that my mother had to pin my cassock up to keep it from dragging on the floor. I had about a week to learn my Latin prayers and with help from my mother every day, many times a day, I was able to do so. I was very proud of myself, but my mother was even prouder. I served Mass for 15 years for many different pastors, assistants and visiting priests. I especially enjoyed serving for Father Al Bebel, who just celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. Some of the altar servers and I would modify the Confiteor when Father Al was saying the Mass by reciting “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea jak sie masz culpa” instead of “…mea maxima culpa.” Priests and nuns were important parts of my faith formation as a youngster.

In 1954 I became an usher at St. Stan’s and served in that capacity for 50 years. This allowed me to get closer to our parishioners and to see and feel the warmth and togetherness that was always a part of parish life. In 1962, upon returning from military duty with the U.S. Army, I met a wonderful girl who had also been a lifelong parishioner of St. Stan’s. On Aug. 8, 1964, Marie Orzel and I were married in our beloved church in a beautiful ceremony with all the Polish traditions. We were blessed with two wonderful sons who were baptized, received their First Holy Communions and were confirmed at St. Stan’s. Our oldest son was eventually married there as well, and even though he and his wife were living in Atlanta, Ga., they brought their first child, our first grandchild, back “home” to St. Stan’s to be baptized. Throughout these years our faith grew and our faith was tested, but our church was always a home, a haven, a place where we experienced joy as well as sorrow.

During the 1990’s we began to become aware that the Diocese of Syracuse was facing a shortage of priests. In July of 2001 a plan for reorganization was announced; the first phase would involve closing the three ethnic churches located within blocks of each other in the First Ward of Binghamton, St. Stan’s, St. Ann’s and St. Joseph’s. Declining enrollments and the shortage of priests were cited as the reasons for this action. I and many others were shocked to think that our church might be closed. Parishioners gathered signatures on petitions asking the bishop to keep one of these churches open.

At the same time, the Conventual Franciscan Friars of St. Cyril’s Church, who were also wrestling with the same types of problems, offered to help by committing to serving a new parish. Rumors flew while studies were done on the physical conditions of each building; in May of 2003 Bishop James Moynihan announced that a new parish would be formed by merging the three and that the new parish would be housed in the former St. Ann’s church. My wife and I could not believe that our church would be closed forever. I spent many sleepless nights feeling bitter toward the bishop because I was sure he had made the wrong decision. I suggested that we join a different parish; after all, there were at least three other Catholic churches that were closer to where we lived. My faith was being tested in a whole new way. My wife reminded me that our own grandfathers had helped to dig the foundation for the original St. Stanislaus Kostka church. She pointed out that just as they helped to build a church, we could be part of that, too. She helped me to see that some of the traditions that we learned in our church as youngsters and still loved so much could be continued if we worked to make sure that they would be. She had more faith than I did that a new church would be a good fit for us.

While I struggled with this test, the wheels were set in motion to merge the three old parishes of St. Stan’s, St. Ann’s and St. Joe’s. On July 1, 2003, the merger became official and our new Church of the Holy Trinity was formed. On Nov. 9, 2003, the last Mass at St. Ann’s Church was celebrated. The doors were officially locked and extensive renovations began on the interior of the building. One week later, in an identical ceremony, the closing Mass was celebrated at St. Joseph’s Lithuanian Church. The parishioners of all three churches continued to worship in St. Stanislaus Church until May 30, 2004. On that date I witnessed a third closing Mass in the only church I had ever known. It was one of the saddest days of my life. When a red ribbon was knotted through the outside handles of the front doors and I said goodbye to my old church, I knew I wouldn’t see many of our friends who had chosen to join other parishes. I felt that all our traditions and heritage were being locked behind those doors.

On June 12, 2004, the new sanctuary in the Church of the Holy Trinity was dedicated. Brother Ed Falsey, OFM Conv., guided a pastoral council made up of all the previously elected parish council members of the three former parishes in establishing bylaws and procedures for the operation of this new parish. With the help of a special group of nuns from the Sisters of Ss. Cyril and Methodius and under the guidance of our new pastor, Father George Sandor, OFM Conv., committees were formed and organizations were combined. As a parish council member of the old St. Stan’s, my wife became involved with the design of the new worship space. She also helped to form the new Liturgy and Worship Commission and became a very involved parishioner. I, on the other hand, was still dealing with feelings of hurt and anger and chose to watch and pray quietly. All I had to do was to look around the church at any mass, and I could tell who else had the same feelings I did. Slowly, the parishioners of the new Church of the Holy Trinity began to heal the wounds, and I began to let go of the anger and hurt. People who had only been casual acquaintances became new and good friends. Week by week I learned the names that went with the new faces I was seeing and meeting. We found ways to incorporate the ethnic heritages of all three former parishes into our liturgies and celebrations. Our priests patiently kept us looking forward instead of backward. Now, as we are near our fifth anniversary as a new parish and our fourth in our new church, my faith is stronger than ever. I am thankful to all the priests and nuns and pastoral council members who have helped us all to see that there is more to a church than the building. I am thankful to my new parish family members who extend a hand or offer hugs and smiles that come from their hearts. I look forward to upcoming celebrations and special liturgies, such as our annual novena in honor of St. Ann in July, but I also know that on a weekly basis I will be in the company of caring and loving members of my parish. How blessed I am!

I was motivated to write my thoughts down after attending the Easter Vigil Mass at Holy Trinity last March 22. When I saw the members of parish organizations proudly carrying in the items that were to be placed in the sanctuary — the candles, the altar cloth, the flowers — when I heard the glorious music from our organist, Bruce Bozdos, and our wonderful choir, and when I looked around and saw my fellow parishioners lifting their hearts and voices in song and prayer, I realized that I had gained far more than I had lost. I was part of a new family of friends joined in faith. What a wonderful place to be!

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Press & Sun Bulletin in Binghamton, N.Y. in the May 31, 2008 issue)

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