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Museum group hopes it still has prayer


To be able to turn its beloved former Fells Point church into a museum, a grass-roots group must promise church owners one thing: Religion will not happen there.

The unusual caveat is the latest hitch in a struggle by St. Stanislaus Kostka Church Museum Inc. to buy the church from the Franciscan friars.

After a year of negotiating and raising money, the St. Stanislaus group thought it was finally closing in on its goal of buying the South Ann Street property for $400,000 and converting the church into a Slavic culture museum. Yet this week the deal seems to be tripping on the clause the friars wrote into the contract.

The St. Stanislaus group, which said it will abide by the friars' condition, wants clarification on what would constitute a religious use. A concert of hymns? A liturgical display?

The friars, meanwhile, are concerned the museum group wants to resuscitate St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church, closed in 2000 by the Archdiocese of Baltimore because of dwindling attendance.

"We wonder if this is really a museum or if this is something else," said the Rev. Robert A. Twele, treasurer of the Franciscan friars' St. Anthony of Padua Province, which has its headquarters in Ellicott City.

"I know the difference between a concert and a religious service," Twele said. "To us it's really clear. A museum is a museum."

Michael Sarnecki, a former St. Stanislaus parishioner, insists that his group wants a museum, nothing more.

"We've done everything; we've agreed to everything. What else can you do?" Sarnecki said. "They're the ones reneging."

The museum group has scraped for more than a year to collect the money to buy the church and secure the friars' blessing. The group raised the $30,000 down payment chiefly through bingo nights and Polish music concerts.

What they want, the group's members say, is to preserve the nearly 130-year-old building while using the space to pay homage to the history of Polish immigrants in America. Once upon a time, St. Stanislaus was the heart of Fells Point's robust Polish community.

"To see a church being closed is a scandal really," said the Rev. Jan Ivan Dornic, the grass-roots group's chaplain. Because he had to fight for religious freedom in his native Czechoslovakia, Dornic says he is dismayed that in the United States it's common for churches such as St. Stanislaus to be shuttered.

Dornic would rather see the building preserved in a way that would enable future generations to see what it once meant to the community. The museum could display documents, clothes, photographs and paintings - things that tell the immigrants' stories.

Twele said that when the archdiocese closed St. Stanislaus, the one thing it feared was that instead of joining nearby churches, parishioners would try to reopen the church. The archdiocese didn't want "a renegade congregation, so to speak," he said.

Dornic guesses that's what the friars think his group is trying to do.

"I suspect they don't want any competition," Dornic said. "They might lose former parishioners."

The church is part of a valuable complex of former St. Stanislaus buildings that the friars own and plan to sell. There's a working school, Mother Seton Academy; the former rectory; a former school; and a social hall.

The academy, which has been renting its space from the friars, plans to buy it and is also interested in the church property so that the school could expand, Twele said.

Developers, who are in negotiations with the friars, will probably turn the other buildings into residences. Twele said the friars want to ensure that the property is redeveloped in a way that meshes with the school - and possibly the museum.

"We wanted to put something together that would make sense for the property," he said.

Ultimately, the Franciscan friars' Provincial Council will decide who gets the church.

Though the negotiations seem muddled, members of the St. Stanislaus group are working under the assumption that the church will be theirs - which means they have a lot of fund raising still to do.

As it did last year, the group has imported a band from Poland to play a New Year's Eve benefit show at Stodola, the community banquet hall at 1732 E. Lombard St. The band, Kolesie, is scheduled to stay in Baltimore through February, playing dance music every Saturday at Stodola and every Thursday at Ze Mean Bean Cafe, a Slavic restaurant in Fells Point.

The Monday night bingo games will continue at the Lemko House retirement home. And Dornic is appealing for donations from every Slavic group he knows in the city and around the country.

If the group could open the museum in early 2006, it would be the answer to Dornic's prayers. Though, because of the friars' concerns, the sale might not happen.

"Isn't it unusual that there couldn't be prayers in a church building, even if it's a museum?" Dornic said. "You can't pray?"

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