Photo: Felix Carroll
Until St. Stan's was deconsecrated last month, Sophie Armata, 91, prayed there everyday. "This church is just magnificent," she said. The famous image of The Divine Mercy is to the left, the first Divine Mercy image enshrined in a parish church in the western hemisphere.
The Diocese of Springfield says Adams is no longer big enough for this many steeples. Both St. Stan's (bottom, center) and St. Thomas (bottom, right) were shut down.
Fifty years ago, when Berkshire-Hathaway permanently shut down its belt-driven textile mill in Adams, Mass., residents of this tiny hill town experienced a silence that jolted the senses.
"You realized for the first time how loud those machines were and how quiet things could become," says Eugene Michalenko, a local historian.
The mill's closing left 1,000 people out of work and marked the end of a 150-year era of textile manufacturing in this western Massachusetts community. No industry has come to take its place.
Last month, Adams residents experienced a sudden silence that many say is of a similar scale. On Dec. 28, the Diocese of Springfield closed St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, the large, double-spired, church built brick-by-brick by Polish immigrants 100 years ago. Its closing is one of a wave of parish consolidation initiatives in the diocese in response to changing demographics and a priest shortage.
For Divine Mercy devotees, St. Stan's is of particular interest. In the mid-1940s, the church was the first in the western hemisphere to have an image of The Divine Mercy enshrined within it. It was also the home parish of two men who would eventually become key to the spread of the Divine Mercy message around the world.
One was Fr. Walter Pelczynski, MIC, who established the Mercy of God Apostolate on Eden Hill in Stockbridge, Mass., now home of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy.
The second was Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, one of the world's leading Divine Mercy experts. He served as vice-postulator in North America for St. Faustina's canonization cause and is the current director of the Association of Marian Helpers in Stockbridge.
In recent months St. Stan's has garnered a lot of media attention, first upon the announcement last August that it would be shut down, then by the parishioners' protest, which came swiftly and continues to this day. A well-organized group of parishioners filed an appeal with the Vatican that is pending. They are now occupying the church 24 hours a day to prevent the building and its many religious artifacts from being sold. Diocesan officials have vowed not to interfere with the vigil and say that before they decide what to do with the property, they will wait out the appeals process, which could take anywhere from 90 days to several years.
"We'll stay here as long as we have to," Francis Hajdas, 72, who is leading the lock-in vigil, said on Thursday morning, sitting in the darkened church along with a revolving group of vigil members, many armed with prayer beads and sleeping bags. They spend their time in prayer and in quiet conversation.
The Jan. 19 edition of Time magazine features the parishioners' protest. Last Tuesday, St. Stan's vigil was also mentioned in a page 1 story in the New York Times.
As St. Stan's continues to garner national press coverage, let's take a look at what the press so far hasn't covered: the parish's role in the history of the Divine Mercy movement.
In 1941, hardly three years after the death of St. Faustina, the Polish nun whose revelations sparked the modern Divine Mercy movement, the Divine Mercy devotion was brought to the United States from Poland by Fr. Joseph Jarzebowski, MIC. Father Jarzebowski had at first been skeptical about the great graces received by those who entrusted themselves to The Divine Mercy. But, in the spring of 1940, he vowed that if he were able to safely reach his fellow Marians in America, he would spend the rest of his life spreading The Divine Mercy message and devotion.
Before his departure, Fr. Michael Sopocko, St. Faustina's spiritual director (who was beatified last fall), gave Fr. Jarzebowski materials on Divine Mercy that he prepared. With these materials and facing seemingly overwhelming obstacles, Fr. Jarzebowski made the journey from Poland across Asia and onto American soil. It took a year. True to his vow, he immediately began distributing information about the message and devotion with the help of the Felician Sisters in Michigan and Connecticut.
His Marian confreres soon became intensely involved as well. After several years of this activity, in 1944 Adams native Fr. Walter Pelczynski, MIC, established the "Mercy of God Apostolate" on Eden Hill in Stockbridge. He also established the Marian Helpers Center there, a modern, religious publishing house that has become the international center for The Divine Mercy message and devotion. By 1953, some 25 million pieces of Divine Mercy literature had been distributed around the world.
"The Marians received a lot of support from the pastor at St. Stanislaus, Fr. Edmund Kempinski, who helped us put down the down payment to purchase the property in Stockbridge," recalls Fr. Seraphim, who is the uncle of Adams historian Eugene Michalenko. "He was a great help to us."
Father Seraphim recalls first hearing about Divine Mercy when he was a boy of 13 or 14.
"When Fr. Walter came home for vacation one time, he visited my parents," recalls Fr. Seraphim. "He told them the story of St. Faustina. He also mentioned how in 1931, our Lord appeared to St. Faustina in a vision and told her to paint His image as He appeared to her and include the signature, 'Jesus, I trust in You!'"
That image is now known as the image of The Divine Mercy.
"Jesus promised that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish," says Fr. Seraphim. "He said He desired that this image be venerated, first in St. Faustina's chapel, and then throughout the world" (see Diary of St. Faustina, 47).
Father Seraphim recalls that his parents obtained a copy of the image, "and we hung it in our house. That's how I found out about Divine Mercy."
His pastor, Fr. Kempinski, was also greatly moved by the message of Divine Mercy, inspired by Fr. Jarzebowski who visited St. Stan's and spoke to the priests there about St. Faustina and her revelations.
"As a result, Fr. Kempinski had two images painted from just the little holy card that Fr. Jarzebowski had," says Fr. Seraphim. "It's surprising how close it is to the original. He had two made, one for the church and one for the rectory.
"Our pastor was really moved by what he heard and accepted what Fr. Jarzebowski was saying," says Fr. Seraphim. "He believed that he, too, should display the image of The Divine Mercy publicly so it could be venerated. At some point in the mid-1940s, the image was enshrined in St. Stanislaus — the first image of The Divine Mercy enshrined in a parish church in the western hemisphere."
Today, countless churches worldwide have The Divine Mercy image enshrined within them, as Christ requested.
Father Seraphim said he, too, was greatly inspired by the Marians and the message of Divine Mercy. "I knew in high school that God was calling me to the priesthood as a Marian," says Fr. Seraphim. "And dedicating my life to spreading Divine Mercy, a work entrusted to the Marians, turned out to be God's plan for me."
The image of Divine Mercy remains in St. Stan's today, one of many works of art that adorn the church, including dozens of hand-carved saints and angels. You can probably safely assume that St. Stan's is the only church in the world with Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin, and Josef Stalin "enshrined" in stained glass. The three Bolsheviks are included in a large stained glass window in the choir loft that tells the spiritual and political history of Poland.
In the years since Berkshire-Hathaway shut its mill, Adams, a town of 9,000 people today, has lost 25 percent of its population.
"There's not as many young people anymore," says Eugene Michalenko. "The schools used to be packed. If there are 500 jobs left in this town, I'd be surprised." The most enduring element of the town's heritage, he says, remains its Polish identity, encompassed by St. Stan's and its parishioners, with names like Kurpaska, Cwalinski, and Lipinski.
As part of the consolidation plan, St. Stanislaus Parish was merged with two other parishes in Adams, St. Thomas and Notre Dame, to form a new parish named for Pope John Paul the Great. The old Notre Dame church, which is centrally located on Main Street, now serves as the new parish's church.
Saint Stanislaus' parishioners argue in their petition to the Vatican that, unlike the other two parishes in town, St. Stan's has remained financially solvent. No one disputes it's the most beautiful church in town.
On Fridays at 3 p.m., St. Stan's parishioners, most of whom are the children and grandchildren of the Polish immigrants who built the church, still gather to pray the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy. They pray for the same thing. "We're praying for a miracle," says Irene Kordana, a lifelong parishioner.
Whatever the outcome of the appeal, may we all pray that God's will is done. And whatever the outcome, may we never forget the role played by the parishioners of St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in doing the Lord's will to make known His mercy throughout the world.