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Diocese, parishioners debate future of Immaculate Conception Church

Date: 10/3/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD – Considering the pain caused by the closing of churches in the Diocese of Springfield one might imagine that there would be little strife at the one parish that was given a second chance: Immaculate Conception Church (ICC) in the Indian Orchard neighborhood.

The diocese and some members of the parish both have a list of issues they have with one another, but not all of the parishioners are at odds with the diocese and the church’s pastor Rev. Stanislaus Sokol.

The dissident group of parishioners, though, believe the priest assigned to the long-time Polish-American church, isn’t spending the parish’s money correctly and setting it up for financial problems that could eventually cause its closing.

Sokol passionately disputed the charge and his statements are backed in a letter co-signed by Barbara Wozniak, the chair of the Pastoral Council and Stanley Strempek, chair of the Finance Council.

“I strongly object to the accusation that Bishop [Timothy McDonnell] sent me here to close this church. We are working very hard to keep this parish open, viable and active within the community. I have been here for the last two and a half years and done absolutely nothing to warrant this charge,” Sokol said in a letter that followed an interview with Reminder Publications.

The diocese, as explained by spokesman Mark Dupont, has a charge of its own: the Save ICC group that had lobbied on behalf of the church’s continued existence, is withholding money from the parish that rightfully should go to its upkeep.

In his Wilbraham home, Tad Bukowski, a member of the Parish Council and Save ICC, said members of the parish discovered by accident the diocese wanted to close the church in 2007 and sell at least part of the property to CVS.

Bukowski maintained that intervention by a cardinal at the Vatican saved the parish from being closed, a statement that Dupont said is a “disservice to Bishop,” whose decision to reverse the recommendation to close the church was his own.

Dupont added that “Bishop is disconcerted,” and that Sokol’s critics are “reinventing history.”

The annual Polish festival staged by the parish was underwritten in 2010, the summer before McDonnell decided to keep the church open, by the Save ICC group, Bukowski said. The group held the money in its own account for the purpose of making improvements to the church building.

In a letter to Sokol dated Feb. 3, 2011, McDonnell wrote, “I received the preliminary report on the Internal Audit of Immaculate Conception Parish from Steve Perlaky and noted this concern that the festival that took place last year before you were pastor resulted in some confusion in the minds of those attending, who thought the proceeds were for Immaculate Conception Parish, rather than for the separate entity [Save ICC].”

Dupont said the parish hasn’t seen any of the profit from that festival, despite conversations with its members. The diocese set up a trust fund for capital improvements for ICC, Dupont explained, but the Save ICC group has not handed over the $40,000 the diocese says it has.

“It’s an issue of serious consequence,” Dupont said.

Bukowski countered that Save ICC has given the parish about $20,000 just after it was announced the parish would continue.

“Every cent will go to improve and support the church,” he stressed.

Bukowski said if the parish gets a different priest they would give the parish the rest.

Bukowski and his group believe that Sokol is spending money in areas that are unnecessary. He cited how volunteers would perform certain tasks around the church such as lawn maintenance, making pierogies for sale as fundraiser, but Sokol now hires people for these jobs.

Bukowski also disputed the need for increasing Sokol’s cook’s hours from six hours a week to 60.

During the last three years the parish received $250,000 rent annually for the use of one of its former school buildings as a location for some of the students from Forest Park Middle School; that income is now gone as the middle school has re-opened. Bukowski expressed concern about what will happen to the church without this revenue.

Sokol said, “My main task, after spiritual and pastoral concerns, is to put the fiscal house in order ... we’ve made great progress.”

Sokol cited the repair to the church’s chimney and a leak over the sacristy and asked, “Is this spending money lavishly?”

Bukowski, a contractor himself, said Sokol has missed opportunities to save money while making capital repairs.

Sokol wrote in his letter, “Unfortunately the level of donations has not increased over the years to keep pace with the level of rising expenses. This is true with all churches in all areas in the country and not just a problem in New England. My point is that in order to pay these increased expenses ands keep this church a viable active parish in the diocese, money has to be spent. Some expenses this year about mostly due to weather and age of building; for example the repair of the church roof, chimney repairs, a which are in the process of being completed, the school roof needing complete replacement and so on, The lost is endless when the property is 109 years-old. All of these things are a cost of doing business.”

One effort that was suggested for the parish school buildings was a pre-school, but Sokol said the group “wanted to go around diocesan rules” concerning such a school.

Sokol splits his time between ICC and his other parish Our Lady of the Rosary, also in Springfield. This is Sokol’s third time at ICC, having served there in two different positions. He said the parish is “stable” with about 600 families. In the past, there were as many as 1,200 families.

Part of the reason for the decline in the church’s membership – and increasing difficulty with finances – is how immigration from Poland changed after the fall of Communism, Sokol said.

Sokol attributed the criticism to “a very small group of people, six or seven people.”

Bukowski said that Save ICC has about 20 other members at this time and “a lot of people have left the church.”

He added that when the church was in danger of being closed “every person in the church protested … now, many people don’t know the finances of the church.”

Bukowski said, “If you do nothing ... in the next couple of years it [ICC] is probably going to be gone. That’s going to be the end, probably.”