By Matt Surtel firstname.lastname@example.org
NORTH JAVA — Life has begun to establish itself at Holy Family Parish.
It’s the little things in many ways: penance services, anointing of the sick, members staying for coffee after Sunday Mass.
The North Java community had faced a crisis when the former St. Nicholas Church was closed during the Buffalo Diocese’s 2007 restructuring.
But a new group has just celebrated its first anniversary at the location, marking the church’s revival as a center of faith as part of the Polish National Catholic Church.
Sense of loss
The church on Route 98 had long enjoyed its existence as St Nicholas.
Established in 1891, the parish had once included its own convent and church school, although they eventually closed, until even the rectory was closed as parishes consolidated.
“It was December 2007 around Christmas time we were told we were going to be closing — at the end of May or early June,” said Corey Foegen a former parishioner who now serves as Holy Family Parish’s parish committee chair.
St. Nicholas eventually celebrated its last Mass and was shut. Foegen and a few others had faith it would reopen, but didn’t know exactly how.
Some moved on to the newly-consolidated parishes in such communities as Strykersville and Sheldon. Others seemed to lose hope entirely.
“Most people didn’t know where they were going,” Foegen said. “Several of us just kind of wandered and became known as ‘roaming Catholics’ at that point. A bunch of others refused to go to church at all and we didn’t know to what extent.” But they eventually noticed strands of what would become the church’s revival, although in a slightly different tradition.
Foegen said former St. Nicholas parishioners started receiving letters and noticed pennysaver advertisements in 2010, asking their interest in the property’s future. Several groups including two new churches were proposing to locate on the property.
One request was turned down politely — people believed it simply wouldn’t fit with the community. But a proposal by Bishop Thaddeus Peplowski of the Polish National Catholic Church caught people’s attention. They agreed to meet and core of residents liked what they heard.
“He had a nice meeting and interest from a lot of people,” Foegen said. “One, it stayed very close to the (Roman) Catholic faith. There are just a few differences, but it was a chance to embrace it.
“One of the biggest things people were interested in was we would purchase the church and property,” he continued. “So we had to become incorporated under the PNCC, and set up our own board, with the priest being president … It caught a lot of people’s interest.”
Path of faith
The Polish National Catholic Church was founded in 1907.
Although Catholic, it’s not part of the Roman Catholic tradition. Some distinctions exist between the two, and it’s more a “sister church”— like the Eastern Orthodox or Coptic churches — as the Rev. Matthew Kawiak describes it.
What the PNCC brings is a something very close to the Roman rites. But it allows married priests and welcomes people from other denominations, among other differences.
It’s also more democratic, with the lion’s share of responsibility handled by the congregation and church board, instead of the priest.
“There is a validity between the Roman, the Eastern and the Polish National churches, which is really misunderstood,” Kawiak said.
Interested community members met after the initial 2010 gathering to gauge the interest in joining the PNCC. Then they worked together, raised money and secured a mortgage to buy the former St. Nicholas from the Buffalo Diocese. Bishop Peplowski advised the North Java community of what joining the PNCC entailed. And a group moved forward to keep the church going in its new identity.
“You do have political aspects,” Foegen said. “There are going to be some on both sides who said there’s a division. There are going to be others who say, ‘It’s a different flavor, just don’t worry about it.’ And they do embrace.”
Kawiak, of Bethany, started with Holy Family Parish six months ago. He spent 35 years as a Roman Catholic priest, including duties as Strong Memorial Hospital chaplain, before administering rites in the PNCC.
He also maintains his own practice as a certified therapist specializing in crisis situations.
Kawiak said the assignment dovetailed with his specialty. It’s a church undergoing the challenge of starting over, and dealing with the sadness of being “unplugged” from its former identity.
“My goal has been to help them refresh themselves, but I’ll go even further than that,” he said. “They’re friendly … They’re casual and it’s fun.”
The Scriptures are a sacrament in PNCC practice, so Kawiak also brought his love of storytelling into the mix. He’s also taken an innovative approach to worship, helping to guide the parish as it establishes itself.
It took adjustment in some cases, as many members — often longtime Roman Catholics — adapted to the sense of being “unplugged” from their longtime church.
Many former St. Nicholas parishioners chose to stay within the Roman Catholic tradition, attending Mass in the merged parishes.
Those who chose Holy Family are happy with their direction, Foegen said. And it isn’t an issue for them, with people in both groups deciding to worship where it best suits them.
“I believe we’re in the hands of the Spirit and maybe this is the way the spirit is calling us,” Kawiak said. “But really, if a quarter of (Roman) Catholics are leaving the churches and not going anywhere, you can’t tell me they’re giving up their faith in God. They’re searching for community and I think it’s here in this Polish National Church, because they’re encouraged to practice their gifts and charisms in a democratic way they’re not finding in their former tradition.”
Kawiak prefers to talk about the people who have returned to the church, and what they’re accomplishing.
What’s developed has been a church community re-starting itself from scratch.
Kawiak leads Masses with an emphasis on the positive, as the members start in a new direction. Some are former St. Nicholas parishioners, while others are newcomers seeking a spiritual connection.
“People ask me what it’s like to serve here at Holy Family and I tell them it’s incredible,” he said. “The people here are incredible and I told them last Sunday at church.”
It’s not just about the liturgy, he said. The members are working to restore and revive faith, supporting the church and the community.
It’s a choice some have never considered, and an opportunity to restore buildings, and continue to learn about Jesus, while fulfilling his love for others, Kawiak said. Much of his work has been overcoming people’s fears and any misunderstanding.
“It’s living — not just in the spirit — the faith to me, of any faith tradition,” he said. “Faith in North Java is when people recognize people who are in need, and the generosity is extraordinary.”
The church now has about 65 total parishioners, with people from as far away as Warsaw, Strykersville and Alexander attending Mass. And it’s making a name for itself in the PNCC’s Buffalo-Pittsburgh Diocese. “I keep telling people, you want a church in the 21st century?” Kawiak said. “A faith community, Catholic by tradition, that welcomes people of all faiths, with that sense of open doors? North Java is the premiere parish in the country as far as I’m concerned, and in six months.
“And it’s not me,” he continued. “It’s the people’s faith that had to be nourished. What did we do here? We instilled the trust.”
Holy Family is currently developing a mission statement, which stands at the moment as: “To love God as God loves us, with open doors, open minds and open hearts.”
“It’s fantastic,” Foegen said of the church’s renewal. “Think of your own health — the things you’ve done, the foundation you’ve built to take care of yourself, and where it’s going to take you later? It’s no different for the church.”