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Tempting Faith

A Meeting To Resolve Disagreements Over St. Stanís Redevelopment Yields Nothing But More Bad Feelings

Jefferson Jackson Steele
UNANSWERED PRAYERS: The fate of St. Stanislaus Church is still in question, despite a recent attempt at settling a lawsuit filed by a group of parishioners.

By Laura Laing | Posted 6/28/2006

A law office conference room was the most recent setting for a scene in the dispute over the redevelopment of St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church in Fells Point ("Holy Mess," June 7). On June 7 four attorneys; three board members from the St. Stanislaus Kostka Polish and Slavic Church Museum Inc., which wants to see the church and its accompanying buildings preserved for use by the community; and two representatives of Iron Horse Properties, which won a contract to redevelop the church campus into a condominium complex met at the downtown law offices of Neuberger, Quinn, Gielen, Rubin, and Gibber. Though the meeting was called to discuss a resolution to the long-simmering conflict, it failed to settle the matter for either side.

The museum group has been battling with the developers, the Franciscan Friars (who own the church campus), and Mother Seton Academy (which operates a private school in a convent on the church's grounds) for possession of the vacant church building for more than three years. Iron Horse plans to move Mother Seton Academy into the refurbished church building and raze the friary, parish hall, and convent to make way for high-end condominiums. Progress on the development of the church has been stalled until a suit between the Franciscan Friars and the museum group is settled.

So Isaac Neuberger, an attorney representing Iron Horse principal Ray Giudice, contacted the museum group's Edward Rybczynski earlier this summer to see if the parties could come to an agreement on the church's future. Neuberger says he was clear when he contacted Rybczynski about what the developers were willing to offer the museum group: They would design a memorial recognizing the church's past and offer the public use of a meeting space at the new Mother Seton Academy, which would be renovated as part of the developers' plans.

Rybczynski does not remember the conversation going that way.

"He said reasonable people can resolve any problem," Rybczynski says. "I said, `Now you know we're not going to settle for anything less than the two sanctuaries and parking spaces.' He said, `Come on down and let's talk about it.'"

When Rybczynski and three representatives from the museum group arrived-along with Michael Forlini, an attorney representing the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point, which is not taking an official side in the St. Stan's debate-they were prepared to negotiate a deal for the ownership of the church building itself. But that's not what Neuberger and Iron Horse had in mind.

"At first they offered an area on the wall for a plaque," says Mike Sarnecki, leader of the museum group. The plaque was to be in the basement, the size of the area was not specified. "We were astonished."

"That's an insult," Rybczynski adds. "What they offered was silly. They wasted our time and effort. I said, `You're acting as if this is November or December and we lost the case.' One guy just waved his hand and said, `Oh, that case is nothing.'"

After some arguing back and forth, Sarnecki and Rybczynski say that Neuberger, Giudice, and another Iron principal, James Joyce, left the room to talk. When they came back, they had another offer.

"They got up, left the room, and spent about 15 or 20 minutes out there talking," Sarnecki says. "Then they offered us a wall in the auditorium, which will also be the [school] gymnasium. That was another slap in the face. They took the crumbs away and gave us a slice of bread, they thought."

Forlini declined to comment, citing pending litigation regarding zoning laws. He was merely an observer at the meeting anyway, say Rybczynski, Sarnecki, and Neuberger.

Neuberger remembers the meeting differently. He says that he and the other Iron Horse representatives never left the room to discuss the offer alone and that the plaque was just one part of an offer, which also included joint meeting space and a large display for the community.

"The walls would resemble the serious elements of the church," he says. "The Polish group was very offended. I may have offended them in that I believe that there is an element in the community who have a reaction to people coming from out of the [Fells Point] area."

But Neuberger insists his intentions were good. He says he simply wanted to help resolve a contentious disagreement.

"No good deed goes unpunished," he says. "They came in here, and what they really wanted was the two church sanctuaries left intact. And I said, `That's unreasonable.'"

"Basically," Sarnecki concludes, the meeting "was a waste of a two-hour parking fee."

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