Arriving at the Buffalo airport three years ago, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec was warmly welcomed by Polish dancers and serenaded with a rendition of the Polish tune "Sto Lat," wishing him 100 years of life.
The area's large contingent of Polish-American Catholics was thrilled by the appointment of Kmiec as the 13th bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo -- the first time a Polish-American was named to the post here.
But lately, instead of festive singing and dancing, Kmiec is more likely to encounter sneers and scowls from the Polish community.
Consider Stanley A. Kowalski Jr., a member of St. Adalbert Basilica, a traditionally Polish parish slated to close, perhaps later this year. Kowalski would greet Kmiec with a pointed question: "I'd say, 'Why are you as a Polish bishop selling us down the river?' "
At least 20 area parishes under review for merger or closure have Polish roots -- including several on the East Side of Buffalo, the traditional home of "Polonia," and a couple where the beloved Polish Archbishop Karol Wojtyla had visited before taking the name of John Paul II when he was elected pope.
"People thought when [Kmiec] came that there would be some consideration for Polish-American parishes," said Roger Puchalski, publisher of the weekly Am-Pol Eagle.
"From what I've heard, there seems to be little or no concern for ethnicity," Puchalski said.
Some of the most passionate critics of the diocese's "Journey in Faith and Grace" are Polish-Americans. They're defending their churches as irreplaceable works of art and their parish communities as extended families steeped in the traditions of their parents and grandparents.
"The role that Polish culture and history have played in the development of the Catholic faith and the development of this diocese in particular has meant a great deal to the church and to not pay attention to it is really a shame," said Puchalski, who has written several columns critical of the diocese's restructuring effort.
Puchalski's columns have provoked a flurry of strident letters opposed to the diocese's plans.
"It's more than just the Polish-American heritage that these parishes offer. A number of them are in the inner city and the presence of them in these areas is a sign of hope," he said. "The church has a moral responsibility to these communities not to abandon them, whether they're Polish parishes or any kind of ethnicity."
Other critics, like Buffalo Common Council President David A. Franczyk, believe the downsizing of ethnic churches threatens to obliterate a major piece of Buffalo history and thwart the city's economic recovery.
"It's a form of homogenization," Franczyk said. "It's a protestantization of the church, too. They should be encouraging people to worship in these churches, rather than building in the far-flung suburbs."
But in an interview with The News, Kmiec said he is proud of his Polish heritage and deeply disturbed by suggestions that he's aiming to rid the diocese of its ethnic roots.
"That's certainly not true. We're dealing as objectively as we possibly can with all parishes," he said. "I'm a son of immigrants. I've been born and raised in that culture, and I'm very proud of it."
The diocese is taking into consideration parish ethnicity as it moves forward with its planning, but population shifts make parish mergers and church closings unavoidable, the bishop said.
Diocesan officials noted that, on the East Side alone, seven Polish parishes currently have a total of 1,255 members, with eight priests assigned to them, while more than 50 parishes in other parts of the diocese have at least that many members and are served by a single priest.
"It's important for people to know that when we merge a parish, when you go there, you bring your talents and gifts into the new community. You bring your Polishness there, too," Kmiec said. "The beauty of the Polish people is the great depth of their faith."
The bishop has received support from other area Catholics of Polish ancestry, who object to what they regard as personal attacks and believe Kmiec is doing his best in an extremely difficult situation.
"I don't think it's very fair to the poor guy. It's something that should have been addressed 15 years ago," said Mary Lou Wyrobek, a parishioner of Assumption Church, a historically Polish parish in Black Rock.
Assumption is expected to survive this diocesan downsizing, but the future isn't certain because many Catholics have left the area.
"I would hate to see my church go, but I understand realistically, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, I don't know where we'll be," she said.
Wyrobek believes the diocese will retain at least some of its Polish churches -- and most Polish customs and music can be continued even in churches that weren't founded by Poles, she said.
"Part of the question is what constitutes a Polish parish at this point in time," she said. "The Polish population is all over the place now. I don't know that there is one place where Polish people live."
Sister M. Lorianne Tylczynski, who is head of the Felician sisters, a congregation of sisters mostly of Polish ethnicity, experienced the sadness of her Polish parish, St. Luke, closing in 1993.
But Polish-American Catholics fled those neighborhoods long ago, she said.
"I love my Polish ethnicity, but in a sense, we set ourselves up in many ways for this," she said.
While St. Adalbert will likely close, at least three other parishes within a mile of it will stay, including St. Stanislaus, the first Polish parish in the diocese; Corpus Christi, which is run by an order of priests based in Poland; and St. John Kanty, which also has a Polish-born priest as pastor.
A little farther away, St. John Gualbert in Cheektowaga also is expected to remain.
Yet, those surviving churches are little consolation to longtime parishioners of other Polish parishes whose fates are still in the balance.
Six Buffalo parishes with Polish roots already have been recommended for closure or merger, and Polish parishes in Niagara Falls, Dunkirk, Cheektowaga, Olean and Lackawanna also were being considered for major changes.
Parishioners of Holy Trinity Parish in Niagara Falls have flooded the bishop's office with letters opposing a plan to close their church.
In Dunkirk, some members of St. Hedwig and St. Hyacinth parishes have joined a grassroots initiative called CPACS, Catholic Parishioners Against Church Suppression. Many of them have signed a petition promising to make "reverse pledges," decreasing their weekly giving and annual contributions to Catholic Charities, if their Polish parishes are closed.
A shortage of priests is driving much of the diocesan downsizing. But members of St. Hyacinth say they've been in contact with an order of priests in Poland who will serve both Polish parishes in Dunkirk, if Kmiec gives his approval.
Other parishes also argue that the diocese could save more churches by looking for help to Poland, where many men are studying for the priesthood.
Kmiec is actively involved in recruiting Polish-born priests, but that won't solve the diocese's demographic challenges and overall priest shortage, he said.
Neither will closing churches, some parishioners countered.
Related story on Page D1