SAINT JOSEPH'S OF STRATFORD

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December 16, 1949: CEMETERY GROUP IN ARMS OVER LIQUOR LICENSE OK: An appeal to the decision of the Town Planning Board granting approval for a restaurant with a full-liquor license on a site opposite St. Josephs Polish National Church Catholic Cemetery has been made by the Cemetery Association and by Cliff Hutchison, former president of the Lordship Improvement Association. The appeal contends that the action of the Planning Board was an abuse of its discretion, was illegal and arbitrary and was in violation of the express provisions of Section 7 of the zoning ordinance of the Town of Stratford. The approval referred to was granted on December 7 to Cornelius Ahern, owner of the property north of the cemetery land on Stratford Road. Considerable opposition to the approval was in evidence at that time. The main objectives broached were that the proposed location was not a proper place for the sale of liquor in view of its proximity to St. Josephs Cemetery and due to the fact that it is across the street from the Short Beach area being developed as a town park. Papers in the appeal were filed on Monday with Mrs. Florence Bortnick, secretary of the Board of Zoning Appeals by former Councilman John Van Yorx. Robert Trevethan is counsel for the appellants. Mr. Aherns property has been in the news for some time. Located south and adjacent to the Municipal airport, it was changed from residence to business some three years ago at which time he had asked for a light industrial zone change to operate an airplane repair service. The board at that time, acting within its rights under the zoning ordinance, changed the request from a plea for a light industrial zone to a business zone when the residents of Lordship objected to the industrial use of the land which borders the residential area in the south end of town.

December 23, 1949: 250 AT CEMETERY FIGHT BUT DO NOT KNOW WHO WON: Whether of not Cornelius Ahern is to have a restaurant with an all-liquor license permit on Stratford Road south of the Municipal airport was left in the air on Wednesday night when the Board of Zoning Appeals disappointed a crowd of 250 spectators by reserving decision on a petition which sought to knock a Planning Board approval for the restaurant out the window. The petition was brought by Cliff Hutchison and the St. Josephs Polish National Catholic Cemetery Association, and sought to reverse a recent Planning Board decision granting approval of location to Mr. Ahern for the restaurant. The Board of Zoning Appeals did not call for a show of hands from the heatedly interested audience to determine the exact number opposing or favoring the petition. Clarence Cowdery, chairman, said that the board had 30 days in which to make up its mind and make its decision public. There will be no further public hearings on the restaurant. Mr. Maher, counsel for Mr. Ahern pointed out that in 1946 his client applied for a change of zone from residential to light industrial and that the opposition had come from the same persons in the Lordship area. At that time he said the Planning Board reserved decision and at a later date changed the rear of the property to light industrial and the land bordering on Stratford Road to business. He pointed out that liquor establishments are located within a short distance of both Union and St. Michaels Cemeteries so that a precedent is not being established in this case.

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Bishop Kopka

September 13, 1987 - Until the Rev. Anthony Kopka accepted the post five years ago, St. Joseph's Polish National Church in Bridgeport had been without a pastor for a year. Looking back, Father Kopka said he could understand why no on would take the post. Father Kopka said ''For a year, a priest drove up on Sunday from New Jersey and left after saying mass. Because of the burglaries, vandalism and high crime rate, it was impossible to get a pastor until I decided to come here from Buffalo.'' Now, not only is Father Kopka about to leave the East Side neighborhood where St. Joseph's has been situated for 80 years, but so is the church. Because of a declining congregation, virtually all of which comes from outside the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, the parish board has decided to sell the 51-year-old building and the rectory and establish a new parish in Stratford. The decision to leave prompted a protest from Cesar Batalla, the president of the Puerto Rican Coalition, a Hispanic organization, and drew criticism from a spokesman for Mayor Thomas W. Bucci who contended conditions in the area were improving. ''The posture that they are taking in leaving the neighborhood is contrary to Christian beliefs. They never got involved in the neighborhood, even though there are many ills that have to be addressed. All they care about are the outsiders who come to their church,'' Mr. Batalla said. Father Kopka disagreed. ''He doesn't know what he's talking about. Since I've been here, I've been active with several neighborhood associations to try to improve conditions. We've invited people living in the area to our potluck suppers and other affairs and opened our doors in the hope that some would join our church. But they didn't.'' Father Kopka pointed out that most Hispanic people were Roman Catholics and preferred to attend nearby Catholic churches. St. Joseph's is one of 14 parishes in the state affiliated with the Polish National Church, which broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1897. The masses on Sundays at 9:15 A.M. use the Western rite liturgy and are similar to Roman Catholic services. Most of the 200 parishioners live in Stratford, Trumbull and Fairfield, according to Father Kopka. Some come from as far away as Stamford to attend mass at the only Polish National Church in Fairfield County. Most are of Polish descent, and many are former residents of the East Side neighborhood known as the Washington Park area. ''We have no choice but to move, since we're losing congregants because they're afraid to come into the neighborhood, which has a serious drug problem, among other things,'' said Father Kopka who is married and has two children. ''We've had cars stolen and broken into while mass is going on. Windows have been broken in the church. The rectory has been broken into, and the chairman of the parish board was robbed at gunpoint while taking care of the rectory when we had no priest.'' Security has been stepped up. During mass, two men from the congregation are posted outside the church, at the corner of Barnum Avenue and Harriet Street. Up-to-date burglar alarms and dead-bolt locks have been installed in the church and rectory. The stained-glass windows have been covered with a protective plastic and a spotlight is focused on the church from dusk to dawn daily. ''Before we installed the burglar-alarm system, the rectory was burglarized many times,'' Father Kopka said. ''And you've got to be on guard constantly. A year ago, someone stole two brand new garbage cans we had left outside for collection, and last month a parishioner had her wallet stolen at a tag sale we sponsored.'' Father Kopka said that apart from the crime, the move to the Lordship section of Stratford, where the church owns a six-acre cemetery and other property, made sense also because most of the congregants lived close by. Three live near the Washington Park church. One, Walter Shandrowski, the chairman of the parish board, was baptized in the previous church 61 years ago. ''I still live in the neighborhood, but most of our congregation is very leery about coming in,'' he said. Father Kopka said that the former Second Baptist Church closed down and dissolved a few years ago because of dwindling membership. The pastor of the near Park Street Congregational Church said his church might relocate. ''We used to have 600 members, but now we're down to about 150,'' said the Rev. Arlene Studer of the church which has been in the area 119 years. ''We've had some problems in the past - cars vandalized and people mugged on the way to church. But I have noticed a change for the better. The neighborhood associations are trying hard to make things better.'' For two years, the Congregational Church has shared its building with the Bridgeport Christian Church Disciples of Christ, whose members are virtually all Hispanic. ''It works out well,'' she said. ''On Sunday, while we're having our mass, they have church school in the basement. Then, when we're finished, they have their mass. But, overall, they use the building far more than we do because their members are from the neighborhood while ours come in from outside.'' A spokesman for Mayor Bucci, Leonard Grimaldi, said he did not think crime was a factor in the proposed move of St. Joseph's. ''Crime is down in the area by about 10 percent, and the neighborhood is undergoing a revitalization,'' he said. ''I think the real reason they're leaving is because their people live outside the neighborhood.'' The chairman of the East Side Neighborhood Association, Robert Halstead, said he thought that the projected move had unfairly cast the neighborhood in a bad light. ''We're not mad at the church for leaving, but we think that the good aspects of the neighborhood have been ignored,'' he said. ''Crime has bottomed out, and big improvements are being made. Seventy-five percent of the people own their own homes and take pride in the area.'' A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport said there were no plans to move any churches out of the East Side. ''We think the neighborhood is on the mend,'' the director of communications for the diocese, Msgr. Nicholas V. Grieco, said. ''For example, attendance was down at Holy Rosary. But recently, the church, which is predominantly Italian, but also has a lot of Hispanics, has come alive again under its pastor, Father Blase Gintoli.'' ''Another parish on the East Side, St. Mary's, which is mostly Hispanic, was deteriorating. But the parishioners rallied around and held a number of fund-raisers. And now we're building a new church on the same site. In the meantime, services are being held in what had been a church recreation hall.'' Monsignor Grieco also told how another large Hispanic congregation at St. Anthony's Church in the West End, alarmed about drug use and other crimes, had demanded municipal action. ''They wrote something like 500 letters in the last year, held meetings among themselves and with city officials and succeeded in getting the message out to drug dealers and other criminal elements to stay away,'' Monsignor Grieco said. ''Under the pastor, Msgr. Francis Campagnone, they fought back, and they've warded off the drug problem.'' Spokesmen for the two other Roman Catholic dioceses in the state said conditions had remained relatively stable at their churches. ''The record of the inner-city parishes in the Archdiocese of Hartford has been extraordinary as the neighborhoods have changed,'' the director of communications for the Archdiocese, the Rev. Edmund O'Brien, said. ''There's been a concerted effort to respond to the needs of Hispanics and black parishioners through the establishment of an office of Hispanic Pastoral Ministry and an Office for Black Catholics. And so far it's worked.'' Some churches in the Norwich Diocese have had difficulties in changing neighborhoods, but none has left, according to a spokeswoman for the diocese, Jacqueline Keller. ''St. Mary's in New London is a good example of an inner-city church that has prospered as it changed,'' she said. ''Years ago, it was primarily Irish. But now it's a mixture of Hispanic, Filipino, Cambodian and Laotian. And both the church and the parochial school are very vibrant. ''Also, unlike in some other parts of the state, it is the nature of eastern Connecticut for most people to remain in the area, whether it's the inner city or in rural sections.'' Father Kopka said seven churches had expressed interest in buying St. Joseph's. ''We hope to break ground for our new church in the spring and to be in within a year,'' he said. ''If we sell the church in the meantime, we'll have to find a place to hold services on a temporary basis. ''A lot of people on the East Side don't seem to understand why we want to leave. And I know that some of them are upset about it. I'm getting the cold shoulder like you wouldn't believe, and it hurts me.''

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St. Joseph's of Stratford