St. Louis - It was just before midnight on Christmas Eve 2005, and the Rev. Marek Bozek was the focus of 2,000 souls crammed in pews or standing on tiptoe in the aisles, straining to see him.
They came to St. Stanislaus Kostka church to be a part of Bozek's first Mass as pastor. He had arrived in St. Louis from Springfield, Mo., thumbing his nose at the Roman Catholic hierarchy and riding to the rescue of fellow Polish countrymen deprived of the Eucharist for more than a year by their archbishop.
For many St. Stanislaus parishioners whose ancestors had built the church just north of downtown, Bozek became a hero.
But more than two years later, Bozek has reshaped the church into a community that would be unrecognizable to those 19th-century founders.
His vision for a reformed Roman Catholic faith calls for supporting female ordination, allowing priests to get married and accepting gay relationships. Bozek's stands have attracted hundreds of new St. Stanislaus parishioners who share the priest's reform-minded vision.
But they have also divided the church, pitting newer members against traditional parishioners unhappy with how far the priest has gone in condemning the Roman Catholic church.
There have also been questions about the priest's trappings. He has negotiated a 143 percent salary hike, moved into a $157,000 Washington Avenue loft and leased a 2008 BMW for $450 per month.
Some parishioners point to another sign that alarmed them: Bozek, while in Poland last year, bought a silver ring custom-made for a bishop there. When he returned, he showed the ring to his parish at a Sunday Mass and spoke about it from the pulpit.
Because it's a bishop's ring and he is only a priest, Bozek says, he has not worn it. But he won't say he never will - he does not rule out the possibility of becoming the leader of what he calls an "underground Roman Catholic" movement.
The three parish leaders who recruited Bozek say they now regret it.
St. Stanislaus "is now home to anyone who has a gripe with the (Catholic) church," said Stan Rozanksi, one of the men who vetted Bozek and a former board member.
Bozek says the people who hired him knew about his vision for St. Stanislaus. He dismisses critics who accuse him of shifting his priorities as having "selective hearing."
"I came because I saw injustice being done here," he said. "There are red-button issues, and I'm daring enough to touch them. If you're sexist or homophobic, you will passionately hate my vision."
Bozek's vision ultimately led his divided parish to court.
The archdiocese recently filed a lawsuit that, if successful, would allow it to regain the power to assign the church's pastor and approve its board members. Since 2001, the board has twice amended its bylaws to cement its control of church matters.
This weekend, parishioners will vote to elect new board members. Bozek is confident that nearly all the candidates share his vision. His future, though, will still be in question until the lawsuit is resolved.
If the archdiocese wins, Bozek will be out.
Indeed, the court case has shifted the church's landscape in a surprising way.
Bozek was supposed to be St. Stanislaus' savior. But for many longtime church members, it could be Archbishop Raymond Burke - the man they've been fighting for five years - who may save it.
In 1891, St. Louis Archbishop Peter Kenrick agreed to a parish structure in which the laity, in the form of a corporation, would help govern St. Stanislaus' finances.
That setup was not unusual in the 19th century, as the Roman Catholic church, along with the rest of American society, continued to push west, and parishes organized on their own.
An autonomous system lasted at St. Stanislaus for more than 100 years. A lay board oversaw the property and assets, while the archbishop appointed those board members and a pastor.
After Burke was installed as the archbishop of St. Louis in 2004, he took up the cause of changing the structure of St. Stanislaus more seriously than any of his predecessors. That summer, the board members eliminated their pastor's authority over church property and assets. Burke responded by removing the pastor, leaving the church without a spiritual leader.
A year later, board members approached Bozek, then a 30-year-old priest and Polish national working in the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese, to lead the church.
From 2004 to 2006, the image of a feisty Polish church standing up to the Roman Catholic hierarchy struck a chord. And St. Stanislaus gained a national reputation - the front page of the Wall Street Journal, a segment on CBS's "Early Show."
For many area Catholics, the church became a proud example of the laity standing up to church authorities - with red "St. Stan's Lives!" and "Save St. Stan's!" stickers adorning car bumpers.
Burke's declarations of nine St. Stanislaus-related excommunications only enhanced the image of the church's leaders as countercultural Catholic heroes, and of St. Stanislaus as an oasis for disenchanted Catholics.
Bozek seized on that momentum and used the church's new-found fame to double its membership, to what he says is now 500 families.
GOING TOO FAR?
As the membership has grown, so has tension among some parishioners, as Bozek continues to take stands that clash with Roman Catholic teaching.
He has welcomed gays and divorced people into the church. In November 2006, he invited an openly gay pastor - the leader of a Catholic community separate from the Vatican - to celebrate Mass.
This past November, Bozek took part in a ceremony in which two women were ordained as priests of an organization called Roman Catholic Womenpriests.
The event was on the same day as St. Stanislaus's Polka Mass and church picnic. Bozek stayed for the beginning of the picnic but left to attend the ordination, taking two dozen parishioners with him.
Bozek has also taken repeated shots at the Roman Catholic hierarchy. In a sermon earlier this year, Bozek set out his vision for the Roman Catholic church, while denouncing its leaders.
"The Roman Catholic family can be described today as dysfunctional, toxic or abusive," Bozek said. "For decades we have allowed the men who claim to be our shepherds to abuse us."
Richard Bach, who heads a group called the Concerned Parishioners of St. Stanislaus, said a large number of older members - about 100 families - had gradually come to oppose Bozek's leadership and the new members.
"They're concerned about the path of the church and where he's leading them," Bach said. "A lot of the old parishioners don't consider the new ones parishioners at all."
Grzegorz Koltuniak, a longtime parishioner, calls Bozek's tenure at St. Stanislaus "a disaster."
"Before Bozek, we were all together," he said. "Our fight was about property, but never about religion. The people who have come here since then are here for different reasons. ... Where are they taking this church?"
Marybeth McBryan, one of the church's newer members, said she came to St. Stanislaus because it was more inclusive and accepting than her previous parish.
"There's a group of parishioners who have been there a long time and who don't like change," McBryan said. "They are not very fond of us who are not Polish."
Timothy Kyle, who joined the church about six months ago, says longtime members want Bozek "to break the rules important to them, but not stand up for the ideals and beliefs he has himself."
"If you hire someone who doesn't follow along the dotted line," Kyle said, "you can't expect him to follow it when you want him to."
FOOTING THE BILL
Church board members still loyal to Bozek credit him for bringing in the new parishioners, saying he has kept the church afloat financially.
They also feel he remains critical to St. Stanislaus' future. So when Bozek had to return to Poland last year to reapply for a work visa, the board paid an immigration lawyer $80,000 to help with the process, according to some church leaders. Bozek said it was more like $55,000.
"I think it's worth it to keep him there, because who else are we going to get as a priest?" asked William Bialczak, chairman of the St. Stanislaus board. "We don't have six other priests knocking on our door asking to get in there."
But longtime parishioners were further put off when Bozek negotiated a new contract with the board.
Bozek's contract was up last December, and he had several demands.
He wanted to move out of the rectory. He wanted a big salary bump. And he wanted a new car. He got what he wanted.
He moved into a downtown loft; he started driving a new BMW; and his salary jumped to $56,000 from $24,000.
The average income for diocesan priests in Missouri is $40,670, which includes everything from Mass stipends to food and housing allowances, according to a report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit research institute at Georgetown University.
Bozek said he was paying for the car himself. And, he said, the $31,400 down payment for the loft came from his savings.
Bozek said he needed to move out because it was "exhausting mentally" for him to live in a busy rectory, where he rarely had time to himself.
"It was not good for my physical health," he said. "My blood pressure was up."
People also need to understand that "ministers are normal people," he said. "We need food to eat, cars to drive, places to live."
Even board members who still support Bozek acknowledge that they have been annoyed by some of his actions, but they believe the priest deserves their loyalty for sacrificing his career so St. Stanislaus could survive.
Because of Burke, "many Catholics have fallen away," Bialczak said. Bozek "has a way of bringing them back."
A SPLIT BOARD
The divisions have played out on the church board, where three of the six members have now turned on Bozek and reconciled with the archdiocese.
The pending lawsuit leaves his fate in question, even as Burke is preparing to leave St. Louis for a position at the Vatican.
In asking a judge to return St. Stanislaus to its 1891 bylaws, the archdicoese is compromising. It will give up on Burke's demand that the church conform to the structure of other parishes. In exchange, it wants to regain the ability to pick the pastor and board members.
That would mean the ability to oust Bozek. And longtime members who yearn to return to the days before the battle with the archdiocese would get their wish.
But that could take years.
In the meantime, Bozek awaits word on whether he will be laicized - or defrocked - by Pope Benedict XVI. Burke began the process of laicizing Bozek after the priest took part in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests event.
The Vatican has not yet ruled on the matter. But Bozek has already been planning for a St. Stanislaus whose ties to the Vatican could be severed.
In May, he said he'd been in talks with Married Priests Now! representatives. The organization is led by Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, an excommunicated Zambian archbishop who is married. The group, funded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, promotes a married priesthood.
News of the Milingo talks angered some parishioners, and Bozek backed away. He now insists that the church will remain Roman Catholic.
But if the archdiocese refuses to make peace, he said, St. Stanislaus could join with other "independent" churches - inside and outside St. Louis - to form an "underground Roman Catholic church."
For example, he has been in discussions with Rose Marie Hudson and Elsie McGrath, the two women ordained as Roman Catholic Womenpriest clerics. They are co-pastors of a congregation of about 25 people called the Therese of Divine Peace Inclusive Community in St. Louis.
Bozek also has spoken with the Rev. Frank Krebs - pastor of the 90-member Sts. Clare & Francis in Webster Groves, which is separate from the Vatican - about joining Bozek's "underground" network.
Bozek said he had heard from groups in California, Florida and Wisconsin who wanted to join "an alternative Roman Catholic" organization.
"I tell them to organize and let me know," he said.
Bozek said that he had been offered a bishop's position in two independent Catholic denominations, but that he wasn't interested in other groups. He wants to continue leading St. Stanislaus - and perhaps a movement with St. Stanislaus at its center.
"If the hypothetical happens and if the people elect a bishop - and that's the way it should be done - then whomever is asked by the people to be bishop should do it," Bozek said.
For now, he hangs on to the silver bishop ring he bought while in Poland last year. He spotted it at his favorite jeweler in his hometown, and it was made for a former teacher of his, an auxiliary bishop in a Polish diocese.
That bishop actually asked for two rings to be made. He kept a gold version, but left the silver ring - adorned only with a Jerusalem cross - behind.
Would Bozek accept a call to be the bishop of an "underground" Roman Catholic church?
"Yes," he said. "I would do it."