“He had been a very charitable priest: in his will he had left all his money to institutions and the furniture of his house to his sister.” ∼ “Araby,” James Joyce
My junior-year high school English teacher used to use the above quote to show how snarky and snide James Joyce was being towards the priesthood: “After all,” he used to quip “what was a priest doing with any money at all: he would have taken a vow of poverty.” However, this is, of course, only true if the priest in the story had been a member of a Religious Order, Congregation or Society: secular (diocesan) priests don’t take a vow of poverty.
Thus the strange case of Fr. George E. Maj, S.A.C., a Pallotine priest, aged 85, who collects not only a Social Security check, but due to his service as a military chaplain, a U.S. Army pension, too. Since Fr. Maj (pronounced “MY”) has almost no expenses—he was born and lived for years in Poland in a Pallotine Community before coming to United States and living in common at the beautiful and bucolic Infant Jesus Shrine in North Tonawanda, New York—and a dual income via these pensions, he has been able to save a great deal of money. Estimates place the total amount of his savings between $200,000 and $450,000.
The oddity here is that, very late in life, Fr. Maj decided to draw up a new will—at the law office of one Ralph C. Lorigo, esq.—and leave his money, or at least a great deal of it, to a certain Andrzej and Renata Borusowski of West Seneca, New York, Polish-Americans whom Fr. Maj had befriended. Naturally, Fr. Maj’s superior, Fr. John Poseiewala, S.A.C, at The Infant Jesus Shrine forbade such a transfer of funds, seeing Fr. Maj’s savings as Pallotine savings—and not eligible for personal gifts.
Unfortunately the story, which first broke in The Buffalo News by reporter Dan Herbeck in 2013, brought out the worst in almost everyone: The Borusowski’s lawyer, Ralph C. Lorigo, accused Fr. Maj’s superiors of taking Maj’s money at will and of actually physically abusing him while living at The Shrine. In turn, the superior, Fr. John Posiewala, who has lived with Fr. Maj for years, is his health-care proxy, and has cared for the old priest as dementia and old-age set in, claimed that the Pallotines (The Society of the Catholic Apostolate) are legally entitled to any and all of Fr. Maj’s money—and accused the Borusowkis and their lawyer of taking advantage of the elderly priest’s dotage. This is based on the fact that Fr. Maj had both taken a Solemn Promise (though, significantly per canon law, not “vow”) of poverty (hence his property was communal property of the Pallotines), and that when he moved to the United States he drew up a new last will and testament according to New York State law and Canon law.
Due to Fr. Maj’s early signs of dementia, he had not been allowed to say Holy Mass at the Infant Jesus Shrine, as he was wont to forget the prayers—a difficult blow to any priest, but especially one who had spent his life in service to not only his Church but his country. However the attorney for the Borusowskis painted this as Fr. Maj being “punished” by his superiors for his not handing over his money to The Society.
So I went to see for myself. Since I knew Fr. Maj could no longer say Mass I asked if he could hear my confession. His superior, Fr. John, agreed, if a bit grudgingly, and Fr. Maj confessed me. It should be noted that Fr. Maj’s first language is Polish, and his hearing isn’t what it used to be. Still, he seemed to follow what I was saying and was able to grant absolution more or less according to the formula. Yet to tell the truth, he wasn’t completely “all there” and as soon as I was done with The Sacrament of Penance, Fr. Maj began to complain to me (a man he had never met before) that he was not allowed to say Mass—this upset him very, very much—and asked me to pray for him.
Flash forward to 2016: after a court investigation based on the fact that he may be a legally incapacitated person—known as an “article 81 proceeding”—Fr. Maj is now being cared for at the local V.A. hospital, as he is entitled to full military benefits, having served his adoptive country as a military chaplain. The court case was generally closed to the public and most of the court records are sealed in Niagara County Court, which is pro forma per an Article 81 hearing. Judge Matthew J. Murphy III removed Mr. Lorigo as Fr. Maj’s lawyer—an unusual situation—and named attorney David J. Mansour as the court-appointed guardian for “Fr. Maj’s person and property”. I recently spoke with Mr. Mansour at length and he noted that:
“This is a case in which the system actually worked to everyone’s benefit. Fr. Maj’s assets are protected [meaning that until his death, neither the Pallotines nor the Borusowskis can touch Fr. Maj’s money]. Further, we want Fr. Maj to maintain as much autonomy as possible and he is able to do that at the V.A. facility.” Mr. Mansour also remarked that as guardian he himself cannot gift or lend the money that Fr. Maj has saved: “At the end of the year I submit an accounting of Fr. Maj’s estate to the Niagara County clerk’s office and it is filed with the court. Fr. Maj is safe with the V.A. and his money is safe with me. The checks and balances make sure of that.”
Mr. Mansour would not comment on how much money Fr. Maj’s estate is worth.
Mr. Lorigo’s office did not return any of my phone calls or emails.
This might be the relatively happy end to a somewhat unseemly tale. However, when all of this is said, many more questions are raised that are still not answered. Namely: can an agreement a priest makes in a foreign country (Poland) where he is ordained and incardinated into a Religious Society be enforced in another country where that same priest has his quasi-domicile and has served in the military—even if that agreement is amended according to State law? Can a Religious priest change his personal will to donate some, if not all, of the monies he has made to anyone other than his Order, Society, or Congregation?
One canon lawyer (a Religious and Abbot), commented on this case in general saying:
Normally a person in perpetual vows or promises, while retaining ownership, usually gives administration over to someone else so they are not consumed with business as they pray and minister. That is not unlike what our Order does with someone in temporary vows. They usually have a parent or sibling watch over their “material.” If they take solemn vows, then they sign it over to the Order or give it to whomever they want. At that point they no longer own or administer anything. Most states, in my experience, honor your own law if you follow it.
Another Religious canon lawyer responded that “The solemn vows or promises made to an Order or Society or Congregation transcend national boundaries.” Thus it doesn’t (or shouldn’t matter where Fr. Maj made his vows, especially his vow of poverty, it matters that he made it with the full consent of his free-will.
Yet another canon lawyer questioned why the Pallotines ever allowed Fr. Maj to save such a large amount of money into a personal savings account. “This seems to fly in the face of the very spirit of the vow or promise of ‘poverty’,” commented one Franciscan attorney. He noted that, “However, the charters or constitutions of the newer Orders and Societies [such as the Pallotines] allow for greater elasticity and personal indulgence than the older Congregations [e.g. The Franiscans, Dominicans, Benedictines and Carmelites].”
As for a Religious changing one’s will: while that may be allowed under civil law, according to canonists, it’s a question for the Constitutions of the Pallotines in particular in this case. Again, it would seem that the spirit of the law, namely, that the vow or promise of poverty would control—and that individual monies belong to the Order, Society or Congregation.
Still, some civil lawyers, who have asked to remain anonymous, said this may be a case of Contract law more than Probate law: namely, Fr. Maj had entered into a contract with the Pallotines, and that by writing a new will he broke that contract.
Another, dissenting legal opinion from a civil attorney was that Fr. Maj was free to write a new will at any time—“A will can be replaced and often is”. Further, “If this case, once Fr. Maj dies, goes to court, the law of the land will trump canon law.”
One of Fr. Maj’s confreres at the Infant Shrine, Fr. Seweryn Koszyk, S.A.C., clarified that “We [Pallotines] take solemn promises not solemn vows—but the spirit of promises is the same as that of vows.” He is one of three Polish priests stationed at The Shrine, and all of them do parish work for the Diocese of Buffalo as well. “All of us have written last wills and testaments since coming to America,” Fr. Koszyk noted “and everything goes to our Society. However, what [Fr. Maj] wrote in his ‘new’ will—nobody knows what’s in that.” Fr. Koszyk mentioned that the Superior, Fr. John, is presently away and unavailable for comment.
Further, Fr. Maj’s case—which seems to have had a happy stop-gap ending for time-being (though one can imagine things will devolve into a probate court-case nightmare again between the Pallotine Fathers and the Borusowski family once Fr. Maj dies)—shows, in microcosm, what may be happening to smaller Religious Orders and Societies who can no longer rely on an influx of younger vocations to adequately care for the aged among them. While monastic Orders (Benedictines, Trappists, Cisterciscians) and Clerics and Canons Regular (Norbertines, Barnabites, Adorno fathers) generally have a place and a space–such as an infirmary—to care for their aged members, one has to wonder about the much smaller orders (Edmundites, Trinitarians, Croziers, let alone the precipitous decline in nearly all women’s religious orders) that simply do not have the space nor the postulants or the money to care for Religious who, like most of the rest of the population, are living longer and longer lives, thereby needing long-term care. This is, of course, expensive. In the Diocese of Buffalo alone (to take just one example) Orders like the Franciscans of Stella Niagara Education Park in Lewiston, NY and Sisters of St. Mary of Namur in Buffalo, and the Vincentians of Niagara University have taken to selling off huge parcels of land to off-set the cost not only of running their institutions of higher learning but to care for the ill and infirm.
Finally, and on a separate note, this case blurs the civil laws with canon law. One attorney surmised and predicted, “You know who will be squarely in corner of the Pallotines and canon law—if this becomes a case of a contract enforceable based on canon rather than civil law? Radical Muslims. The reason for this? If The State shows that it recognizes The Church’s Canon Law, which after all is the law of another sovereign state—the Holy See—in its [The State’s] own courts, then Muslims who want Sharia law recognized will argue precedence based on a case like this when their law butts heads with civil law.”
Still, despite what might happen in the future, as Mr. Mansour rightly says, this story, has a happy outcome—at least for now.
Editor’s note: The image above, depicting St. Lawrence distributing alms, was painted by Fra Angelico in 1447.