History of the North American Province of the Society of Christ

 Part I  Part II  Part III

Fr. Stanislaw Hajkowski S.Chr.

The Period Preceding the Founding of the Vice-Province 

The first Society of Christ Father to land on North American soil was Fr. Jan Otlowski. His task, upon arriving in the United States on 18 September 1957, was to explore the possibilities of the Society carrying out missionary work on the continent. In December of 1957, Cardinal Caroll placed him in charge of the Polish Catholic Mission in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. In 1960, Otlowski was joined by another member of the Society, Brother Marian Pankanin, who became his confrere’s organist.

In the years following, several more members of the Congregation were gradually added to the group. These included Frs. Jozef Mikolajewski, Jozef Smyczyk, Andrzej Woznicki and Brother Franciszek Dabrowski. Others arrived with each succeeding year. For the most part, they found work as assistant pastors or chaplains in Polish immigrant parishes. Prominent among these was Fr. Kazimierz Swietlinski, S.Chr., who – like Fr. Otlowski in Canada – became a pioneer of the Society’s missionary efforts in the United States. In September of 1963 be began work in Detroit, Michigan. By the end of 1965, still more priests had arrived: Wojciech Kania, Stefan Kaczmarek, Konrad Urbanowski, Arkadiusz Boryczka and Edmund Gagajek.

Unfamiliarity with the milieu, language difficulties, and great distances separating the Society members gave rise to hardships, particularly in the area of religious life. For obvious reasons, the rule of community life would not work. Both the superiors in Poland and the Society members working in the field in the United States and Canada realized that a well-organized province and a high standard of religious life were essential if the Order’s mission was to be successfully carried out and developed.

Anticipating the above-named difficulties, the Superior General, Fr. Ignacy Posadzy, appointed Fr. Jan Otlowski regional superior. so doing, he was putting into effect the regulations, as set down by the Founder, whose definition of the role of district superior applied to overseas as well. To facilitate contact with home headquarters, the position was later placed under the After August of 1956, when the possibility of overseas departures was opened up, the number of Society members on the North American continent began to increase steadily. By 1966 they already numbered 12 members. This made efforts easier to establish a religious house. Bishop Woznicki pledged to have such a house built in his diocese on the condition that he was sent two priests with a good command of English. In 1965, responding to this pledge, the Society dispatched Fr. Kazimierz Swietlinski to Bay City, to assist at St. Hyacinth’s Church in the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan.

The plan to found a house in this diocese, however, was not realized. In view of this and the considerable opportunities for pastoral work opening up for the Society in the Diocese of Providence in Rhode Island, another effort was made to realize this plan there. This led to an agreement arrived at by the local chancery and Fr. Wojciech Kania, S.Chr., who was appointed regional superior on October 4, 1966. Accordingly, the Society agreed to assign three priests, who would provide retreats and missions in Polish parishes in Providence and neighboring dioceses. In return, the chancery granted permission for the founding of a religious house.

In March of 1967, a building was purchased for this purpose in the parish of St. Casimir’s in Warren. On July 17, 1967, the Vicar General for Overseas Affairs, Fr. Franciszek Okroy, S.Chr. founded a religious house, thanks to permission granted earlier by the diocesan ordinary, Bishop Russell J. McVinney. The building was registered under the name Society of Christ Mission House.

The Period of the Vice-Province

Now that the Society owned a canonically established religious house on the continent, and its members were steadily increasing in numbers, a need was seen to replace the role of the regional superior with a higher organizational structure, which would facilitate the functioning of the fledgling missionary group. The Fourth General Council of the Society of provided the basis for this change. It convened in the summer of 1968. One of its chief resolutions concerned the division of the Congregation into vice provinces. As a result, changes were introduced to the 1932 Statute touching territories, or rather regions which were to encompass a given number of pastoral posts abroad.

Thus 1968 marked the inauguration of the North-American Vice-Province. At its head, appointed on August 6 of the following year, was Fr. Wojciech Kania. Assisting him were Deputy Vice-Provincial Fr. Jozef Smyczek and Treasurer Fr. Konrad Urbanowski. Its headquarters was the religious house in Warren. At this time, the Vice-Province numbered 16 priests and 2 religious brothers.

After Fr. Kania’s election as Superior General in 1970, Fr. Franciszek Okroy became Vice-Provincial on April 28 of the same year. He held the post for three years, during which time several more positions for assistant pastors were filled. The growing vice-province required its priests to minister to large concentrations of Poles, and this in turn enabled them to be based in greater numbers at a single location. Detroit, Michigan, presented the best opportunities for developing such activity. These opportunities were considerably more increased with the appointment, in 1974, of Polish-American Arthur Krawczak as auxiliary bishop of Detroit. Unlike many American bishops, who even sought to close ethnic parishes, Bishop Krawczak was very interested in expanding Polish pastoral care within the Diocese of Detroit. Although the Society Fathers had already been active here for several years, Fr. Wladyslaw Gowin, S.Chr., who was appointed the new Vice-Provincial on May 8, 1973, resolved to raise this activity to an even higher level.

To this end, and with the purpose of transferring the vice-province’s headquarters, he undertook to establish a second religious house in Detroit. On July 31, 1974, consent was secured from the archdiocese ordinary, Cardinal John Dearden. A building was leased in the parish of the Resurrection. On August 18, 1974, the Superior General agreed to the transfer of the vice-province headquarters to Detroit. This occurred on September 19, 1974 year. Two years later, another location had to be found, as the parish council refused to renew the Society’s lease.

The lack of a permanent headquarters proved to be an obstacle to the smooth running of the newly formed vice-province. Not only did it make communication with individual members of the Congregation difficult, but it also hindered plans for the carrying out of its mission among its Polish-speaking flock. Wishing to establish a proper base and to build a larger religious center close to the vice-provincial headquarters, the Society purchased its own building in Sterling Heights near Detroit. The choice of this site was dictated by the current migration trend of the Polish community, which was moving away from the city center to the area of Sterling Heights. The prospects of growth for this location looked promising. The Society of Christ’s religious house was finally opened at its new site on January 25, 1977.

Like every religious order, the Society sought to establish a religious house wherever the need arose. The settling of the matter of the vice-provincial headquarters made satisfying such needs possible. In 1976, the vice-province numbered 24 priests and one brother. These were employed at 20 posts, serving 47 thousand of the faithful. According to the Directory of the Society of Christ, pastoral posts assumed and operated by priests of this Congregation were to be considered as religious houses when so agreed to by the superior in charge and the local ordinary.

The first such house was founded in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. It served as the first stopping point for Society members arriving from Poland. Until 1966 it was also the regional superior’s headquarters. In 1976, it was formally handed over to the Society of Christ. A second religious house was founded in 1973 in Los Angeles, California, USA. Considering its central location in the western part of this country, it played a very important role, providing support to the priests and brothers stationed in California. The house closest to the vice-provincial headquarters was in Wyandotte. By agreement, it was taken on for a period of three years in 1977. The arrangement could be extended through subsequent agreements.

Thus, a labor of many years, undertaken by a small yet energetic group of Society members, who managed at once to maintain themselves in a foreign land, develop a new mission, and minister to an ever-increasing Polish-speaking community, began to show itself and be noticed. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, later to become Pope John Paul II, was one of the first to gauge the effects of this labor. His first personal encounter with the activity of the Society of Christ in North America occurred during his 1969 tour of Canada, when he visited the Congregation’s center in Calgary. In 1976, while heading the Polish delegation at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, he had a second opportunity to appraise the work of the Society. Devoting much time to familiarizing himself with the life of the Polish-American community, Cardinal Wojtyla then visited the Society’s parish in Los Angeles and its mission in San Francisco. He was also highly instrumental in opening and entrusting to the Congregation the Pastoral Mission at Silver Spring, in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.

For the above-stated reasons, Cardinal Wojtyla’s opinion of the Society, as expressed in a letter to Vice-Provincial Fr. Wladyslaw Gowin, dated September 1976, carried considerable weight: “My sincere thanks to you and, through you, all the Society of Christ Fathers whom I met during my visit to the United States, and who labor so beautifully and effectively among the Polish community. In particular, I thank those in Los Angeles and San Francisco for the kindness they extended to me. Wishing you all God’s blessings in your future endeavors, I enclose my fraternal greetings in Christ the Lord.”

No less weighty were the words of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Protector of Polonia Overseas and Primate of Poland. More than once he expressed his regard for the work of the Society of Christ Fathers on the North American continent. Proof of this can be found in his letters to the Vice-Provincial. One of these, dated May 19, 1976, makes reference to the successful opening of the Polish Pastoral Mission in San Francisco. In the future it would serve as shining example for handling similar matters in other dioceses: „I thank you so much for the precious and joyous news about life in the Polish-American and Canadian communities, and especially for your successful handling of the matter concerning the Polish Mission in San Francisco. Your ardent efforts in favor of broadening the work of the Society in those lands cause me great delight, as do the respect and the gratitude expressed toward your ardent Society of Christ confreres by our countrymen in the western hemisphere.” Similar sentiments regarding the Society’s missionary work in North America were expressed by the Primate’s delegates for Polish affairs overseas, Bishops Rubin and Szczepan Wesoly.

Further evidence of the vice-province’s increased importance is seen in the fact that in 1977 Vice-Provincial Wladyslaw Gowin was chosen to chair the Conference of Superiors of Polish Men’s Religious Orders Working in the United States and Canada.

The Founding and Growth of the Province

The achievements of this young organizational unit of the Society of Christ laid the groundwork for turning it into a full-fledged province. On February 2, 1978, by the terms of an authorization granted by rescript entitled Ad instituenda experimenta, (June 4, 1970), and in the spirit of the resolutions of the Fourth General Council, the Superior General of the Society of Christ, Fr. Czeslaw Kaminski, formally founded the Province of North America. It took for its patroness Our Lady Queen of Polonia Overseas. To it belong all members of the Society of Christ who work and reside within the territory of the United States and Canada. This action concluded the legal process of forming this administrative unit of the Order. At the same time it opened up possibilities for further, still more effective activity. The Province was not slow in seizing these opportunities, for already by the following year it had established a new religious house in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.

An important event for the young Province, as indeed for the whole Society, was Vice-Provincial Gowin’s nomination as the Polish Episcopate’s representative to the Conference of Bishops of the United States of America. His task was to represent Polish pastoral concerns in that country. At the same time he joined the United States Episcopal Commission for Ministry to Migrants, headed by Fr. Gracida of Florida. Making up this commission were seven bishops, two laymen, and a representative from Vietnam, Italy, and - as of 1979 – Poland as well.

 Part I  Part II  Part III

Fr. Stanislaw Hajkowski S.Chr.

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