A Brief History of Polish Pastoral Care in the United States and Canada

Fr. Bernard Kołodziej S.Chr., Ph.D.

In 1932, the then Primate of Poland, Cardinal August Hlond, founded the Society of Christ with the aim of providing Polish emigrants with pastoral care and every possible additional assistance. This was the culmination of many years of efforts by the Polish episcopate to assure the Polish emigrating masses of a constant flow of Polish priests.

Before this, the problem of securing Polish priests for the great number of Poles living overseas had been raised in every session of the episcopate since the rebirth of Poland following World War I. From the 1920s on, there was also much preoccupation with the question of providing a constant supply of priests to the most numerous group (consisting of several millions) of Polish emigrants – the group which settled in the United States.

The beginnings of Polish pastoral care in the United States date back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Only in rare instances did a Polish priest accompany groups of Poles emigrating abroad. The first was a group of Poles from Upper Silesia which settled in Texas in the mid-nineteenth century. The venture was organized by Franciscan Father Leopold Moczygemba. The Silesian settlers founded farming colonies, Polish schools and parishes – the first in the United States – and built churches. The first such colony was the Panna Maria (Our Lady’s) Settlement.

The next religious order to minister to Polish souls in the USA were the Resurrectionist Fathers. They also began in the Polish colonies of Texas, where they provided care in the parishes or as itinerant priests traveling to various Polish centers and settlements. The Resurrectionists’ main area of activity was the largest Polish center in America – Chicago – where they established numerous parishes and acquitted themselves as builders of magnificent churches. The first priest there was Fr. Adolf Bakanowski, who had earlier founded the Texan missions. The first church built by Poles in Chicago was St. Stanislas Kostka Church. Soon after, a series of magnificent new churches began appearing: Holy Trinity Church (known as Trojcowo), followed by St. Stanislas’, St. Hedwig’s, St. John Cantius’, St. Hyacinth’s, and Our Lady’s. Next to each church stood a Polish school, and often a convent as well. The Resurrectionists also organized a Polish-language press, producing serial publications such as Pielgrzym, Wiara i Ojczyzna, Kropidło, Polacy w Chicago, Dziennik Chicagowski, and others. Thanks to the Resurrectionists, the Polish parishes formed numerous religious associations, choirs and theatrical groups. The associations included the Polish League, the Polish Roman Catholic Union, and the Queen of Poland Patriotic Organization. These groups embraced a large portion of the Polish-American community. The contribution of the priests of this order to the welfare of Poles in America was enormous and is not easy to appraise. By the end of the nineteenth century there were 55 Resurrectionists working in Chicago alone.

By century’s end, when Poles could freely emigrate to the USA, the number of Poles coming to this country was rising steadily. As a result, other Polish priests, both diocesan and religious (missionaries, Salesians, Marists, Jesuits, Pallottines, Paulists, Oblates, Missionaries of La Salette) arrived to work beside the Resurrectionists and Franciscans. They began to establish numerous new Polish parishes throughout the United States.

The growing number of Poles and the need to establish new Polish parishes gave rise to a plan to found a Polish religious seminary in the USA. In this connection, Fr. Leopold Moczygemba had already sought and received the permission of Pope Leo XIII in 1879; however the plan was not realized. A few years later, in 1884, upon securing the permission of the ordinary, Fr. Jozef Dabrowski founded a Polish seminary in the Diocese of Detroit. The following year saw the dedication of the cornerstone of the seminary building. In 1886, the seminary was moved to Orchard Lake, Michigan. Its task was to train men raised in Polish families to serve as priests in the Polish American communities.

Of invaluable service to Polish parish life in America were the religious sisters, in particular the Felicians, the Poor Clares, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and the Sisters of the Order of the Holy Family of Nazareth. They ran schools, kindergartens, day-nurseries, cared for the elderly and needy, worked in parish offices, and maintained the churches. In 1900 they were joined by the Resurrectionist Sisters, who took charge of Our Lady’s and St. Casimir’s parishes (so-called Marianowo and Kazimierzowo) in Chicago.

Besides their pastoral work, Polish priests took active part in the organization of Polish immigrant groups. Numerous Polish organizations arose, in which the situation of Polish immigrants and other problems were discussed. The already-mentioned Polish Roman Catholic Union served such a role. Organizations of Polish priests were formed in order to raise the standing of the Polish clergy in the American Church. Among these were the Association of Priests in Minnesota, the Union of Priests in Chicago, the Association of Seminary Alumni Priests in Detroit, and the All-American Association of Secular Priests (formed in 1902).

At each session of the community councils, Polish religious comprised almost one third of the participants. The problem of establishing a Polish Catholic hierarchy in the United States was always an item on the agenda. Separatist views vied with pro-American ones. It was the same at the Polish Catholic Congresses, the first of which was convened in Buffalo in September of 1896.

All these efforts to secure Polish bishops finally bore fruit. First, the Apostolic See dispatched a special papal representative, Archbishop Albin Symon, to study the situation of the Poles in the United States. Archbishop Symon arrived in America in 1906, and visited some 160 Polish parishes over a period of four months. During this time, he delivered over 350 sermons to hundreds of thousands of Poles, and also administered the Sacrament of Confirmation. This first Polish bishop on American soil was everywhere greeted enthusiastically by the disparate Polish groups, while the Polish press ran reconciliatory articles.

Two years later, Polish America received its first bishop. He was Pawel Piotr Rhode, formerly pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Chicago. Thus, the ardent wishes of Polish Americans were fulfilled. In 1912, wishing to tighten the bonds between Polish priests in the United States, Bishop Rhode convened the first Congress of Polish Priests in Detroit. Almost three hundred Polish priests took part in it. Among other resolutions, the congress voted in favor of summer courses in History and Polish language for the religious sisters teaching in Polish schools. In 1913, Polish America secured its second Polish bishop. He was Edward Kozlowski, a tireless worker on behalf of the Polish community. Unfortunately, exhausted by his many years of hard work, Bishop Kozlowski died on August 7, 1915. After the war, the number of bishops of Polish origin began growing steadily. At present there are more than forty of them.

During the interwar years, Polish American parishes were also visited by bishops from Poland. In 1926, Bishops Stanislaw Lukomski, T. Kubina, and H. Przezdziecki attended the Eucharistic Congress in Chicago, after which they paid visits to Polish centers. In 1935, Bishop Jozef Gawlina came as Primate August Hlond’s representative to celebrate Orchard Lake Seminary’s fiftieth anniversary. He also went on to visit Polish parishes.

By the early 1940s, there were 831 Polish parishes within the 15 archdioceses and 50 dioceses of the United States. These parishes were run by 1503 Polish priests, responsible for 553 elementary schools employing 4822 Polish teachers. The Polish school program embraced 162,513 children. Most of the teachers were nuns. In providing their charges with pastoral care, priests of religious orders worked alongside diocesan priests, and all were ardently assisted by religious sisters. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Polish American community owes its resilience and organic structure to the Polish Catholic parishes of the USA.

Pastoral care in Canada dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. Initially, Polish settlers made use of already-existing Catholic parishes run by French- and English-speaking priests. They prevailed on both government and ecclesiastical authorities to provide them with Polish priests, who, arriving successively in Canada, would assume care of Polish souls.

The Oblate Fathers, who began their activity in this country in 1841, played a significant role in the organization of pastoral care in Canada. This included care of Polish souls. The Oblates were the first to blaze pastoral trails in Canada, from Manitoba west as far as to Alberta. The first Polish Oblate to work with Polish immigrants was Fr. Wojciech Kulawy, who came to Winnipeg in 1898. He and his brother Jan were pioneers of Polish pastoral care in the Province of Manitoba. In Winnipeg they cared for souls of many nationalities at Holy Ghost Church, soon to become a Polish parish. Apart from assuming charge of parishes, the Oblates were tireless in providing care as itinerant priests. In this way, they were able to reach even the smallest Polish centers. In 1904, the Oblates began publishing Canada’s first Polish Catholic weekly, entitled Canadian Voice, which in 1908 was renamed to Catholic Gazette.

Poles from Great Poland, who began settling in the town of Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener) in 1862, adopted a local old schoolhouse as a chapel. Here they would gather to pray. Later, a Polish priest from the United States came to this school-cum-chapel to say Holy Mass. After this, the Poles began using a church serving German immigrants. Finally, in 1911, they built their own church. One of the first Canadian parishes to be taken charge of by a Polish priest was the parish in Wilno, Ontario. Initially, the place settled by Polish Kaszubs was called Hagarty. There, in 1875, Fr. Jozef Specht, who arrived from Pomerania, built a chapel dedicated to St. Stanislas Kostka. That same year, the Bishop of Ottawa accorded the community parish status, and consecrated a church. The date is considered to mark the birth of the first Polish parish in Canada. In 1880, Fr. Ludwik Dembowski took charge of the parish and renamed the place Wilno.

The first Polish Resurrectionists to provide pastoral care in Canada were Fr. Eugeniusz Fucken and Deacon Edward Glowacki. In 1857, they began serving three parishes in the Diocese of Hamilton, Ontario, where among the settlers there were also Poles. In 1911, they founded St. Stanislas Kostka Parish, the first Polish parish in Hamilton. Soon they broadened their sphere of activity to include five parishes and 10 mission churches. Polish schools and administrative bodies arose around the parishes. In 1915, Fr. Franciszek Pyznar inaugurated the activity of Polish Franciscans in Canada by replacing a French-speaking priest as pastor of a Polish parish in Montreal.

In 1910, Fr. Jozef Weber, a Resurrectionist working in the United States (before this, he had been auxiliary bishop of Lwow) visited the Polish parishes in Canada. As in America, Polish religious sisters also assisted the priests in their care of Polish souls. The first of these were the Benedictine nuns, who came to Manitoba in 1904.

During the interwar years, Canada was one of the few countries to accept immigrants. Poles emigrated there too, although often their original intention was to go on to the USA. In this period about 140 thousand Poles settled in Canada. Although the structures of the Catholic Church were still organized there along French lines, pastoral care along national lines also existed.

Still other religious congregations served Polish immigrant communities in the period between the wars. One of these were the Missionaries of La Salette, who arrived in 1922, and after taking their first post in Cedoux, Saskatchewan, went on to accept others in the Province of Manitoba. Another congregation were the Conventual Franciscans, who began their activity in 1930.

In 1928, the Polish Primate, Cardinal A. Hlond, dispatched Salesian Father Ludwik Gostylla to Canada. The aim of his mission was to study the pastoral situation of Poles in Canada and to settle certain items of ecclesiastical business. Upon returning home after spending a year in Canada, he claimed that his mission had been a success.

The one member of the Polish hierarchy to visit Poles in Canada during the interwar years was Field Bishop Jozef Gawlina. He visited the Polish communities of Toronto and Hamilton in 1935, while on a tour of the United States.

An indispensable resource on the history of Polish-Canadian parishes and their Polish pastors is a work put out by the Polonia and Polish Pastoral Care Research Institute of the Catholic University of Lublin (KUL). The collective work contains information on the founding of parishes, religious life, charitable and cultural activities. It also gives profiles on Polish priests working in a given period.

After WWII, Canada accepted another wave of immigrants – including Poles – from Europe. Another wave followed in 1981, with the passing of martial law in Poland.

More diocesan priests and priests from religious communities joined in the task of ministering to the Polish community. The first Society of Christ Father to come to care for Polish souls in North America arrived in Canada first. It was from here that the pastoral activity of the Society began to expand throughout the continent.

The political situation in the immediate postwar period made it difficult for priests to leave Poland to undertake work overseas. The resulting shortage of priests in Canada was saved by priests liberated from German concentration camps and those who had been military chaplains. It was not until the “Gomulka Thaw” in 1956 that priests were once again allowed to leave the country in order to care for the Polish Diaspora overseas. It was then that the Society of Christ Fathers joined in the task ministering to the Polish community in North America. They do so in accordance with the aims and tasks outlined by the Society’s Founder, Primate of Poland, Cardinal August Hlond.

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