Immigrant Church

Research History Immigrant Church

History & Culture

The Polish Immigrant and the Catholic Church in America

Rev. M. J. Madaj


Polish folk immigration to the United States began in 1854.1 The mass immigration began in 1870 - after the Franco-Prussian war.2 Polish colonies took definite root in Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Buffalo, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New York City, and in the vicinity of St. Louis.3 The panic of 1873 caused a decrease in the immigration. However, in 1881 more people began to arrive; entire families came here at the invitation of their relatives and friends who preceded them.4


Estimates regarding the number of the Poles that arrived in the United States up to 1900 show hardly any uniformity. The estimate varies with almost every author. Nor are the official statistics of the United States fully reliable. One author gives this as the reason: " The immigrant Poles were often not classified as Poles but as Russians, Germans, or Austrians, depending on which part of Europe they had left and what country's passport they carried.  Poles, Polish Jews, and Lithuanians were indiscriminately confused."5


According to one writer in 1870, there were fifty thousand Poles in ten parishes with twenty-five priests.6 Up to 1875 there was a great influx of Poles, for their number rose to an estimated 200,000 persons settled in 300 colonies with fifty parishes.7 And in 1892 there were estimated [to be] more than 100,000 Poles in Chicago alone.8


After the founding of Panna Maria in Texas in 1854, other settlements followed. At first their rise was slow and scattered. With the increased immigration in the 1880's, new colonies were rapidly established. In 1900 the number of Polish settlements in the United States grew to 800. The Polish population was concentrated principally in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and New York.9


Some idea of the manner in which the different colonies arose can be gathered from several examples chosen at random. In 1854 at the suggestion of Father Leopold Moczygemba O.M.C., 100 families numbering about 800 people left Prussian Poland to establish Panna Maria in Texas.10 From this first permanent Polish colony, others took rise in the immediate vicinity; these were Martinez, Bandera, and Meyersville.11 In 1876 the Polish Roman Catholic Union assembled in convention at Chicago voted to sponsor a Polish colony in Nebraska. Lands were bought from the Burlington Land Office in Howard and Sherman counties. Rev Anthony Klawiter went with the first group and settled at New Posen.12 But it was not until 1884 when Fr. Wladyslaw Sebastyanski S.J. took charge of the parish,13 that the colony developed and became the center from which other Polish communities took rise in Nebraska.14


Other colonies were not sponsored by churchmen or by a church society. They arose spontaneously, because opportunity invited Polish immigrants to them. New York had enough such Poles to organize a Polish parish in 1872.15 The Polish colony in Chicago grew to 400 families in 1869, when St. Stanislaus Kostka parish was organized.16 The first Poles came to Detroit attracted by the possibilities of work and at the suggestion of friends;17 their first parish was St. Albertus, founded in 1871.18 By 1885, the Polish community with a parish of its own in Polonia, Wisconsin, was already well established.19 Even in far-off Minnesota there was a Polish community, as is indicated by a letter of the pastor, Rev. H. Cichocki, to the Missye Katolickie, a monthly published in Poland.20


Whenever and wherever a fairly large group of Poles settled, their first concern was a church. They were prepared to make considerable sacrifices to finance their parochial institutions.21 Until they put up their own church and got a Polish priest, the Poles usually worshipped in German language parishes. Such was the case in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania,22 in Detroit,23 in Lemont, Illinois,24 and in New York.25


The parishes were often started on the initiative of the people. The more enterprising in the group organized a committee to gather funds for the new parish. Having taken the initial steps, they next petitioned the local bishop for a Polish priest. The bishop then assigned a pastor, if a Polish priest was available. The pastor with the committee then formally organized the new parish and built a church.26

The more usual manner of founding a Polish parish was through societies organized for that purpose. In New York City the Polish organizations formed a society in the summer of 1783 for the express purpose of gathering funds for a parish.27 In Detroit the nucleus of the first Polish parish was the St. Stanislaus Kostka society; the same was true of Wyandotte, Michigan.28 Father W. Sebastyanski S.J. followed a similar procedure in his Polish mission at New Posen, Nebraska.29


In organizing a parish there were many difficulties. The two greatest were lack of finances and absence of Polish priests; the former were difficult to get, the latter well nigh impossible.30 The money was almost always supplied by the people of the rising parish, as in the case of New Posen, Nebraska, where the new church and rectory became possible through the initiative and generosity of the people themselves. Sometimes the people received aid from Poland through the St. Francis Xavier Society for the propagation of the Faith.31 The priests were supplied largely by the Polish Seminary at Detroit, but this was only some years after 1887.


The lack of priests was felt all the more since the immigrants depended largely upon the parish priest for many things. Immediately upon his arrival in a Polish community, the burden of leadership fell upon him. The early Polish priests, all immigrants themselves, were energetic and heroic men. They had to be prepared to suffer physical and mental hardships. The conditions seemed so bad here, that the priests in Poland discouraged any hardy candidate about to venture to America; they advised him rather to go to the Zulus or some other missions.32


Henryk Sienkiewicz, after his visit to the United States in 1878, wrote that the people considered the priest their adviser, teacher, and leader.33 The priest was the leader in many ways: he organized societies and stressed the importance of loyalty to the United States. It was through his aid that many immigrants improved their lot and station.34 On the advice of the Polish priests, the Poles took a more active part in American life.35


The parish church was usually the centralizing power in a Polish community; the colony grew around it and was stimulated by it.36 The parish was the most important institution and often the first one to be established; it dominated the life of the colony.37 "The parish, therefore, was the hub around which the life of the Pole revolved. It satisfied his spiritual needs and at the same time fostered patriotic and church societies which played an important part in the life of the early Polish pioneer."38 The parish church and the Polish priests preserved the Polish language, culture, and customs of the immigrants and made them flourish here.39 The established Polish parishes took care of about two-thirds of the Polish immigrant Catholics; the other third attended other Catholic churches or none at all.40 The number of Polish Catholics in the United States, in 1900 was about two million according to Father Kruszka's estimate.41


The influence of the church affected the Pole's social life. Organizations and societies with strong church ties flourished best; many of these were formed between 1860 and 1900.42 The testimony of two Poles who visited the United States during this period states that organizations and societies affiliated with the church were most numerous among the Polish immigrants.43 Although there were many organizations of local character, there were also some that had a national membership. The two most important were the Polish Roman Catholic Union organized in 187344 and the Polish National Alliance founded in 1879.45


The Polish immigrants arrived in this country with a deep religious fervor and with the habit of praising God in the vernacular.46 Much to their disappointment they could not do this satisfactorily in the new country, where there were no Polish parishes, no Polish schools, and hardly any Polish priests. Lacking a knowledge of English, the Polish-speaking immigrants at first found themselves at a religious as well as at a social disadvantage. They were ill at ease in the non-Polish churches they sometimes attended. Not illogically, the fear developed among many of them that the immigrants would lose their faith unless ministration were supplied them in their ancestral language. This fear was shared by several members of the American Catholic hierarchy who, imbued with genuine missionary zeal, tried to supply the religious needs of the Polish immigrants by procuring Polish-speaking priests.


One of these zealous American bishops was Bishop C.M. Dubuis of the Galveston diocese in Texas, where Panna Maria was founded. The Resurrectionist Fathers came to America, at the explicit request of Bishop Dubuis. He entered into a contract with the Resurrectionist Superior on September 28, 1866.47 The agreement stipulated that the Resurrectionists would supply Polish missions there and some financial aid.48 In 1865 the bishops of Detroit and Alton (Illinois) also asked for Polish priests to serve the Poles under their jurisdiction.49


Bishop J.M. Henni of Milwaukee singled out Rev. J.M. Gartner, a German-Czech priest, to work among the neglected Poles, Czechs, and other Slavs in Wisconsin. This zealous priest founded a Mission Society for Slavs and built a church for the Slav missions in Milwaukee.50

In 1872 Bishop S. V. Ryan of Buffalo went to Rome in quest of a Polish priest for his diocese. He got Father John Pitass, who was then a theological student at the Gregorian University. The bishop ordained Father Pitass in Buffalo on June 7, 1873 and assigned him to organize the Polish parish of St. Stanislaus.51


After failing elsewhere to get adequate priests for the Slavic peoples in Nebraska, Bishop James O'Connor wrote to the Jesuit General at Rome. Receiving a favorable reply, he then settled the details with the Jesuit provincial in St. Louis. That is how Father W. Sebastyanski and other Polish Jesuits began to work in Nebraska.52


When the Poles in New York petitioned Cardinal John McCloskey for a parish of their own, he granted the request with his best wishes and later showed a paternal interest in the Polish congregation, especially when trouble divided its ranks.53


Father Joseph Dabrowski came to work among the Poles in the United States on December 31, 1869. He soon realized that to accomplish the tremendous task before him he needed Polish schools, religious teachers, and priests.54 Through his tireless efforts, the project of a seminary for Polish priest begun by Father Moczygemba O.M.C. was soon realized. Bishop C.H. Borgess of Detroit favored the project and helped the two initiators of the plan.55 He won the approval of other American bishops who also had Poles in their dioceses.56 Bishop Borgess opened the seminary on December 15, 1887.57 The seminary merited the continued approval of American bishops; in his letter of February 21, 1903 Bishop John S. Foley of Detroit praised the work of Father Dabrowski, declaring that it would be carried on according to the plan of its founder.58


Bishops further showed their solicitude for the Polish immigrants by the praises they showered upon Polish priests, religious communities and parishes. Archbishop James Gibbons of Baltimore was generous in his praise of Father P. Koncz, who generously sacrificed himself to work among his compatriots.59 At a confirmation in New Posen, Nebraska, in October of 1885, Bishop James O'Connor praised the Poles for their steadfastness in the faith, suggesting the introduction of Polish Sisters in the school.60 At the investiture of novices of the Sisters of Nazareth in Chicago in 1888, Archbishop P. Feehan expressed satisfaction with the work of the Sisters in Chicago.61


Bishop John L. Spalding of Peoria perhaps best summarized these sentiments when he said that the Polish people would play an important part in the history of the Catholic Church in America. He predicted a bright future for the Poles in this country, saying that the future held for them a second Polish history in America.62 His words were well-nigh prophetic, for the subsequent growth of Polish Catholicism in America justified their promise.


Such in briefest outline is one aspect of the fascinating story of the transplantation of the Polish Catholic and his church to America. Only the brighter and calmer portion of the tale has been told here-the portion which shows that the Polish immigrant himself did a lot to preserve his faith in America, aided by zealous American bishops and self-sacrificing Polish priests anxious to provide the necessary means of preservation to the fervently religious Polish settlers. The proper perspective in the study of this problem requires also the telling of the darker and more turbulent aspect of the transplantation-a story that may be told one day, when the necessary sources are made available.


1 Rev. E.J j. Dworaczyk, The First Polish Colonies of America in Texas. (San Antonio, Texas, 1936), VII (Preface); also Sister M. Remigia Napolska, Felician, O. S. F., "The Polish Immigrant in Detroit to 1914," Annals of the Polish Roman Catholic Union Archives And Museum. X, (Chicago, 1946), 23.
2 W. Kruszka, Historya Polska W Ameryce (History Of The Poles in America). (Milwaukee, 1905), I, 72.
3 Ibid., I, 72 74.
4 Gazeta Katolicka (The Catholic Gazette), (Chicago, February 3, 1881). 1.
5 E.J. Brown and G.M. Ridenour, Our Racial and National Minorities. (New York, 1939), 222.
6 Kruszka, op. cit., I, 76. In volume II, 6, Father Kruszka lists sixteen parishes.
7 Gazeta Polska Katolicka (The Polish Catholic Gazette), the file for 1875. Quoted by Kruszka, op. cit., I, 79.
8 E.H. Dunikowski, Wsród Polonii W Ameryce (Among The Poles In America). (Lwow, 1893), 60. The author calls Chicago the capital of the American Poles and states that St. Stanislaus Kostka parish has 40,000 parishioners.
9 Napolska, op. cit., 23.
10 Dworaczyk, op. cit., 23. Not all arrived at their destination; some died on the way because of hardships.
11 Ibid., 23.
Sister M. Aquinata Martin, O. P., The Catholic Church On The Nebraska Frontier (1854-885). (Washington, D.C., 1937), 166.
13 Missye Katolickie (Catholic Missions), (Krakow, 1884), 147.
14 Martin, op. cit., 169.
15 M. Haiman, Ksiega Pamiatkowa Zlotego Jubileuszu Osady Polskiej I Parafji Sw. Stanislawa B. i M. W Buffalo New York 1873-1923 (Golden Jubilee Book Of The Polish Community and St. Stanislaus B. and M. Parish In Buffalo, New York 1873-1923). (Buffalo, 1923), 348. Hereafter referred to as Ksiega Pamiatkowa.
16 Kruszka, op. cit., VIII, 134-138.
17 Napolska, op. cit. 25, (condensed in Polish American Studies, II [January-June, 1945]).
18 Napolska, op. cit., 96
19 Missye Katolickie, (Krakow, 1885), 224. The mission was preached by Father W. Sebastyanski, S.J.; it was well attended. There were numerous confessions. Several Polish priests assisted Father Sebastyanski.
20 Ibid., 249. Father Cichocki sent the letter from Alberta, Minnesota, on April 25, 1885.
21 Napolska, op. cit., 95.
22 Sister M. Accursia, Bern., O.S.F., "Polish Miners in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania", Polish-American Studies, IV (January-June, 1946), 7.
23 Napolska, op. cit., 96.
24 Rev. H. Jagodzinski, Zloty Jubileusz Parafji S. Cyryla I Metodego (Golden Jubilee of SS. Cyril And Methodius Parish). (Chicago, 1934), 6, 7. The author consulted the parish records of St. Alphonsus, the German parish in Lemont, for some of his information.
25 Haiman, Ksiega Pamiatkowa, 352.
26 K. Wachtl, Polonja W Ameryce (The Poles In America). (Philadelphia, 1944), 85. 
27 Haiman, Ksiega Pamiatkowa, 352.
Napolska, op. cit., 28.
29 Missye Katolickie, (Krakow 1885), 88-91. 
30 Haiman, Ksiega Pamiatkowa, 350.
31 Missye Katolickie, (Krakow, 1885), 127, 128.
32 Ibid., (Krakow, 1886), 172. Father Koncz was the first Polish pastor in Baltimore. 
33 Quoted by Mieczyslaw Haiman, Zjednoczenie Polskie Rzymsko-Katolickie w Ameryce. ( The Polish Roman Catholic Union in America.) (Chicago, 1948), 19. 
34 Ibid., 18.
35 KS. J. Ciemniewski, Polozenie I Potrzeby Kosciola Katolickiego W Stanach Zjednoczonych Polnocnej Ameryki (The Condition And Needs Of The Catholic Church In The United States of North America). (Kraków, 1896), 156.
36 E.A. Steiner, On The Trail Of The Immigrant. (New York, 1906), 211. The author mentions New Britain, Connecticut, where the pastor was "both Czar and Pope." 
37 P. Fox, The Poles in America. (New York, 1922), 92; Wachtl, Polonia w Ameryce, 65; Haiman, Zjednoczenie Polskie Rzymsko-Katolickie w Ameryce, 19; KS. J.P. Chodkiewicz, Polacy W Ameryce Polnocnej, (Poles In North America). (Warszawa, 1914), 28.
38 Accursia, op. cit., 9. 
39 Wachtl, op. cit., 77.
40 Kruszka, op. cit., II, 10. 
41 Ibid., I, 141.
42 Haiman, Ksiega Pamiatkowa, 131-145.
43 Dunikowski, op. cit., 47; Haiman, Zjednoczenie, 21, bases his opinion on the testimony of Henryk Sienkiewicz.
44 Napolska, op. cit., 77.

Brown, and Ridenour, 224; Chodkiewicz, op. cit., 31, is of the erroneous opinion that the Polish National Alliance was founded in 1873.
Napolska, op. cit., 74. 
47 Dworaczyk, op. cit., 30. 
Loc. cit.
49 Kruszka, op. cit., II, 26.
50 Ibid., 12, 13. This mission institute proved superfluous by 1872, since the Poles and Czechs were already being supplied with their own priests.
51 Haiman, Ksiega Pamiatkowa, 35.
52 Martin, op. cit., 166.

Haiman, Ksiega Pamiatkowa, 354. 
54 Napolska, op. cit., 88.
55 Missye Katolickie, (Krakow 1884), 148. 
56 Ibid., 1886, 223.
57 Kruszka, op. cit., 11, 147.
58 Ibid., 153. This letter was written shortly after the death of Father Dabrowski.
59 Missye Katolickie, (Krakow, 1886), 172.
60 Ibid., 30, 31.
Missye Katolickie, (Krakow, 1888), 96.
62 Haiman, Ksiega Pamiatkowa, 23.


This article is reprinted from Polish American Studies, Vol. VI. No. 1-2, January-June 1949, with permission from the Polish-American Historical Association.