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A Polish Pioneer Jesuit in America

Sister M. Neomisia Rutkowska, H.F.N.


The Polish Catholic priest in America has always had a unique role to fill. He has been the inspirer, the organizer, the director, the guide and the counselor of nearly every form of intellectual and social achievement emanating from the Polish-American group. These multifarious services of the clergy began with the period of Polish economic immigration after the Civil War and the consequent formation of large Polish communities in the cities. But even previous to this big wave of Polish immigrants, in fact, in the first half of the nineteenth century, several Polish Roman Catholic priests can be found among the pioneer builders of the Catholic church and of Catholic education in this country. They were mainly Jesuits who, as a result of the conditions following the disbanding of the Society and its later expulsion from White Ruthenia and Russia, could be spared for missionary endeavors elsewhere. Most prominent among these was the Reverend Francis Dzierozynski, the general outline of whose life is found in Haiman's Polish Past in America. It is my intention to supplement this general information with some additional data gathered from the Georgetown Archives, from Jesuit correspondence, and from further reading.


Father Francis Dzierozynski was born in Orsza in the White Ruthenian province of Mohilev, on January 3, 1779,1 hence at a time when this province together with all of Poland's eastern border lands had already become a part of Russian domains as a result of the first partition of Poland. In these regions, as in Russia itself, the Jesuits continued to exist canonically after the suppression bull of 1773 and, to prove their usefulness, even broadened and intensified their activities. At Orsza, they developed the second largest college of the province, established a Juniorate, and carried on extensive parish ministries. Young Dzierozynski received his early training here and at the age of fifteen, on August 13, 1794 he entered the Society, bringing with him an intellect of rare order.2


For the next several years Dzierozynski followed the regular Jesuit program of scholastic and spiritual training and then for some years taught grammar, French, and Russian in the schools of St. Petersburg and Polotsk.3 After his ordination, which took place some time during the scholastic year 1808-1809,4 he was made professor of theology at the College of Polotsk, famous at the time for its excellent teachers.


Between 1773 and 1814 the White Ruthenian Jesuit province was the mainstay of the Society. Ex-Jesuits and candidates from the continent flocked to its centers, which nurtured some of the Society's ablest leaders for the period of its restoration. At one time a group of English ex-Jesuits was aggregated to the Order by submitting to the General then residing in St. Petersburg. In 1805 five American suppression Jesuits followed their English brethren, and the Society of Jesus in America thus became a fact. Henceforth members of the White Ruthenian province were sent to assist the Jesuit missions and educational work in America. They brought with them the broad culture of their homeland as well as the hardiness, stability, and loftiness of spirit of the Fathers of the Old Society, qualities which enabled the young American group to survive the trials of grim pioneer days. Father Dzierozynski was one of these offshoots that had been sufficiently nourished at the roots of the Old Society to be engrafted on the young American tree and to enrich it with its fructifying powers.


European assistance to the Jesuit missions in America was increased after 1820, when the Russian government, which bad harbored the Jesuits when they were driven from other countries of the world, turned against them and by imperial decree drove them from its dominions. Three hundred fifty-eight members of the White Ruthenian province had to seek refuge in France, in Austrian Poland, and in the Papal States where the Order had already been restored.5 Father Dzierozynski was among the last. At the head of one band of exiles, having made his way through Poland and Austria, he came to Bologna where he was assigned to teach theology to Jesuit Students.


At this time, the Irish and English Jesuit Superiors, Kenney and Plowden, on their way to the general congregation of the Society in Rome, stopped at Bologna and met Father Dzierozynski. They were greatly impressed by his virtues and learning. At Rome, together with other members of the Society, they suggested him to the newly-elected general Fortis as the suitable man to bead the American Jesuit Mission, then suffering from lack of adequate personnel. The General consented and the future was to prove that scarcely a better man could have been chosen for the post. However, at the time he was being dispatched to America, Father Dzierozynski was not told of the designs cherished regarding his person. He was simply reminded that "such as are sent to the United States should remember that they are assigned to missions of the utmost importance for the Catholic Church and the Society, because over there a great door is open, every liberty is granted to spread the faith and the people show themselves well disposed to listen to the word of God."6


With Fr. Sachi, a companion, Father Dzierozynski sailed from Livorno, Italy, on June 30, 1821, enduring one of the most tempestuous trips of our time. The account of the crossing as told by Father Dzierozynski himself7 reads not unlike a modern Odyssey. The travelers were on their way five months, three of which they spent at sea amid fifteen storms and unspeakable terrors. Exhausted and weary they arrived at Philadelphia on November 7, 1821, and five days later reached their destination, Georgetown College. Here Father Dzierozynski took over his duties as Professor of Moral Theology and socius, or councilor, to the Superior of the Mission, Father Charles Neale, then a sick and feeble man. In the years that Georgetown College housed the novices he was, in addition, their master.


Father Dzierozynski, or Father Zero as the Georgetown students called him,8 was then a man of forty-two, in the maturity of his spiritual and intellectual powers, remarkable for logical acumen, breadth of learning, notable prudence, and eminent piety. All of these qualities were to serve him in good stead in the posts he was eventually to fill. As professor and vice-president of Georgetown he became the first of the line of such intellectual giants as Dubuissons, Benedict Fenwick, Mulledy, and Ryder. An alumnus of Georgetown has left an account related by an acquaintance of John Calhoun telling how this statesman, then living in a fashionable estate on the heights of Georgetown, was fond of visiting the College to discuss philosophy with the Polish Father.9 In addition to philosophy, Father Dzierozynski was also noted for his mastery of languages. He was well conversant with Latin, French, Polish, Italian, Russian, and English. His Latin was classical and fluent, often marked by Ciceronian flourishes. His English, as it appears in his correspondence, showed but few traces of being foreign to the writer.


From his first years in America, Father Dzierozynski developed an ardent love for his new country and felt happy in his life here. The peace and freedom of America, as contrasted with the turmoil he had experienced in Europe, endeared to him his adopted country.


An interesting association in the life of Father Dzierozynski was his friendship with Monsignor, the later Cardinal, Mezzofanti, formed during the Bologna days and continued for many years after. It was begotten, it appears, from Mezzofanti's esteem for Dzierozynski's linguistic lore. After Dzierozynski's departure for America, the two friends frequently exchanged poetical quips both in English and Polish. The few of these that have been preserved in the Georgetown Archives are interesting for the sincerity and simplicity of friendship they reveal. I quote but one.


When Monsignor Mezzofanti was called in 1833 from Bologna to Rome as custodian of the Vatican library, he informed Father Dzierozynski of his transfer in this rhyme:


I'm now at Rome and like it well
For here my God will have me dwell: 
We from each other far are driven - 
God grant we may meet in heaven.


to which Father Dzierozynski responded in a lighter vein:


I'm now in Georgetown and follow my call, 
For I'm cuffed about like a foot ball;
If I must I shall wait till I see you in heaven
But for fear we might slip, as the road is uneven,
I'd like to give my old friend a shake of the hand And crack an odd joke in this Nether-land.


On August 13, 1823, two years after his arrival in. America, Father Dzierozynski was advanced to the post for which he was originally intended, that of Superior of the Jesuits in America, then banded under the title of the Mission of Maryland. His charge included some two dozen Jesuits laboring in Maryland and Pennsylvania, all subject to the superior at Georgetown. Those were vexatious and trying days for the Maryland Mission. The Jesuits often lived in dire want and real poverty. A heavy financial burden lay upon the Mission, misunderstandings with the Archbishops of Baltimore hindered the work, while the lack of personnel prevented expansion. According to the testimony of a distinguished Maryland Jesuit of the day, Father James Ryder, Father Dzierozynski saved the Maryland Mission from extinction11 and both spiritually and materially left a decidedly salutary influence upon it. He succeeded in relieving the Mission of its distressing financial burden, in expanding its work and in laying the foundation of a growth which lasted through the rest of the century and into our own day. He founded the College of St. John in Frederick, Maryland, and gave an impetus to education in that town. To relieve the material want of the Novices at Frederick, at the invitation of Bishop du Bourg of Louisiana he moved the novitiate to Florissant, Missouri, and thus inaugurated the Jesuit Missouri Province. In all, during the seven years as Superior of the Maryland Mission, Father Dzierozynski displayed an ardent and indefatigable zeal for the spread of Catholicism in this country. Moreover, his broad charity, conciliating manner, sincere humility made him revered, trusted and loved by all his subjects. "The excellent Father Dzierozynski" they called him, "all charity and patience, always bent on seeing the good side of things."12


A better impression of the reverence and love in which Father Dzierozynski was held by his subjects is gathered from the letter of a Jesuit scholastic, who wrote of Father Dzierozynski when the latter visited Florissant, Missouri, in 1827 to inspect the Mission and to preside at the examination of the scholastics:


Rev. Father Superior speaks of leaving us the day after the feast of St. Ignatius. We are hoping that he misses his chance of getting away as in that case he shall have to remain with us a few days longer. We will hold him here by main force unless he promises to return in two or three years. He has given us every possible satisfaction.13


Some time later the Coadjutor Brother of the same Mission wrote to his confrere: My respects, if you please, to our holy Father Dzierozynski. Try to get some relic of him, be it only some of his, hair and send it. I am much mistaken if he will not work miracles before or after his death.14


Finally there is the testimony of the famous Father Benedict Fenwick who wrote of Father Dzierozynski as the "exemplification of religious perfection."15


It was during Father Dzierozynski's administration of the Maryland Mission that General Lafayette made his famous visit to the United States in 1824. When Georgetown University welcomed the Revolutionary hero as a guest within its walls, Father Dzierozynski greeted him with an appropriate address.


The two contemporary Archbishops of Baltimore, Marechal and Whitfield, did not always concur in this high regard for the Jesuit Superior. The reason lay in the two controversial issues between the Arch bishops of Baltimore and the Jesuits-issues in which Dzierozynski as Superior became involved.16 One concerned the tax which the Archbishops claimed on the Jesuit property. This issue had never been definitely settled, though the materials pertaining to it filled volumes in the office of the Propaganda in Rome. The second pertained to the privileges of the Order. At the Provincial council of Baltimore in 1829 to which he was invited by virtue of his office as Superior of the Jesuit Missions, Father Dzierozynski defended, against a theologian of Bishop England, his contention that the restored Society enjoyed the same canonical privileges as had been in force under its original charter. The Bishop was impressed to the extent that he afterwards declared himself entirely satisfied with all that Father Dzierozynski said "in defense of the whole Order."17 But Father Roothan, then Superior General, took Father Dzierozynski sharply to task for defending this position in public, at a time when the Jesuits were decidedly in no condition to be arousing the antagonism or the envy of their fellow workers in America.18


Despite their hostile attitude in the controversy, the two Archbishops recognized in Father Dzierozynski a religious and an educator animated by a sincere zeal for God's cause.19


Father Dzierozynski's superiorship of the Maryland Mission terminated in 1830 with the visit of Father Kenney to the United States, but he continued his residence at Georgetown for seven years more as a Professor of Theology, assistant to the superior, spiritual director and chaplain of the Visitation Convent. Later as master of novices he moved to Frederick. In 1840 he was called again to head the Maryland Mission then already organized into a Province. He was thus able to direct and vivify the expansion he initiated fourteen years ago. As provincial he accepted from Bishop Fenwick the offer of Holy Cross College, in Worcester, Mass., staffed it with capable men and before his death had the happiness of seeing the institution bring forth fruits of vocations and learning.


Because of ill health, Father Dzierozynski was relieved of the provincialship in 1843. Thereafter he resided at Frederick, acting at various times as superior, rector, and spiritual director both of his own community and that of the Visitandines. As a relic of the old stock, and a man of administrative ability, prudence, and sanctity of life he continued as a powerful influence at every post. "His novices revere him as a saint;" wrote a Maryland provincial of him to the Father General, "hence whatever he says or does is a stimulus for them to religious perfection."20


Some time before his death, Father Dzierozynski was "deprived of the use of his hands and feet in the most trivial actions"21 and had to depend upon the services of others. In deep humility he called himself "a good for nothing"22 and calmly awaited his death which he felt was not far off. When he died in the early morning hours of September 22, 1850 at the age of seventy-one, the Jesuits felt that a light of no small splendor had gone out from their midst. Some one in the house at Frederick, recording his death, wrote in an Old Diary:


Today ... died Father Dzierozynski. He was a lover of brethren and a friend in Israel, loved by all, without an enemy, and if such a one were found and were to say ought against him, he would hurt his own fair name rather than the memory of the Father .23


Such a memory was bequeathed by the man who for thirty-nine years was the molder of the future Catholic educators and. leaders of America and who for twenty-eight years labored strenuously and wisely for the spread of the Catholic Church and of Catholic education in this Country.


1 All dates Pertaining to Father Dzierozynski's life have been checked against the Catalogus Sociorum et Officiorum Missionis Amerlcae Federatae Socie-tatis Jesu. Woodstock, 1892.
2 Woodstock Letters, vol. 5 (1876), pp. 181-4.
Catalogus Personarum et Officiorum, Societatis Jesus in Imperio Rossiaco ex anno 1805 in annum 1806; 1806-1807; 1808-1809; 1810-1811; 1815-1816; 1819-1820. Cf. Woodstock Letters, vol. 60, 1931.
4 Ibid.
5 Stanislaus J. Zalenski, Les Jesuits de la Russie Blanche, II, p. 263.
6 Rev. Gilbert J. Garraghan, S.J., A Brief Biography of Father Dzierozynski. MS. Archives of the P. R. C. Union.
7 Woodstock Letters, vol. 36 (1907), pp. 40-5.
8 Georgetown Alumnus, "Recollections of Georgetown". Woodstock Letters, September, 1878.
9 Fairfax S. McLaughlin, College Days at Georgetown, pp. 72-3.
10 Georgetown Archives, Dzierozynski, Vol. III, p. 5.
11 Garraghan, op. cit. 
12 Garraghan, op. cit. 
13 Van Assche, a Mr. De Nef. January 3, 1828. Garraghan, Gilbert S.J. The Jesuis of the Middle United States, I. p. 135.
14 Henry Reiselman to George Fenwick. Ibid. I. p. 134.
15 Ibid., I, p. 135.
16 X. T. Hughes, S.J., The History of the Society of Jesus in North America, Documents, p. 511.
17 Robert North, S.J., The General Who Rebuilt the Jesuits, p. 222. 
18 Ibid.
19 Hughes, op. cit., p. 565
20 Garraghan, Biography of Father Dzierozynski. MS.
21 Dzierozynski to Father George Fenwick, August 16, 1850.
22 Dzierozynski to Father John Early, April 12, 1850.
23 Woodstock Letters, vol. 63, no. 3, p. 313.


This article is reprinted from Polish-American Studies, Vol. III. No. 3-4, July-December 1946, with permission from the Polish-American Historical Association.