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Polish Catholic in Chicago

Joseph John Parot
Historical Research and Narrative

Chicago Polonia

One hundred years ago the city of Chicago was becoming a house for all peoples. The great post-Civil War immigration wave, bringing to American shores nearly 35,000,000 foreign-born within the span of a single lifetime, would transform Chicago into a major multicultural metropolis that incorporated numerous racial, religious, and nationality groups. Contemporary observers in 1900 Chicago noted that at least ninety-six different languages were spoken in the streets of this city's swirling melting pot. Of the many ethnic groups so vividly portrayed on this brilliant multicultural urban canvass, the Poles were destined to become the largest. By 1930 the U.S. Census accounted for 401,316 Poles of foreign stock. Chicago Polonia as Poles collectively referred to themselves had now surpassed the German and Irish groups as the leading white ethnic group. Moreover, Polish Catholics by this time had become the largest ethnic Catholic unit in the country's largest Catholic archdiocese. By 1950 there were more Poles in Chicago than in any city in Poland, with the exception of Warsaw, Poland's capital. According to the 1990 census, the state of Illinois contained 962,827 Poles, second only to the Polish-American population in New York. Because one of every twelve Illinois citizens is of Polish descent, it is significant to at least introduce certain historical aspects of the Polish emigration to the multicultural history curriculum in Illinois.

In more ways than one, the Polish emigration to the United States was the result of a complicated and tragic set of circumstances. Between 1772 and 1795, Poland, in a series of diplomatic and military maneuvers, was carved up and then "erased" from the political map of Europe by her more powerful neighbors Russia to the east, Prussia to the west, and Austria-Hungary to the south (see maps, page 30). The Polish Partitions, as this series of events was known, was thought to be the "death sentence of Poland." Referring to the Partition's nineteenth-century aftermath, the noted Polish historian Oscar Halecki poignantly described in great detail "Poland's saddest century." And most recently Norman Davies, calling attention to Poland's most unfortunate geographic position on the map of Europe, went on to entitle his comprehensive two-volume history of Poland God's Playground.

Prior to the Partitions, Poland had been the fourth largest nation-state in Europe-after France, the Holy Roman Empire, and Russia. With its pre-Partition population of 14 million, Poland had developed over the centuries into one of Europe's greatest multicultural and multinational states: one that contained Lithuanians, Latvians, Germans, Ruthenians, Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Gypsies, as well as one of the world's largest Jewish settlements. In fact, the sum total of these minority groups was larger than the size of the Polish ethnic population itself. In this fundamental way, multicultural Poland was significantly different than England, France or Spain, whose populations were much more homogenous: for in Poland, a Polish minority ruled over a vast non-Polish majority. Yet, even though Poland had housed a considerable number of Protestants, Jews, Eastern Orthodox, and Unitarians, nearly 90 percent of the ethnic


Poles were of the Roman Catholic faith. For this reason, it was no accident that the Catholic Church would remain a close and active partner of Polish patriots everywhere during the so-called Insurrections revolts against the Partitioning powers which occurred in 1794-95, 1830-31, 1846, and 1863. But each of these revolts failed, largely because the large peasant class (chlopi) seldom supported the nobility (szlachta) or the intelligentsia. Poland would not be liberated until the end of World War I in 1918.

The Partitions devastated the Polish state. Russia annexed 470,000 square kilometers of Polish territory with a population of 6.3 million; Prussia took 150,000 square kilometers with a population of 4.2 million; and Austria gained 240,000 square kilometers and 2.5 million people. Europe's greatest multicultural center was now dissolved. This was, perhaps, the most tragic legacy of the Partitions. In essence, Poland was now a nation without a state. In order to compensate for these enormous losses, Polish emigres to other parts of the world found themselves clinging to Polish history, language, faith, and culture in efforts to retain a Polish identity. After 1795 the idea of a free Poland would capture the hearts, minds, and souls of Polish patriots, intellectuals, the nobility, and church leaders, all of whom would succumb to forces of extreme ethnocentrism. In virtually all aspects of Polish immigrant life in urban America, Poland's rich multicultural heritage was abandoned and forgotten.

St. Stanislaus Kostka Church

This was especially true in the "American Warsaw" the city of Chicago. Here on the city's near northwest side, Polish immigrants built up the largest contiguous Polish settlement in the entire United States. In the "Polish Downtown" at the intersection of Milwaukee, Ashland, and Division streets Poles in the period 1867-1920 developed extensive community parish networks. The first of these was St. Stanislaus Kostka parish, known to inhabitants as Stanislawowo (or "village of St. Stanislaus"). Another parish, a few blocks south, was named Holy Trinity (Trojcowo). By the year 1901, these two community-parishes contained 50,000 and 25,000 parishioners, respectively. In fact, St. Stanislaus Kostka parish, situated in a neighborhood where seven of every eight inhabitants was of Polish origin, was reputed to be the largest Roman Catholic parish in the United States. Some of the city blocks surrounding this church were the most densely populated in all of Chicago. A City Homes Association Report completed in 1901 claimed that this Polish district was nearly as congested as the most crowded areas of Calcutta, with densities approaching 457 people per acre, all packed into tenements where no building exceeded three stories in height. Sanitation facilities, of course, were stretched to the social limit, and community health problems abounded. At the end of the nineteenth century, the infancy death rate in Stanislawowo was among the highest in the city of Chicago.

Despite the congestion, the St. Stanislaus Kostka and Holy Trinity community-parish networks became models for future Polish Catholic growth in Chicago. In 1900 a total of twenty-three Polish Catholic parishes had been established; by 1962, with the opening of the Vatican II Council in Rome, Polish Catholic parish growth had peaked, with a total of fifty-seven predominantly Polish parishes in the city of Chicago and surrounding suburbs. The community-parish network, as may already be evident, had become a magnet for a host of interrelated religious, educational, cultural, social, and economic neighborhood services. For example, at St. Stanislaus Kostka, in addition to an elegant church structure, Poles erected an elementary school, a parish high school, and even a small college; alongside the rectory and convent stood a parish hall and gymnasium. As was typical here and elsewhere, the buildings often occupied an entire city block and more. In the adjacent neighborhood, one would pass by newspaper offices whose daily and weekly editions reached thousands of readers, witness the Zgoda (Harmony), the Dziennik Zwiazkowy (Alliance Daily), and the Dziennik Chicagoski (Chicago Polish Dally News).

One might even join major fraternal organizations such as the Polish National Alliance, the Polish Roman Catholic Union, the Polish Women's Alliance, and Polish Falcons mutual aid societies numbering a collective membership of 1.5 million in their heyday. Garment workers, meatpackers,and steelworkers would gather at their labor union locals; various social welfare organizations administered orphanages, homes for the aged, and centers for newly arrived immigrants. St. Mary of Nazareth hospital on West Division Street attended to the health needs of the community; well-stocked


libraries provided readers thirsting for Polish language materials; and hundreds of parish societies and sodalities serviced the spiritual needs of Chicago Polonia. Commemorative church albums for most of these parishes colorfully describe in lucid detail the inner workings of this rich immigrant communal life. When William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki completed their five-volume sociological masterpiece in 1919 on The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, much of their data was drawn from the organizational life of Polish community-parishes in Chicago. Late-twentieth century scholars of this process of ethnic concentration have been known to use the term "Ghetto Catholicism" when describing the numerous "cradle to grave" services and institutions one would find in Polish, Slavic, Italian, German, Irish, and Bohemian Catholic settlements found in Chicago and other cities of the industrial northeast and midwest.

Dancing girl

Polich Wedding, 1894

In addition to the Polish Downtown, major primary areas of Polish settlement sprang up in the Lower West Side/Lawndale neighborhoods adjacent to the Central Manufacturing District; in the Union Stockyards/Back of the Yards area on the mid-south side; in the South Chicago community area adjacent to the U.S. Steel South Works plant; and in the Bridgeport area, alongside Irish Catholics (see map, page 31). By 1960, Poles were moving up and down two "Polish Corridors" Milwaukee Avenue and northwest, as well as Archer Avenue and southwest toward the outer reaches of the city and into the suburbs.

As is well known, the primary areas of Polish settlement served well the needs of three generations of Polish-Americans in Chicago. The "Chicago School" of Sociology, under the direction of such pioneers as Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, and their contemporaries, established in their "population succession" studies just how committed Polish-Americans (and Italian-Americans) were to their original neighborhoods. The "Chicago School" concluded that these two groups were among the last to leave the city in the 1960s when Blacks and Hispanics began their large-scale entry into some of the white ethnic, Catholic neighborhoods. In effect, the Polish-American commitment to its peculiar style of "ghetto Catholicism" in inner-city areas kept Poles in direct contact with adjacent religious, racial, and ethnic groups such as Jews, Blacks, and Hispanics, all of whom were in the process of developing their own unique community areas adjacent to the Polish neighborhoods. At periodic intervals throughout the twentieth century, whenever these outside communities intersected with Polish areas, there was the potential for increased tensions and social friction, little of which was settled to the mutual satisfaction of all parties involved. Several historians who have followed this process of "population succession" (see the bibliography) have concluded that the deeply ingrained ethnocentric patterns characteristic of Chicago Polonia, so carefully nurtured by Polish leadership at all levels of life, left the Poles unprepared for the social adjustments called for in a post-Civil Rights multicultural environment.

Paradoxically, Polish-American ethnic solidarity, embraced by thousands of Poles in the twentieth century, was achieved at a considerable social price in late-nineteenth-century Chicago. Despite all the organizational hype trumpeting "union," "alliance," and "harmony" within Polonia, the first generation settlements engaged in an intensive infra-group conflict between Alliancists and Unionists that ripped apart the social fabric of nearly all the community-parishes. Members of the Polish National Alliance (PNA) argued that the Polish Catholic parish system was draining considerable financial resources away from the liberation efforts in the homeland (ojczyzna). These Alliancists instead wished to prepare Poles on American soil "to return to the homeland to be useful citizens." Utilizing the editorial pages of Zgoda, the Alliancists accused the clergy of various forms of fiscal mismanagement in the community parishes. They especially directed their attacks at the iron-willed Reverend Vincent Barzynski, the pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka who was a member of the Polish-based Congregation of the Resurrection (Resurrectionist) religious order of priests. In order to


Store Headquarters
Store was headquarters for Kosciusko Guards at
Division & Noble Streets
Courtesy; Chicago Historical Society

defend the community-parish interests, the Reverend Barzynski assisted in the formation of the Polish Roman Catholic Union (PRCU). His Unionists argued that the future of the Polish emigration rested on American soil, and that the future parish development was best served by the clergy in the community. In substance, the Unionists argued that the Catholic identity of the Polish immigrant ought be emphasized; the Alliancists, on the other hand, demanded that the Polish identity be highlighted and given greater support. Reluctant to divert precious resources away from the community-parish system in exchange for "ill-advised national liberation campaigns, the PRCU engaged in an all out "church war" via the pages of Narod Polski (The Polish Nation) and the Resurrectionist-owned and operated Dziennik Chicagoski. "Polish Catholics or Catholic Poles?" was the bluntly posed question of the day. Unionists of St. Stanislaus Kostka engaged in pitched street battles with Alliancists headquarters at Holy Trinity parish. Allegations of fiscal mismanagement on the part of the clergy eventually reached the Vatican, which sent the Apostolic Delegate to the U.S. to Chicago to negotiate a truce in 1893. But even Vatican intervention could not prevent anescalation of numerous "Independent" schismatic movements that rocked Polish settlements in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Scranton, and areas of Wisconsin. These Independent revolts in the churches climaxed with the establishment of the Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC), the only major schism in the history of American Catholicism. The Roman Catholic clergy, stunned by a schism of such magnitude (the PNCC eventually registered 260,000 followers), argued that the procuring of Polish-American bishops in such archdioceses as Chicago might stem the Independent tide. Under the leadership of the Reverend Wenceslaus Kruszka, the Polish clergy called on the papacy in 1903 to initiate separate Polish dioceses headed by Polish bishops. This ultra-ethnocentric position was never accepted by the Archdiocese of Chicago or the Vatican, despite Kruszka's persistent claims that "parishes of mixed nationalities in America are generally considered a necessary evil."

Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church, no doubt in response to the threat of further schisms (the German Catholics had so threatened in 1884), allowed for the widespread acceptance of what is known as national parishes. (See Polish parishes, pp.31-32). In this form of parish administration, all Poles from any part of the city or archdiocese could become members of a Polish parish administered by Polish priests. The schools were normally under the supervision of Polish orders of teaching nuns, who emphasized the Polish language, history, and culture. Virtually all religious activity (aside from the Latin mass) was conducted in Polish: homilies, the hearing of confessions, and various devotional practices. By allowing for the formation of national parishes not only for Poles but also for other constituencies the Roman Catholic Church allowed for the segregation of nationality and racial groups. By 1915 there were at least 202 well-defined national parishes for 16 different groups in the Archdiocese of Chicago ( 89 Irish; 33 Polish; 30 German; 10 each Italian and Lithuanian). The eleven remaining groups a total of 33 "national" parishes, included one Black parish.

To the non-Catholic observer, these


ethnic "church wars" were most difficult to sort out and comprehend (although some Protestant denominations in Illinois and elsewhere were subject to a different variety of religious schism). Some Catholic historians have concluded that the Polish Catholic "church war" was directly related to widespread practices of ethnic and racial exclusivism in Chicago's churches. The American Catholic hierarchy was well aware of the explosive potential and consequences of ultra-nationalistic movements in the church. Even in Chicago Polonia, more progressive Polish Catholic clergy by the 1960s conceded that the first three generations of Polish immigrant life in Chicago had devoted insufficient resources to interethnic, interreligious, and interracial alliances and reform. Polish Catholic clergy and laity often bemoaned the fact that Chicago had never elected a Polish-American mayor in the city or that the Archdiocese of Chicago was never headed by a Polish-American archbishop.

Street Scene in front of a Polish Saloon
Street scene near Polish Saloon, 1903
Courtesy: Chicago Historical Society

But by 1918 Roman Catholic canon law was significantly revised. National parishes with but a few exceptions were replaced by territorial parishes (Canon 216). In theory, the territorial parish allowed for the admission of any parishioner, regardless of nationality or race, who resided within clearly drawn neighborhood boundaries. In the territorial parish, the hierarchy hoped to accelerate the "Americanization" of the immigrant church and to allow for the processes of assimilation to take their natural course. Of course, even the territorial parish could be subverted to prevent assimilation and racial integration, especially when boundary lines were gerrymandered to incorporate a single nationality group or to segregate racial groups. This was certainly the case when Cardinal Mundelein insisted that Black Catholics on Chicago's south side attend only St. Elizabeth's parish.

In any event, the greatest opposition to territorial parishes came from sixty-eight Polish pastors in Chicago who, in the period 1917-1920, collectively appealed to the Chicago archbishop and then to the Vatican to retain the national form of parish organization for the Polish community. The celebrated 1920 Polish Memorial to the Holy See clearly indicated to other ethnic and racial groups in the Archdiocese of Chicago just how collectively suspicious the Polish community was of "outsiders." Because the leadership in Chicago Polonia in the period 1870-1920, whether "church party" or "national party" (whether Unionist or Alliancist) so closely juxtaposed Catholicity and Polish ethnicity as a basis for group identity and acceptance in their extensive community parish network, contributions of other groups in adjacent neighborhoods were often overlooked, or even consciously disregarded.

Unfortunately, Polish leaders in the ojczyzna were also surrendering to forces of rampant exclusivism in the immediate postwar settlement, which brought the Partitions to an end. Despite Poland's independence, many political leaders were becoming increasingly influenced by positions espoused by the National Democratic Party in Poland under the leadership of Roman Dmowski. Dmowski's party, also known as the Endencja, argued that modern-day Poland required an organizational principle called "integral nationalism," which essentially argued that only ethnic Poles who were Catholic could form the citizenry of the newly liberated Polish state. Within this narrow exclusionist political philosophy, all minorities would have to be driven out so as to ensure the survival of the newly reborn Polish state. In what amounted to a program of "ethnic cleansing," the Endencja especially targeted the Jewish professional and commercial class in postwar Poland. In effect, the Endencja was clearly rejecting the multicultural and pluralist traditions that had guided the historic Polish Commonwealth. Polish pastors in 1920 Chicago were doing likewise in their fight to retain their national parishes. They were clearly arguing for the "ethnic purity" of Polish Catholicism. Such a widely accepted stance in the Polish community in Chicago, especially at the leadership level, is now viewed as one of the root causes of Chicago Polonia's current multicultural difficulties.

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