Polish and American Catholicism


NB I was asked why I took down my last post. The reason I removed it is because I believe my impact on that topic will be greater at a more strategic time. I’m under no prohibitions to blog. After all this, I still have no fear to proclaim the truth…but I sense in prayer that my soapbox must wait in order to affect more people after my medical leave is finished (even if my only remaining podium be the internet.)

Like my first great Jesuit spiritual director (Fr. Ralph Drendel SJ) my second great Jesuit has gone to his eternal reward.  Late Thursday night Fr. Raymond Gawronski SJ, went before the face of the Triune God.  May you rest in peace, Ray, and may perpetual light shine upon your soul.

I hope you enjoy this short writing below as much as I do, written in 2009 by Fr. Ray SJ:

Recently, I received a copy of a history of the sixteen Polish parishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It is a tremendously moving story of how the poorest of the immigrants from Europe built the most spectacular churches, at incredible cost. The Basilica of St. Josaphat, most imposing of the structures, at one time boasted the second largest dome in the United States after the United States Capitol. The people who built it were the most despised of the European immigrants, huddled in crowded conditions: and yet, the parishioners of that parish took out second mortgages on their homes, and contributed up to a year’s factory wages in order to build the church to the glory of God.

It is said that when the Germans came to Milwaukee they built factories, while when the Polish came to Milwaukee, they built churches. The church was at the very center of the life of the Polish community. And soon there were schools – grammar and high schools – and benevolent institutions, orphanages and cultural organizations. An opera company.

This is only in Milwaukee. There are a dozen cities – mostly the Lake Cities, Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo – where more or less the same phenomenon occurred. And then a hundred other small towns and villages where coal miners, farmers, and other working folk gave their best to the Church which had been their spiritual home for a millennium.

In the late nineteenth century, there erupted a great crisis in the American Catholic Church. It centered around the issue of who would control the churches. Called the “Trustee Controversy”, the issue was aggravated by the practice of the American hierarchy of removing Polish pastors from their immigrant flocks and imposing non-Poles as the leaders of those flocks. The Poles were seen as fractious and quarrelsome – a recent history of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, commissioned by Archbishop Weakland, described the Poles as “intractable.” The Poles, for their part, felt that since by the 1920’s they constituted 20% of the American Catholic Church, they should have at least some representation in the hierarchy. That representation was very late in coming, too late for the members of the Polish National Church who went into schism by the turn of the century.

The large majority of Poles remained faithful to their ancestral Church. But they did keep a distance from other groups. For one thing, unlike the other major groups – the Irish, the Germans – the Poles in large part envisioned a return to Europe after earning money here. I have heard a scholar say that 70% of all Poles who came to America returned. And then, once settled, they had to deal with the prejudice of those groups, and their own historical experience. Though painful to admit, the Germans under Bismarck were engaged on a policy of cultural extermination of Polish Catholics which, later, became the actual genocide of the Nazis. Anti-Polish prejudice is very deep among the Germans, and this friction continued at some level in America. The Irish who dominated the hierarchy tended to view the Poles as throw-backs to what they themselves had been when they arrived here as “peasants” – and as a group that would have to Americanize, on the Irish model, of course.

By the 1960’s, many Americans had moved to the suburbs. The Polish community, which had finally “come into its own” around the time of World War II, was less prone to move than other communities. They had settled into their neighborhoods around their churches, and by the late 1950’s, they were prospering…

The second catastrophe was the Second Vatican Council. Polish Catholicism was unique: Poland was a medium sized European nation which was Catholic to the core. It blended a Slavic sensibility with a millennium long insertion in the life of Roman Catholic culture, largely influenced by French Catholicism. The devotional life of the Poles was perhaps richer than most, and they boasted a very rich heritage of popular hymns and devotions. It was precisely this that the Vatican Council undercut. So at the very time that their homes were being destroyed, millions of Polish Americans – millions – found themselves quickly dispossessed of their churches as well. Often the location of the churches was ravaged by the construction of freeways which destroyed the neighborhoods, as with St. Stanislaus in Milwaukee and several of the larger churches of Chicago. The neighborhoods themselves had become unsafe, and people were loathe to return to them from the safety of the suburbs.

These developments aggravated what would in any event have been happening through assimilation. However, the Poles were in a disadvantaged position. Other Slavic groups – most notably the Ukrainians, but also the Ruthenians and others – had their own churches with their own hierarchies, whether Eastern Catholic or Orthodox – which remained bastions of their noble traditions and national identities. The Poles were now lumped together with all other Roman Catholics, but they had a very different approach to religion – as to life – than the western neighbors, some of whom had been their cultural enemies for centuries. That is, the values, way of being a human, were radically different for a Polish Catholic than for a German Protestant or even a German Catholic, and though the Irish Catholics had also become a peasant nation living under Protestant oppression, their Catholicism was so heavily Jansenist and bereft of the emotionally charged devotion of the Poles as to seem a different religion.

And so Polish Americans lost – and were stripped of – the heritage that several generations had spent everything they had to recreate in the new world. In its place, they were given nothing but the often tawdry benefits of American pop culture. In the Church, they simply lost any contribution they had to make, as they lost their own identity, and drifted into being simply proletarians.

The Church for her part had been committed to the “Americanization” of all the immigrants. But with the end of this vision, and the rise of multi-culturalism, the Church began a new approach. Suddenly, there were offices of Black and Hispanic Catholics, complete with Black History Month and other such culturally creative activities. Among the older Catholics, it is only the Irish group who have emerged as cultural winners: as time went by, the Irish assimilated less and less. John became Sean/Shawn, James became Shane, William – the ubiquitous Bill – has been becoming Liam.

This effects people in church, because the very hymns we sing come from the traditions that are favorably viewed. But for the Poles, it is as if they had come from nowhere, contributed nothing, were nothing. Their descendants, with changed names, no history, no culture, are truly the poorest of the poor, culturally, no matter how much money they can make. They have been stripped of everything they have by way of human culture.

And it is the Catholic Church, their church, which has failed them utterly. They were the poorest of the European groups, and most in need of support: the American Catholic Church took what they had built – their churches – and left them with nothing. When the wave of Pollack jokes took over the airwaves not only in the United States, but with the spread of American culture, globally, not a single voice was heard from any of the “justice and peace” offices that grow like mushrooms on the modern Catholic landscape.

Enter the Anglicans. Here is a group that have been the enemy of the Roman Catholic Church for five centuries. Most notably, in Ireland, they were intent on crushing the Irish nation and their Catholic Faith. In America, this church was always seen as the church of the rich and powerful. In Britain, it was the repository of the pride of the world’s premier Protestant nation. The “Protestant Episcopal” church was a creation which combined the rejection of obedience to Peter – and identification with Catholic nations, which were seen as inferior – with a stylish adoption of “Romish” traditions and customs. In some deep sense, no doubt, the ancient Catholic spirit of England did find a place in this church. There is no doubt too that there is a treasure of religious culture which has been preserved in this tradition, and which will enrich the Catholic Communion.

But it is a shame – a profound shame – that the Mother Church, in the United States, has let languish and die the religious heritage of a people who were faithful to her from their baptism. A people who followed her teachings on the practice of usury and remained poor when other nations abandoned the Catholic vision and became rich; a Catholic nation that suffered the loss of everything and was itself enslaved but that learned to fight for its own freedom and the freedom of others, unlike the English nation which, to its great shame, went about the world enslaving peoples and destroying their cultures; a Catholic people who, poorest of the poor, tried to give the greatest glory to God in the monuments they built and who were never accepted, who were despised, and in the end, destroyed and discarded as a Catholic presence in the New World, while offices of justice and peace flourished by parroting the slogans and agendas of the rich and powerful elites.

In our desperate Church situation – spiritually speaking – with our unspeakably banal liturgical life, the death of religious orders and indeed spirituality itself, I welcome our Anglican brethren who will bring us something of culture and dignity. But I welcome them to a Church which, to its shame, welcomes the rich and powerful – and politically astute – while despising the simple children of the Roman tradition. Perhaps ’twas e’er thus….
Fall 2009

—Fr. Ray SJ, Fall 2009