SHUNTED & DESPISED, BUT FAITHFUL
By Raymond T. Gawronski
Not too long ago I received a copy of a history of the sixteen Polish parishes in Milwaukee. 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 nation after the U.S. Capitol Building. The people who built it were the most despised of the European immigrants, taking dangerous and unsavory jobs no one else would take, 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, and 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, including an opera company.
This is only 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, from Texas to Nebraska to New England, 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 nineteenth century, a great crisis erupted in the American Catholic Church. It centered around the issue of who would control the churches. Called the “Trustee Controversy,” the issue of church ownership was aggravated by the practice of the American Church hierarchy of removing Polish pastors from their immigrant flocks and imposing non-Poles as the leaders of those flocks. This was especially painful in a city like Milwaukee where the Church leadership was German; the Poles had immigrated from Prussia, fleeing German cultural oppression. (Poland had been partitioned a century before, between Prussia, Russia, and Austria, so no one came from Poland in “the Great Immigration” since that country did not exist.) The Poles were seen as fractious and quarrelsome, in America as in Europe; in other circumstances, this characteristic was lauded as “freedom-loving.” To wit, a fairly recent history of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, commissioned by former Archbishop Rembert Weakland, describes them as “intractable.” The Poles, for their part, felt that, because by the 1920s they constituted twenty percent 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 had gone into schism by the turn of the nineteenth 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 seventy percent of all Poles who came to America eventually returned. Those who remained in the U.S. had to deal with the prejudice of earlier arrivals, and with their own historical experience. Though painful to admit, the Germans under Bismarck were engaged in a policy of cultural extermination of Polish Catholics in their empire, which, in the next Reich, became actual genocide by the Nazis. Anti-Polish prejudice is very deep in German culture, and this friction continued at some level in America. The Irish who dominated the hierarchy tended to view the Poles as throwbacks 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 1960s 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 1950s they were prospering.
Two things happened to derail the Polish Catholic experience. The first was the massive immigration of African Americans from the South into the industrial cities in which the Poles had found a home in the preceding decades. The Poles were intent on keeping their neighborhoods as their homes. They were working people whose entire equity was tied into their homes; and they had a fierce pride in the maintenance of their homes and properties, which was diametrically opposed to the experience and attitudes of black sharecroppers. When the nation embraced the cause of racial integration, it seems someone had to pay the price: Perhaps above all others it was the Poles in the northern industrial cities whose neighborhoods were targets of what was a forced integration. In the process, the people whose lifetimes of work were tied into their properties were demonized by the press and the upper reaches of society because they were not willing to allow their neighborhoods to be destroyed. Anyone who could fled as an inundation of people with no experience of home ownership or maintenance moved in and continued the patterns of devastation they had effected in other areas, perhaps effecting in the material world the human devastation wrought by slavery. But even the strongest dose of political correctness cannot blind us to the most obvious realities of what happened in the northern industrial cities. Working people, scraping along, could not afford the luxury of socio-economic analysis, let alone pay the bill for historical crimes committed by others in distant places.
The second catastrophe was the Second Vatican Council. Polish Catholicism was unique: Poland was a medium-sized European nation that 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 Council undercut. And so, at the very time their neighborhoods 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 that 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 might in any event have been happening through assimilation. The Poles, however, 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 — from their Western neighbors, some of whom had been their cultural enemies for centuries. That is, the values, and ways of being 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 been reduced to a peasant nation living under Protestant oppression, their Catholicism was so rigorist and bereft of the emotionally charged devotion of the Poles as to seem at times a different religion.
And so Polish Americans were stripped of the heritage that several generations had spent everything they had to recreate in the New World, and of which the church buildings are mute but eloquent witnesses. 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 simply drifted into being faceless proletarians.
The Church, for her part, had been committed to the “Americanization” of all immigrants. But with the end of this vision, and the rise of multiculturalism, the Church began a new approach. Suddenly, there were offices of Black and Hispanic Catholics encouraging distinctiveness and not assimilation. Among the older Catholics, only the Irish have emerged as cultural winners: As time went by, the Irish assimilated less and less. John became Sean, James became Shane, William — the ubiquitous Bill — has been becoming Liam. The other “ethnics” simply melted and disappeared. As I came to see in my thirteen years in Milwaukee, and as subsequent experience has justified, “They changed their names and moved to Phoenix.”
How cultures are valued affects people in church, because the very hymns we sing come from the traditions that are favorably viewed. For the Poles, it is as if they had come from nowhere, contributed nothing, were nothing. Their descendants, with changed names, apparently with no history and no culture, are truly the poorest of the poor, culturally speaking, no matter how much money they make. They have been stripped of everything they have by way of human culture. In the end, they have been stripped of their humanity. Remember Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire?
And to our great shame it is the Catholic Church — their Church — that has failed them utterly. They were the poorest of the European groups, and most in need of support. But 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 U.S. but globally with the spread of American culture, not a single voice of protest or concern was heard from any of the “justice and peace” offices that have proliferated in the post-Vatican II Catholic landscape, and none from any Church leaders of which I am aware.
Enter the Anglicans. Here is a group that has been an enemy of the Roman Catholic Church for five centuries. Most notably, in Ireland, it was the religious arm of an imperial government intent on crushing the Irish nation and their Catholic faith. In America the Episcopal 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 cultural creation that combined the rejection of obedience to Peter — and of identification with Catholic nations, which were seen as inferior — with a stylish adoption of “Romish” traditions and customs. In some deep sense, no doubt, at its best the ancient Catholic spirit of England did find a place in this church. There is no doubt too that a treasure of religious culture has been preserved in this tradition, which will enrich the Catholic communion. The language alone, let alone the architecture and music, is a treasure.
But it is a shame — a profound shame — that the Mother Church in the U.S. 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 which learned to fight for its own freedom and the freedom of others; a Catholic people who, poorest of the poor in terms of political power, 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 an often ideological bureaucracy fed the Church with the slogans and agendas of rich and powerful elites. St. Ignatius taught that “poverty has always been the bulwark of true religion.” Perhaps Bl. John Paul II was sent from what was a poor European country to remind us of that.
In our present situation — spiritually speaking — with our often banal liturgical life, with the great decline of religious orders and indeed of spirituality itself, I welcome our Anglican brethren who we hope will bring us something of beautiful religious culture and dignity. But I welcome them to a Church which, to her shame, appears at times to welcome the rich and powerful — and politically astute — while despising her simple children in the Roman tradition.
[Fr. Raymond T. Gawronski, S.J., a native of New York City, is a professor of dogmatic theology and the spiritual director at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver. The foregoing article, "The Polish Catholic Experience," was originally published in the New Oxford Review (July-August 2011), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.]
Related: See also Fr. Gawronski's article, "John Paul II: A Character Study" (Musings, May 4, 2010).