Polish-American Churches and Their Communities

St. Frances de Chantal in Borough Park (Photo by Anna Arciszewska via Nowy Dziennik)

St. Frances de Chantal in Borough Park (Photo by Anna Arciszewska via Nowy Dziennik)

Below is a condensation of the lengthy report which ran in Nowy Dziennik.

Some 92 percent of Poles living in Poland declare themselves Catholic. Less than half of them attend the Sunday Mass regularly, though. What are the statistics for Polish immigrants in the New York? Pretty similar.

Some Polish priests estimate that a percentage of Polish Americans, who say they are Catholics, attend the Sunday Mass every week, but will show up in church in higher numbers on bigger holidays such as Christmas and Easter. Unfortunately, there are no concrete statistics to prove the estimates. “Twice a year we try to count the number of people attending Mass, but the data is not very reliable. Many people who come to the Mass are not registered parishioners,” says Rev. Grzegorz Stasiak – diocesan coordinator of the ministry for Polish immigrants in the Diocese of Brooklyn. The parish registries are not an accurate measure either, because a big proportion of churchgoers these days don’t formally register unless they need a sacrament or a document proving their membership in a parish.

Poles saved the church

At St. Frances de Chantal in Brooklyn, one of the “Polish” parishes in Brooklyn, the average number of people attending Mass last year was 1,180, according to statistics published in the church bulletin at the beginning of this year. That’s significantly fewer than a couple of years ago. “When we counted the parishioners in 2001 and 2003, as many as 2,300 people attended the weekend Masses,” says the pastor, canon Andrzej Kurowski.

He attributes the decline to the fact that many Polish Americans who used to live in Borough Park have moved to other parts of the city or to other states, and some have gone back to Poland. “Fewer and fewer people are coming here from Poland just for work, like it used to be more than a dozen years ago,” the pastor adds. He started working for the parish at the end of the 1990s, when St. Frances de Chantal was a typically American church, with no more than 200 people at Sunday Masses. “The older parishioners, who still remember those times, say that it was the Polish immigrants who saved the church. This was in fact our mission, coming here,” the pastor says.

The church community is shrinking

Church attendance has also shrunk by almost half in recent years at St. Stanislaus Kostka in Greenpoint. “The reasons are galore: people are becoming less religious, they think they can do well without God, they work too hard, and so forth,” says Rev. Marek Sobczak.

Long considered the heart of the New York Polish community, Greenpoint is slowly but visibly becoming home to young Americans, who are less likely to be church regulars. “Polish Americans have been moving out of here because Greenpoint has become an expensive place to live. They move to other parts of the city or go back to Poland, especially the older generation who can’t make ends meet here on their modest pensions,” Rev. Sobczak says. Those young Polish families who come to New York, Sobczak adds, assimilate quickly into the American community, and no longer need to stick to the Polish neighborhood, because they know the language and don’t need assistance from other Polish Americans. “Maybe they don’t pray in English, but they do attend English-language Masses in other churches. It is a pity that they do that. Ours are churches built and maintained by the Polish-American community. They are part of our heritage,” Sobczak says.

Ridgewood’s churches get a boost from Poles

Many Polish Americans who used to live in Greenpoint have now been putting down roots in Ridgewood – a second Greenpoint. That’s where they go to church on Sunday. There is no one “Polish” parish in Ridgewood, but Polish Americans can be seen in the neighborhood churches there: St. Aloysius, St. Matthias and Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

As a result local parishes have been adding Masses in the Polish language. “The Polish Mass on Saturday night attracts some 200 people, on Sunday morning we get a crowd of 600,” Rev. Daniel Rajski, vicar at St. Matthias, says. The parish now has some 1,000 Polish Americans registered, but just like in other churches, a great number of people come to this church but don’t formally become members. “Asked why, they say that they are planning on moving out of Ridgewood or back to Poland. Sometimes they are reluctant to register because of their immigration status,” the father says.

Holy Cross in Maspeth is considered the biggest Polish parish in New York City. It gathers 1,500 Polish-American families, or approximately 4,600 people (not counting these who have not registered). The Polish language school that the parish hosts also is considered one of the largest in the whole greater New York area with more than 500 students attending the Saturday and Friday classes.

All in all, Polish priests estimate that in all New York City, there are 30 Masses in Polish each Sunday and the oldest Polish parish in New York City is St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr in Manhattan.

Churches outside NYC

A significant portion of Polish Americans who used to live in the city have moved across the Hudson River to New Jersey. In the Archdiocese of Newark, there are 16 parishes with weekly Masses in Polish. Just like in New York City, the number of people attending the Sunday Mass has shrunk in these churches in the last 20 years from 17,000 to 13,000.

Still, the Polish parishes have remained the centers of cultural life for Polish Americans here. Many of them have attracted the newcomers from Brooklyn or Queens. This is the case at St. Theresa of the Child Jesus in Linden. “Last year we registered 68 families, and many of them had moved here from Brooklyn,” says Rev. Miroslaw Krol, who is also the custodian of the Archdiocesan Shrine of St. John Paul II which was created in the parish more than two years ago. His new parishioners have settled in Linden as well as in the neighboring Colonia and Cranford.

The parish currently has 1,500 families registered, with more than half of them Polish immigrants. “A big percentage of the rest are children and grandchildren of immigrants from Poland. Although they were born in the U.S. they still cherish their Polish heritage and willingly participate in the life of the parish,” says Rev. Krol.

Some people, like Stella Repmann, 96, have been with the parish for decades. Repmann is a daughter of immigrants from Poland who participated in the building of the church. “Stella still speaks some Polish and comes to church regularly with her daughter and son. Born here and not speaking the language of their grandparents, Stella’s children nonetheless feel Polish and make this church their home. This faithfulness to their roots is very touching,” says father Krol.

Centers of the Polish community

Despite shrinking numbers, the Polish parishes are thriving with life. St. Stanislaus Kostka in Greenpoint has six Masses in Polish on weekends and a Sunday Mass for kids – the only one of its kind in Brooklyn – which gathers around 120 children, ages 2-12.

St. Frances de Chantal has become famous for its Good Friday’s Way of the Cross procession that marches along a two-mile stretch on Brooklyn streets. As many as 2,000 people participate in it. “For our parishioners who come from the southeastern parts of Poland the Way of the Cross procession is a traditional symbol of faith. That’s why they want to continue this tradition on American soil,” says Rev. Kurowski.

In 2005, the plaza in front of the church became adorned with one of the most spectacular – in parishioners’ view – monuments of St. John Paul II. Just like other statues of the Polish pope – in Ridgewood and Ozone Park – this one was made by a Polish artist in Krakow.

Almost every Polish parish is home to a Polish language school, has a number of prayer groups for both younger and older parishioners, as well as cultural activities throughout the year. Holly Cross in Maspeth, for example, hosts a number of secular groups such as St. Hubert Hunting and Fishing Club, and music bands like Te Deum and Gaudete that participate in many church celebrations.

It is no different in Linden, New Jersey, where besides the Rosary Group, a prayer group for children and the choir, there is the first Polish-American chapter of the Knights of Columbus. Last year a new Polish language school opened in the building – formerly used by a Catholic school. The church also runs support groups for the grieving, alcoholics and people with other addictions.

“For Polish immigrants, a church that speaks their language is something more than a church in Poland. It does not only feed their spiritual needs but is a center of social and cultural life. That’s why each Polish parish organizes picnics in the summer, Christmas feasts in winter and concerts, lectures and other gatherings throughout the year. In this sense a Polish parish is an extension of Poland and helps the immigrants maintain ties to their heritage,” says Rev. Krol.

[Editor’s note: In Nowy Dziennik’s printed edition, the report on churches was accompanied by two stories on two historical churches, built over a century ago by Polish immigrants and now slated for closing by their respective archbishops. In both cases the Polish community is doing what they can financially and legally to save the churches, St. Joseph’s in Poughkeepsie and St. Laurentius in Philadelphia.]

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