The Origin and Growth of the First Polish Parish in Detroit, Part 1 of 2
by Ludwik Gozdawa
Deeply religious and nationalistic Poles who arrived to the United States began organizing themselves around the churches. The church spires constituted the focal point for the newly born Polish settlement while the settlements grew around them.
A decision to build a church was a very important event in the history of every local Polish group in America.
Twenty burdensome years passed before numerous Poles, brought to Detroit by their relatives, friends, and acquaintances, felt themselves in a position to display their strength and to support their own church and priest.
This idea germinated toward 1860 and became realized in 1871. Up to this time, the Poles attended services, christenings, weddings and funerals in the German church of St. Joseph's on Gratiot Avenue. It was the nearest one to their homes. Occasionally, some Polish priests traveling in the United States visited this church and from time to time were dispatched to Detroit by their superiors at the demands of the Detroit Diocesan authorities.
Fr. Simon Wieczorek, a former Polish participant in the Insurrection of 1863 and a member of the Resurrection Order wrote to Rome as follows on January 25, 1871:
“There were already four Polish chaplains in Detroit seeking a position but . . . as they were of dubious reputation and familiar only with the Polish tongue the Bishop was hesitant to employ them, although there are many Poles in Detroit who try to obtain Polish chaplains. I travel to Detroit only during the summer season; it is but six hours journey from me."
Old Poles often remarked about Fr. Julian Maciejewski, priest of French-German parish in Greenfield, Michigan, who frequently traveled to Detroit in the 1860's and sometimes took a group of Polish Detroiters on farmers' wagons for church services in his church. Fr. Maciejewski rests in Mt. Elliott Cemetery next to the grave of Fr. John Lemke.
Fr. Maciejewski, Fr. Szulak - a Jesuit, and Fr. Wieczorek a Resurrectionist, must have used warm persuasions on the Polish Detroiters to establish a parish society here as they had done on their countrymen in Posen, Parisville, and Buffalo. The insulting attitude toward the Poles of the parish priest of St. Joseph's helped in the establishment of the first Polish parish in Detroit.
In 1870, the German parishioners of St. Joseph's decided to build a new church to replace the old, wooden one. The Poles announced their readiness to take an active part in the collection of contributions and donations provided that they would become parishioners with full rights.
The offer was accepted. However, it was proposed that the Polish pews be segregated from the German pews. The Poles would not take such an affront and decided to build their own religious sanctuary and their own parish.
There are three documents from which we learn that in 1870 there were a great number of Poles in Detroit. At that time, the delegation of the first Polish society - the Brotherhood of St. Stanislaus Kostka - visited Bishop Borgess asking for his permission to establish a church. Permission was granted. Four of the delegates, farmer John Kolodziejczyk, tailor John Lemke and two citizens of unknown profession, Anthony Trepa and Anthony Ostrowski, began making inventories. Simultaneously, a specially selected committee energetically applied itself to the task of collecting donations for the building of the church.
On the advice of Mr. Pulte, a German, the land for the church was purchased from Mr. Moran (W. Smodczynski holds that this wealthy farmer donated the land for the church, but Fr. Kruszka whose information we feel is more reliable, differs on this point.) According to Fr. Kruszka $1,200 was paid for this land. The Bishop inspected the land, praised the choice of the site and gave the committee his blessing.
The moving spirit behind the whole undertaking was Fr. Simon Wieczorek, at least we must so judge from his letter of April 23, 1871, written to Fr. Adolph Bakanowski.
"The Bishop employed me as the intermediary for the Poles of Detroit in respect to organizing them and the building of the Polish church . . . To the present, I have done everything necessary for the building of the church, rectory and at the same time, a school. We have one lot 279 by 100 feet. We already have $4,000 in subscriptions. The church is to be 120 by 54 feet and 30 feet high. The house 40 by 30 feet and 18 feet high - very comfortable."
The building of the church of St. Albertus was begun on June 13, 1872. The construction progressed rapidly. Bishop Borgess who had consecrated the church in advance, nominated Fr. Wieezorek As a parish priest. Fr. Wieczorek had lived in Detroit since October, 1871 since the destruction of his church and rectory in Parisville, Michigan, during a conflagration on October 10, 1871.
Fr. Wieorek, the first Polish priest to head a church, retained his post for only a short time. He managed to beautify only the first page of the parish register of St. Albertus with a decorative drawing and to affix his seal carrying a French inscription: "Rev. Simon Wieczorek, missionary in Michigan, parish priest of Parisville." The first inscription of his name occurred on July 17, 1872 during the baptism of Julian Melin, son of Stanilaus and Anna, from the house of Rohr. The last was on May 14, 1873.
Continued next Friday