The Founding of Polonia

The Founding of Polonia
Native Realm
Michael Goc

The Poles who migrated to Portage County brought with them the culture they had known since birth. Their language, food, music, folk art, family customs, and religious faith accompanied them across the sea and remained part of their new lives. Of all these cultural features, perhaps none was more prominent than the Catholic faith. The church was the physical and spiritual hub of the villages these people had left. The forms and content of the faith were a source of continuity and stability in Poland and, if anything, were even more in demand on the Wisconsin frontier. The process of migration - leaving family, friends and familiar surroundings - was stressful enough to tax the emotional and spiritual reserves of any person. It was then followed by the fierce hardships of pioneering - of hacking a living out of a wilderness while isolated in a remote, foreign land.

It is no wonder that people who already placed great store in their faith should, in a time of great stress, become even more devoted to it. The struggles that the Poles, and other pioneers as well, endured to establish their churches and religious schools are testimony to their devotion. Yet, while the great need was evident, the pioneer Church was hard-pressed to meet it.

“Our Polish people are living without the Mass, Confession, Sunday sermon and adequate education,” wrote Father Joseph Dabrowski in the 1870s. He would devote his life toFather Josef Dabrowski meeting the spiritual and educational needs of Polish Americans and he began his career in Portage County.

The American Catholic Church of the 19th Century was an immigrant church. Although Catholics had lived in the United States since long before the nation was born, it was not until the arrival en masse of Irish and German immigrants in the 1840s and ‘50s that a large Catholic presence was felt. The settlement of much of Wisconsin also began in those years and the Irish and German immigrants brought their faith with them to Portage County. Two largely Irish-German Catholic parishes were important in the lives of the first Poles in Portage County. St. Stephen’s, on Clark and Cross Streets in Stevens Point, became the first Catholic parish in the county in 1856. Its congregation was a mix of Irish and Germans and services were conducted in the native tongues of both peoples, with the German predominating. Poles who arrived in Stevens Point attended German services at St. Stephen’s until St. Peter’s Polish parish was established in 1876.

More important than St. Stephen’s to the Polish pioneers of the county was the foundation of St. Martin’s in 1857. A Polish-born priest, Father John Polack, organized St. Martin’s to serve the German and Irish Catholics who had settled near an as-yet-unnamed country crossroads on the prairie a few miles east of the Jordan mill. Soon, the first Polish settlers arrived in the area and it didn’t take long for the Yankees, who viewed the newcomers as an exotic curiosity, to christen the crossroads “Poland Corners.”

By 1864, the fact of settlement caught up with the Yankee’s impression. More than forty Polish families, totaling several hundred people, were living in the vicinity of Poland Corners. They had successfully petitioned Milwaukee Bishop John Henni to charter a separate parish with a church only a few hundred feet away from St. Martin’s. It would be a Polish church, staffed by a Polish priest, with services conducted in Polish and named in honor of St. Joseph.

The necessity for such national churches had only recently been recognized by the Catholic hierarchy. The American Catholic population was becoming more ethnically diverse, more multilingual, and so must the Church. Parishes had to be organized according to ethnicity. Stevens Point, for example, would soon have St. Stephen’s for the Irish, St. Joseph’s for the Germans, and St. Peter’s for the Poles. The need for ethnic separation went beyond the mere necessity to conduct services in the language the congregation could understand. At both St. Stephen’s and St. Martin’s, as at St. Mary’s in Custer, Poles, no matter how numerous, were relegated to second-class membership. In 1867, Poland Corners received a post office and was officially named Ellis, in honor of the Mayor of Stevens Point. Ellis did not have a gristmill to bring farmers to town, but it was the marketing center for a growing farm community. With two churches and three combination taverns/general stores, it was a bustling little crossroads community. Sunday was the busiest day of the week, with virtually every farm family coming to the crossroads to attend church, shop and - for the men, at least - to stop for a drink.

The presence of a tavern directly across the road from St. Joseph’s Polish Church was especially disturbing. Pious Catholic mothers shepherded their children to Mass, while their less devoted husbands joined the riotous gang of frontiersmen at the bar. Throughout the late 1860s, as more settlers moved to the area, the gang grew large and loud enough to disturb the services. Four pastors, Fathers Buczynski, Szczepankiewicz, Juszkiewicz, and Zawistowski, tried but failed to halt the disturbances. The situation grew so serious that, between 1868 and 1870, Green Bay Bishop John Melcher refused to allow Catholic services at St. Joseph’s.

The Poles had all but lost their church when, at the end of 1871, Father Joseph Dabrowski came to Ellis. Only twenty-nine years old, he was an educated, talented, aggressive man, committed to the ministration of the Polish Catholic Church in the United States. He took over the pastorate of St. Joseph’s and vowed to remedy the scandalous situation there. To reduce the size of the Sunday crowd at Ellis, he encouraged Poles who had settled north of Stevens Point to build St. Casimir’s, and agreed to conduct services there. He asked the tavern keepers at Ellis to cooperate by closing on Sunday morning and preached to all the Poles who would listen, urging them to halt the drinking sprees.

Keeping a country tavern/store was a highly risky, competitive business and Ellis had three operations pursuing the local trade. Sunday was the most important trading day of the week, the only day when virtually every farm family came to town, and reducing hours then meant losing business. Worse, unless all three tavern keepers agreed to cooperate, none could; and not all three would.

The Polish men could have simply stayed out of the taverns, at least until after Mass, but, apparently farmers who had spent six long days on isolated homesteads cutting trees, grubbing stumps, and hauling stones, while building house and barn, could not resist temptation. Whiskey was part of, but not the entire attraction. Spending time at the village tavern visiting with other farmers was how Polish men socialized. In Poland, they all lived in the same village and could visit each other as often as they liked, but in Portage County they were scattered throughout the countryside. The village unity that had been the center of their lives in Poland was shattered here. Polish men coped with the stress and attempted to recapture some of the village unity they had known since birth on the one-day of the week they could. The Sunday situation in Ellis, scandalous as it may seem, was a symptom of the stress caused by the entire process of emigration and settlement. The reality of farming on the American frontier kept the men away from the closest thing they had to an old country village between Monday and Saturday, and they made up for it on Sunday morning.

For Dabrowski, the situation was intolerable. He was appalled at the disruption of church services, at the sad example the Polish fathers were setting for their children, and at the loss of respect for the Church that had been at the center of village life in Poland. Dabrowski came to the conclusion that, after years of struggle, no solution could be found at Ellis. He resolved that, if the ill consequences of the taverns could not be kept away from the church, the church would be moved away from the taverns.

Dabrowski had already struck up a friendship with the Hugh McGreer family. In fact, he had converted the Scots mill owner and his family to Catholicism. The McGreers, who employed many Poles in the woods and at their mill, were sympathetic to Dabrowski’s cause and offered twenty-acres of land not two miles away from Ellis as a new site for a church. The land was registered to Hugh McGreer’s wife, Hannah, who, in order to prevent a recurrence of the Ellis situation and probably at Dabrowski’s suggestion, stipulated in the bequest that no building unaffiliated to the parish could be built within one-quarter mile of the new church. 

Dabrowski announced the move on a Sunday and the next day a crew of parishioners assembled to dismantle St. Joseph’s. The work was fairly easy since the church was a wooden frame building. It was easy to knock apart and reassemble even though frame construction was a new style of architecture the Poles had never seen until they came to the United States. Dabrowski’s crew was not without opposition. A gang opposed to the move threatened the workers with angry words, axes and stones. One woman threw herself on the church bell after it had been removed from its tower and set on the ground. She clung to the bell and shouted insults at Dabrowski’s supporters. Through it all, the pastor urged his people to remain quiet and keep working. In a week, they took the church down, loaded it onto wagons and moved it off to the hilltop that Dabrowski had christened Polonia.

The church was reassembled and, in September 1872, the new parish was dedicated to honor the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin. The parishioners also built a rectory for Dabrowski. It was a two-story building with living quarters upstairs and a large room on the first floor that the pastor turned into a school. Once again, he called on the McGreer family for help and young Mary McGreer volunteered to conduct English classes. So it came to pass that the first teacher in the first Polish Catholic parochial school in Portage County was a convert of Scottish descent.

The Polish teachers soon came to Polonia. Dabrowski wrote to Cracow and invited the Third Order Franciscan Sisters of St. Felix to come to Wisconsin. The five Felicians who arrived in November 1874 - Sisters Wincentyna, Waclava, Rafaela, Monica and Cajetan - were the first Polish nuns in the United States. The school they staffed, along with English teacher Mary McGreer, became a magnet for Polish immigrants. Polish parents from all over central Wisconsin and as far away as Milwaukee sent their children to the school at the newly-renamed parish of the Sacred Heart.

The school was up and running but his old enemies at Ellis would not let Dabrowski rest. They attempted to lead his congregation astray by building another church at Ellis. It was known as the “red” church, because of the color of its roof. Its first and most effective pastor was a suspended priest, Father John Frydrychowicz. He conducted services at what was the first independent, but not the first National, Polish Catholic church in the United States. Frydrychowicz died in 1874 and the independent church maintained a tenuous existence until 1894, when its members abandoned it and joined Sacred Heart. The building itself stood until 1918, when it was dismantled and, ironically, the lumber may have been used to build the first school at Saint Stanislaus in Stevens Point.

The tavern keepers also took their battle to the courts and filed a suit arguing that Dabrowski and Bishop Melcher had conspired to destroy their businesses, and carried it all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court before it was defeated. One woman who depended on an Ellis tavern for her livelihood dropped off her three children at Dabrowski’s new rectory and told him to feed and house them, since he had taken away her means to do so. The priest took care of the children until the evening, when the mother sheepishly returned and apologized for her behavior.

Others were less apologetic. “Some devil in human form,” as the Stevens Point Daily Journal reported, “bored a large hole in a stick of stove wood, filled the cavity with powder, and placed the stick on the priest’s pile.” Dabrowski unwittingly put the stick into his parlor stove. It exploded and shattered the stove into a dozen deadly iron missiles. Dabrowski was spared, but only because he had momentarily left the room.

The fireworks continued after the Felicians arrived. In March 1875, fire destroyed the rectory Dabrowski had turned into a convent and in May, it destroyed the replacement he had hurriedly built. The sisters spent the summer of 1875 boarding in a nearby one-room school while a third convent was built for them. The second fire had also destroyed the wooden church that had been moved from Ellis. A new church, built of fire-proof stone, was already under construction, now with help from a $5,000 fire insurance policy that Dabrowski had wisely purchased.

The new stone Sacred Heart church was completed by the end of 1876. The material out of which it was built served as a fitting symbol for the rugged immigrants and their faith:2nd Sacred Heart Catholic Church stone laboriously cleared from the fields and artfully stacked into a house of worship that would serve as the center of a vibrant community.

Sacred Heart would grow to become the largest rural Catholic parish in Wisconsin. Its school would educate thousands in the ways of Polish-American Catholicism, while its orphanage would comfort generations of homeless children. It would serve as the springboard for the educational work of the Felician Sisters throughout the United States. But first it was a parish where the people of Polonia -Poles away from home - would center their lives.

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