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A Social History of Polish-American Catholicism

From: U.S. Catholic Historian
Volume 27, Number 3, Summer 2009
pp. 21-43 | 10.1353/cht.0.0018

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Just over 9 million Americans claim Polish ancestry. The vast majority of Polish Americans are descendants of immigrants who arrived on America’s shores during the period from 1880 to 1924. Most settled in the Midwest, Great Lakes, and Northeast though significant communities were founded in Texas and smaller communities in the West. Newer waves of Polish immigrants arrived following World War II and again in the 1980s and 1990s. Collectively this population is referred to as “Polonia.”1

The great majority of Polish Americans is and always has been Roman Catholic at least by baptism. Although pre-World War II Poland was a multi-ethnic and multiconfessional country, the process of immigration galvanized and re-created ethnic identities in the New World context. For example, Polish Jews, who also emigrated in large numbers during the same time period as their Catholic neighbors, largely identified as Jewish American or Russian Jewish in America.2 Their historical trajectory in the United States is quite different.

Non-Catholic Poles in America never made up more than five percent of the total Polish-American population though it must admitted that it is impossible to affix precise numbers to many of the smaller groups. The largest and most prominent non-Catholic group in Polonia is the schismatic Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC), which broke with Rome in 1897 over issues of parish control and the lack of Polishspeaking bishops in the U.S. hierarchy. As of 2009, the PNCC has about 25,000 members in the U.S. and Canada.3 There was a group of Polish Lutherans who belonged to the Missouri Synod.4 A few Polish Baptist congregations existed in urban enclaves.5 A small number of Polish Tartars arrived in the U.S. and established a mosque in Brooklyn in 1926. A couple of small communities of Polish Mariavites were founded in the 1920s representing a schismatic sect that originated in the early twentieth century Poland.6 The number of unchurched Polish Americans remained small, mirroring the larger population.

The history of Polish Americans and the history of Polish-American Catholicism are nearly but not perfectly synonymous. To be Polish in America has meant being Catholic. Non-Catholic phenomena in Polonia are interesting but marginal exceptions. The challenge then is to understand why Polishness in America and Catholicism became so closely intertwined.

Historiography

The proposition that to be Polish-American in the main has meant to be Catholic is not one that will remain unchallenged. There is a strong almost visceral aversion in many quarters to equating Polishness with Catholicism.7 Indeed, examining the relatively well-developed scholarly research on Polish Americans over the past thirty years, one is struck by the lack of interest in Catholicism as a critical factor in understanding the Polish-American experience. To understand this lacuna and thus the need for a social history of Polish-American Catholicism, a brief historiographic detour is needed.

Although the first research on Polish immigrant history began at the turn of twentieth century, systematic study of the topic began in the late 1940s and early 1950s.8 The main vehicle for this was the creation of the Polish American Historical Association (PAHA) in 1943, a scholarly research society dedicated to the study of Polish-American history and culture and an affiliated society of the American Historical Association. During the first thirty years of PAHA’s existence the majority of its active members were priests and women religious. By 1955, 9 of 10 PAHA members were clergy.9 Clergy also published half or more or the articles in PAHA’s journal, Polish American Studies during its first decade of publication. Between a quarter and a third of all articles dealt with ostensibly religious topics: biographies of prominent clerical leaders, parish histories, and histories of religious communities.10 Despite the “Catholic” nature of this body of research, there was little interest in the actual faith practices of Polish Americans, how their faith was understood, and how it shaped their life-worlds and culture.11

This situation changed significantly during the 1970s and early 1980s. Whereas clergy had once made up the majority of Polish Americans with higher education, by the 1970s a...