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  • Polish-American Catholicism: A Case Study in Cultural Determinism
  • James S. Pula

Why is it,” lamented Bishop Ignatius F. Horstmann of Cleveland, “that only the Poles cause trouble?”1 The bishop’s exasperated query reflected the frustration of many in the Roman Catholic hierarchy in America who were weary from years of disagreement, dispute, and dissent within not only the Polish ethnic laity but their clergy as well. To many in the hierarchy the fractious Poles were at best a constant nuisance, at worst a seriously insubordinate group of insurgents who refused to accept legitimate ecclesiastic authority. But why was it, as the bishop asked, that the Poles caused so much trouble? Why not the Italians, the Irish, or the many other peoples who maintained the Roman Catholic faith in their adopted land? Why the Poles?

Historians long ago identified many reasons why people chose to migrate, dividing these into “push” and “pull” factors—those that caused the immigrants to decide to leave their native land and those that beckoned them to a particular place as their new home. Among the “push” factors that motivated people to leave their original lands were a spectrum of negative issues such as wars, crop failures, famines, epidemics, unemployment, lack of religious or personal freedom, political or cultural repression, and forced military conscription. Perhaps because these reasons are considered negative, as motivations that force people to migrate rather than opportunities that summon them to a better life, historians long believed that the experience of immigrants in America was largely shaped by the traumatic upheaval in their lives occasioned by leaving all that was familiar behind them to move to a land that was foreign in nearly every sense. Oscar Handlin, a leading exponent of this interpretation, titled his pioneering work The Uprooted, a perfect description of the work’s focus on the social disorganization that he saw attending people torn from their traditions and values, thrust into a land whose culture was as alien as its language, and [End Page 1] forced by the demands of base survival to abandon their old ways in favor of those of the host culture.2 Similarly, those scholars who have focused their research on immigrant communities, and especially the independently-minded Poles, have tended to concentrate on immigrant responses to ambiguity, the new freedoms of the American environment, or perceived grievances against the Catholic hierarchy. Chief among the early works of this kind was the classic Polish Peasant in Europe and America by William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki. Informed by the social disorganization theories of the Chicago School of sociologists, the work focused, not surprisingly, on examples of social disintegration in the Polish immigrant community. Clearly, this approach leads in only one direction. Moreover, it does not explain why the Poles reacted to the same environment encountered by Italian, German, Spanish, French or other European Catholics, but with decidedly greater religious dissent and even schism.

Only during the past generation have revisionist historians seriously explored John Bodnar’s interpretation presented in his seminal work The Transplanted, whose title succinctly presents his thesis of European immigrants transplanted to America.3 Rather than torn from their roots, they bring their roots with them to be planted and nurtured in the new soil. Far from the traditional view of helpless pawns arriving with only the clothes on their backs, they were people who chose to migrate, people with initiative and aspirations. As Alan M. Kraut has noted, “weak, beaten men and women do not undertake transatlantic journeys to far-off lands unless they are herded aboard ship at gunpoint.”4 Most may have been poor, but they were not the “wretched refuse” made famous in Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” recited at the dedication of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Rather, they were the young, the brave, the imaginative, the ambitious, and the determined. They were people who made thoughtful and intelligent decisions in efforts to forge a better life for themselves and their families. With them they brought their Old World experiences and traditions, the cultural tools they adapted to meet the new challenges of urban America, in the process drawing upon their original culture...


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