- The National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa
The weather had not looked promising the morning of October 16, 1966. Rain had fallen and steady clouds persisted as busloads of pilgrims began to arrive at Doylestown, Pennsylvania, a rural community some thirty miles north of Philadelphia. Nearly 100,000 visitors were expected to descend upon the site that day for the dedication of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. The turnout promised to be greater than expected, bolstered by word that President Johnson and his family would be in attendance. It was to great relief, then, that worries were dispelled when the clouds broke and showers gave way to blue skies, sunshine, and fair fall weather. Planners could not have been more delighted, for this was a day that marked more than the dedication of a church. It also commemorated the one thousandth anniversary of the Christianization of Poland in 966. As one account commented, it was not simply a once in a lifetime event; it was a “once in a millennium” celebration.1
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the dedication of “American Czestochowa,” as the shrine has come to be known. Conceived in an era of Catholic triumphalism and taking shape amid Cold War concern for the fate of Catholicism behind the Iron Curtain, it drew support from Polish-American Catholics looking not only to honor Poland’s patroness, but to celebrate and preserve their religious and cultural heritage. Although the project faced financial difficulties and some ancillary initiatives never materialized, the shrine quickly emerged as an important spiritual center for American Polonia. Looking back, the history of Czestochowa reveals the religious aspirations of the Polish American community and the strength of their devotionalism, as well as the ways that the shrine has maintained its relevance by recognizing and responding to their changing spiritual and cultural needs. [End Page 97]
An Ambitious Plan
The vision for an American Czestochowa came from Fr. Michael Zembrzuski (1908–2003), a member of the Pauline Fathers, a religious community founded in Hungary in the thirteenth century. In 1382, the order established a monastery at Czestochowa, near Krakow, and were entrusted with the care of the icon of the Black Madonna, an image attributed to Saint Luke, venerated as the protectress of Poland. Zembrzuski came to the United States in 1951, having been sent here by his order to establish an American foundation after he and his community were forced out of Hungary when the Communists seized power. Serving first as a missionary priest among various Polish parishes, he secured permission in 1953 to purchase a 40-acre tract of land near Doylestown and establish a monastery. The site included a small barn, which Zembrzuski converted for use as a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Czestochowa.2 His desire was to make the monastery and chapel a site of pilgrimage and devotion, just like its counterpart in Poland.
[End Page 98]
In short measure, Zembruszki’s ambitions led him to conceive of even greater possibilities for the Doylestown site. In 1958, he commissioned Wladyslaw Biernacki-Poray, a Polish-born architect from Montclair, New Jersey, to draw up a master plan for the property, which had increased in size with the acquisition of a neighboring hilltop that reminded Zembrzuski of Jasna Gora, or Bright Hill, the location of the Czestochowa monastery in Poland. With the shrine church and monastery as the focal points, the plan also called for an assembly plaza, retreat center, outdoor Stations of the Cross, amphitheater, motel, housing colony for the elderly, school, sports fields, and ample parking.3 Zembrzuski dreamed of drawing thousands annually to a place where Polish-American Catholics could share their rich spiritual heritage with the rest of the nation, with the hope that Czestochowa would one day “be as well known as the Blessed Virgin of Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe, Einsiedeln and other miraculous places.”4
[End Page 99]