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Feb 28, 2024

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Orchard Lake – Can It Be Saved?

Reflections on a precious gem in Polonia’s crown

By Robert Strybel
Polish/Polonian Affairs Writer

Fresh out of the University of Wisconsin with an MA in Polish Language and Literature, I landed my first college teaching job at the beautiful, lakeside campus of the Orchard Lake Schools (OLS). They had started out as the Polish Seminary, set up in Detroit in 1885 by Father Józef Dąbrowski to train priests for America’s rapidly expanding Polonia. In 1910. it was moved to its present location some 30 miles north of Detroit. It eventually expanded to include St Mary’s College and St Mary’s Preparatory.

Years later, when I began teaching Polish-related subjects there, SS Cyril and Methodius Seminary was still training Polish-speaking priests for Polonia. The college was a minor seminary with upperclassmen coming to class in black, floor-length cassocks, and PolAm boys dominated the enrollment of the highly sports-minded St Mary’s Preparatory. Much has changed over the years.

In 2003, the last time I taught there, the Seminary was training Polish-born seminarians to minister in English to priest-short American dioceses. St Mary’s College had become a four-year, co-educational liberal arts college, but at the end of that academic years was taken over by Madonna University of Livonia. MI. Many said Polonia was to blame for failing to send its kids to a Polish-American college.

Then in July 2021, the closure of SS Cyril and Methodius Seminary was announced with “declining enrollment caused by changing US demographics” among the reasons given. But the Seminary and remaining OLS were far more than just educational institutions.

This was a unique Polonian cultural stronghold that had hosted PolAm retreats and conventions as well as cultural and patriotic events. Cardinal Karol Wojtyła had referred to the OLS as “serce Polonii” (“the heart of Polonia”), when he visited before becoming pope.

One Sunday a month has been Polish Day, when visitors can attend a Polish mass, tour campus, visit the bookstore, the Galeria (art gallery), Central Polonian Archives and a number of mini-museums dedicated to Poland’s World War II veterans. Then things could be topped off with home-style Polish dinner.

At present, the Galeria is undergoing renovation and is closed to the public, access to the, archives and museums is not what it once was and their resources are reportedly scattered, The Polish Mission which was to have been in charge of them has been without a director for some time,

A group of concerned PolAm intellectuals, professionals and activists calling themselves Polskie Lobby (Polish Lobby) have been desperately appealing to the Board of Regents to save the Seminary and hope to salvage Orchard Lake’s Polish-American cultural identity, The seminary’s new rector Father Bernard Witek is conferring with school officials and Polonian activists from Poland online, as he awaits an American work permit

Following months of the Polish Lobby’s spirited lobbying, in November 2021 the Seminary got at least a temporary reprieve. At a meeting, the Orchard Lake Regents voted to suspend the closure decision until a new reconstruction plan for the Seminary is submitted. Rector Witek and his team (several people from the Administration and Regents, were given until June 1st, 2022 to develop such a plan. But questions still remain.

Will half a year be enough time to draw up a comprehensive plan that will be approved by the Regents? Can Polonia’s unique cultural treasure, sustained for generations by our PolAm ancestors, still experience a renaissance? If so, when, in what form and who could bankroll such a project? These and similar questions continue to absorb and trouble PolAms deeply concerned over our Polonia’s future.

  There still are fears that St Mary’s Preparatory might be turned into a private, de-Polonized and de-Catholicized sports high school. After all, the 100-acre Orchard Lake campus is a temptingly prime piece of real estate worth millions of dollars. Let’s hope no-one decides to sell off piecemeal much or most of the property to finance the sports high school project or some other non-Polonian venture!

POSTSCRIPT: You can follow this developing story by e-mailing: polskielobby@gmail.com.

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