Polish Immigrant Piety
The following description of Polonian immigration in early America by Rev. Joseph Szarek is so rewarding that I felt that you, my dear readers, should experience it…
Anyone desiring a proper understanding of the Polish people in the United States and their contribution to Western civilization must first reconstruct the life of the Polish immigrants in America. This cannot be rightly judged without correctly interpreting all the recorded history of their past in the light of the vital problems confronting the early Polish settlers during the period of their adjustment to the new life on an alien soil. One was the economic struggle to earn a living; they were ousted from their beloved native land by conditions that made their life unbearable under the foreign occupants of Poland. The other inseparable factor was their desire to practice the faith of their forefathers according to the tradition of their homeland.
Every Pole carried with him concrete proof of the truth of the above statement. In order to be convinced of it, a glance into the bundles and parcels of these exiles was enough. The picture was always the same. Besides the indication of inseparable poverty a sacred picture with a prayer book girdled by a Rosary, and the armor of these exiles, which was to defend them from all misfortune and adversity, was the scapular, worn over the breast since childhood.
The piety of the Polish-Americans is so strongly founded in the belief brought from Poland and in its beautiful traditions that even the Catholic encyclopedias have given it immortality in its pages. We read: “Historically the Poles have been so circumstanced that their racial and religious sympathies completely coincide. So fused and intensified are these sentiments that it has been well said that the soul of Poland is naturalized Christianity…the generosity of the American Poles is brought out into stronger relief, and their willingness to build and maintain their magnificent churches and institutes is deserving of the unbounded praise accorded them. Coupled with their deep faith, their intense nationalism acts as an incentive to generosity.
The records of our penal and elementary institutions fail to show that the Poles constitute a lawless element. The very low death rate among the Poles, in spite of abnormal conditions of living (high infant mortality and the heavy death rate in the mines and mills) is striking proof of their mortality. It is not unusual to see Polish churches in the United States filled with congregations in which the men far outnumber the women. This largely explained by the character of recent immigrants, but it may nevertheless be asserted that no other class of American Catholics can boast of a greater percentage of church-going men.”
When, therefore, the Poles found themselves in the Land of Freedom and breathed the air of peace it was not strange that, although they were the “aristocrats of the Slavic race,” they fell in love with the country, heart and soul, as a new Fatherland. They undertook the most strenuous and most difficult of jobs, accomplishing them to the satisfaction and acknowledgement of their employers. As proof of this it is enough to mention as little as this: that Henry Ford, who himself rose in the United States from a workingman to a great employer, commented very flatteringly, in his books, about the workers of Polish descent. He gave them credit for their enterprising ingeniousness, their varied abilities and their honest and earnest industry.
Having become familiar with the general outline of those who became pioneers, let us follow in their tracks into those immense virgin forests describing their unusual difficulties. “The crossing of the Alps, the building of the pyramids, the piercing of the mountains, the ascension of the Himalayas, the construction of the dams in mysterious Hindu land, the breaking of the pillars of Hercules…all fade away before the inhuman work, before the astounding work of clearing with the axe, a farm of virgin forest, of centuries-old trees of fabulous width and height and depth.
“They had, besides these awful trials, to suffer even from the elements of the sky – twice has the terrible and sinister forest fire, like the Angel of Death, flown over the whole country, pouring out the riot of desolation, of ruin, of panic, of terror and of despair over everything. They settled in these wild, thick forests where they never could see the sun in daytime nor the heavens and the stars in the night and endured sufferings and poverty and hardships and hunger and cold and nakedness and want of clothes and privations and danger that could be sung by the poets and are worthy of the inimitable, simple and sublime descriptions of Xenophon.”
We must remember this, that in those days there were no railways and even no roads. It was necessary to hack out a road and mark the trees, as with a thread in a labyrinth, so that one would not become lost in the forest. Besides this it was necessary to be prepared for attacks by all sorts of wild animals and for the bite of poisonous snakes, one could not dream even of hotels. All one’s possessions – if one had any – had to be carried on the back. After an all-day exertion one had to consider himself fortunate if he had any sort of patched-up hut, or something which would resemble a home or a shanty. One fell into a sound sleep amidst the howl of wolves and the strange sounds of other wild animals who came out to feed in the dark of night. Truly, under these conditions, one could not even venture his nose beyond the door, if one loved life.
A typical description of the first traces of that group of immigrants who today make up a large percentage of the Catholic population of the Detroit Diocese follows in the “Pioneer History of Huron County, Michigan, 1922” in which Mr. Peter Pawlowski compiled the outline of the township’s early history for the Huron Country Tribune, “which” – to quote – “no doubt are the most reliable records.” These “records” tell us that about 100 years ago Mr. Pawlowski’s father, Stephen, landed in this region with some tools and provisions which he had to carry on his back, fording streams, crossing marshes, and going around swamps which he could not cross, to make the first improvement on his farm.
Returning to Canada and speaking of felling the trees he said he had only “cut a hole in the sky.” Later he returned to this place with his wife. His son’s sketches state that “the early settlers were men of great courage and determination, and soon demonstrated this in reclaiming the marshy land, which, under their careful and painstaking mode of cultivation, rapidly became very productive soil.”
For historical accuracy, let us not leave this fact here. Before the white man came, Indians lived in the area covered by virgin forests. The Poles who came here had 17 Indian families as neighbors who lived in tepees of animal hides. These Indians were greatly attached to the Poles and committed no injuries to them but called them “White Brothers.”
One harsh winter during glacial frosts and towering snow drifts these poor Indians were completely cut off from the world. Not able to get any food by hunting, they were practically condemned to death by starvation. In despair they forced their way through to their nearest neighbor, one Kucharczyk, and begged for help. Kucharczyk gave them bread, potatoes and salt pork; the delighted Indians returned to their tepees.
After a time, when the snow and ice melted, the Indians flocked out to the hunt and one morning brought a deer to Kucharczyk in gratitude for his help. Furthermore, they made him gifts of various articles, such as jugs and woven baskets.
The early Polish settlers of Parisville brought the esthetic beauty and deep spiritual qualities and traditions of their own native country. The Pole typified the spirit of all men and women through the ages who have dreamed dreams, endured hardship and faced dangers to find a land such as ours, where freedom of worship can be practiced by all generations and by all people.
The other characteristic of the Polish people was their patriotism to the new country which they entered. They took part in the outstanding occurrences in the history of the world when the people have struggled for freedom; they fought courageously, risking not only position and wealth, but also their lives, to promote the causes of justice and freedom. But above all the Poles love the soil, from which their name originates; and this attachment to the soil is almost an inherited trait for it appears in succeeding generations. When other nationalities leave the farms and go to the cities we see the Poles loyal to the family land. This is evidenced by that most beautiful hymn, “We Will Not Abandon the Land Where We Were Born.” No force will deprive them of their soil!
See you soon, God be willing…