By Niveen Saleh, Kathy Sitko, and Piotr Horbal

The Catholic Church played a key role in shaping Chicago’s Polish community as immigrants assimilated to their new home. Beginning in the early 1800‘s, a wide influx of Catholic immigrants came to the urban city in search of jobs. There was a mass uprising in Germany and a famine in Ireland, which lead to massive immigration to America. This shifted religion in America, where there was a Protestant majority. As Catholicism grew a wider appeal, there also followed a massive decline in anti-Catholic groups. On the south side of Chicago, Poles worked at the steel mills and used the rest of their time to participate in their own community. For this reason, The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish was built next to the steel mills in 1882, giving Poles the opportunity to come together through Catholicism. Polish Immigrants were a great example of the immigrants who moved near of adjacent to factories. Since Poles couldn’t find other jobs and transportation was rare, they had to settle near their work in order to provide for their families. Factory income was as low as $800 a year. It is important to note that Poles did not want to only get close to their community, they also wanted to become closer to America. It was common for them to listen to the Star Spangled Banner translated in Polish and they were enthusiastic supporters of America’s role in WWII. Even during those times of hardship and adversity, such as the war, Chicago Poles took great pride in their new home and stood by their country’s side. The intrigue behind Poles lied in the fact that they are an assimilating people, who took their new living situation as an opportunity, rather than as a setback. There was not a reason for them to stop being Polish because they took it upon themselves to grow as an American community while never losing their Polish roots. Although it proved a difficult task, Poles did so happily with the help of the Catholic Church; the fruits of their work could be seen in the Chicago Polish community and in The Immaculate Conception, where core values and morals have remained intact.

In the mid 1800’s, Germany and Prussia took over Poland, forcing Poles to desert their customs and religion. The people of Poland had to make drastic decisions. Some fought for their country and stayed; others escaped so they could practice their religion and stay true to tradition. Eighty percent of Polish immigrants came from Prussian Poland. According to census reports, twenty thousand Polish immigrants that lived in Chicago in 1875 were from the area that Prussia took over. Polish people moved to Chicago since it had more opportunities for work than rural areas: “By the mid 1880s the Polish population of Chicago had grown to 45,000 in a city of over a million people” (Kantowicz 12). This made living in the new country a lot easier.  If they needed help they would go to someone who knew the language and could probably help them. They were also able to practice their religion, something that was denied to them in Poland. Their Polish heritage was the main thing they wanted to keep cherished. Since most of the immigrants came from a land where their religion and beliefs were banished, they had much respect for what wasn’t lost. The fact that the people valued their heritage so much that they moved to a different country to keep their values, tradition, and most importantly keep practicing their faith.  The people found that moving to a new land they would be able to keep practicing their faith and hold onto their treasured heritage. For more organization and community, in the late 1800s, Catholics started to develop territorial parishes. These parishes would draw the invisible line of what kind of nationality was there. Everyone living in a specified area would attend that church. This way, Catholics could feel a sense of belonging no matter where they lived in Chicago.

Poles used Immaculate Conception not only for means of worship, but also a way to solidify their connection to Poland during struggle. During WWI, Benedict XV helped the parishioners of Immaculate Conception. And the parishioners worked really hard to fight for their independence by giving money to their ties in their home country. During 1918, the parish of Immaculate Conception made sacrifices in order to restore independence in Poland. Also, Pope Pius XI played a major role during this time. His connection is understandable, given that he is from Poland. It is undeniable that both the Chicago Poland community and the Pope had the same goals in mind, which was assisting Poland. He did many things to help Poland gain independence such as funding for the poor. Poles felt a responsibility to Poland. Even though they may live in America, they maintained close ties to their homeland and its wellbeing.

Immaculate Conception was also created because immigrants were concerned about their children’s future and wanted them to feel a sense of community. This way, the kids would not lose their ethnic values and their heritage after leaving the parochial school. So the parishioners decided to make sodalities and groups to keep themselves and their children tied to their heritage. The Federation of Polish Catholics was founded so that the youth could stay in their ethnic circle while doing activities, such as theatrical productions. Other groups were followed by this one were the Polish Alliance Catholic Union and the Polish Falcons. The reason for these groups were that the groups were a way to exercise Polish heritage. The name of the groups can even indicate this. “Polish Catholic” was an identity, and a cherished one. The people from Poland who came to America wanted other ways to make sure they would never lose their native tongue, especially given the harsh reality that those simple rights were forbidden in Poland. There lied a persistence and constant reminding that Poles needed to appreciate their language and culture because of the oppression their people faced back home. Coming to America would mean that the people would have a new start, but they never forgot the past. Through staying connected with the Catholic Church, Poles kept their ways and traditions through their belief in God and the church they were a given a chance, which ultimately helped them leave their past horror behind.

Polish immigrants in Chicago took pride in their loyalty to their new home in America, before, during, after World War II. While they maintained their culture and roots, they also understood the importance of assimilating and standing by their country. Poland was under Hitler’s rule during World War II during 1939, so Polish immigrants wanted to make sure that the same thing didn’t happen to America: “Poles represented 4 percent of the US population, but absorbed 12 percent of the war casualties” (Jones and Holli, 294). The first Chicago boy that was killed from WWII was a Polish boy from St. Aldabert’s parish, located on the north side of 17th Street.

In the early 1900s, the parish grew. The community of Polish people still had their beliefs and second and third generation Polish people were close to their tradition as well as their belief.  The parish was like one whole family where the parishioners and the priests can be together. Father Wojtalewicz, Immaculate Conception’s priest, placed a large importance on the church’s children: Father Wojtalewicz’s notes stated that the kids went on field trips to Skautow, a nearby Polish place for the children to visit their roots. He was also a huge help to the people by being their mentor as well as making sure funds and charities to help the poor. One large gathering in which the parish is proud of is when President Taft came to visit the church on March, 10 1912: “The Alliance Papers declared, on the eve of the primary election, ‘The visit of President Taft to a Polish school and to Polish schoolchildren in South Chicago is important in the epoch of present day Polish emigration.’” This was the first time that a US president delivered an address to south Chicagoan nonvoting schoolchildren.  Around ten thousand people showed up to this event and its significance lied in the event’s aftermath. Up until the 1940s, the chair which Taft sat in at Immaculate Conception was preserved by the parish pastor. This illustrates the significance Poles placed on America, to the point where they would appreciate a president’s visit to this extent.

Taking a closer look into Immaculate Conception, sodalities were a great way for the Polish community to remain close to their heritage while practicing Catholicism. It also helped priests and people become linked and share equal hobbies. The parish had several parochial societies such as the Holy name Society which promoted love, and honor for the Most Holy Name of Jesus. There was also a sodality for young women at the church called The Children of Mary Sodality, whose main purpose was to foster a greater love and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The young girls would also have “club nights” on Fridays, which involved doing homework, dancing, and playing games. The Young Ladies Sodality was made around the late 1800s. In 1907 the sodality had around 400 members which were single young ladies who had to be at least 16 years of age.  The sodality was also devoted to Our Blessed Lady that will manifest itself in personal holiness and active Catholicity. There were group retreats that took place every June. The Chi-Rio club was made for children that attended public high schools. This was how children would carry on religious training and education. The club had around 250 members in the 1960s. After spiritual meetings, the members have their social period of dancing, playing pool or other games. Picnics were also arranged around summertime. The Polish heritage implied through the church made people proud to be Polish. These young Polish people of immigrants knew the struggle of their parents are were thankful to be in a country were they were not being fought.

The legacy that was passed down by Polish-Americans concerned struggle: to be simultaneously grateful of their new home in America and their culture from Poland. These ideals undoubtedly instilled good values that fall in line with the Catholic Church’s teachings, which is to help each other and remain humble. Priests wanted to shape the children's lives for the better. In Father Wojtalewicz’s notes, it was stated that it is important for the children to attend mass everyday and go to Polish school weekly. Through mass and church involvement, Polish children learned generosity and religion in the Polish language. By connecting heritage and religion into one, priests were insured that their lessons would be more easily engraved into young minds. For this reason, Polish children were participating in America’s betterment when it comes to education and employment. More and more Poles majored in nursing, engineering, law, architecture, and chemistry. One aspect of this finding was shown through a report that showed in 1938 there were eight hundred Polish physicians, and by 1957 there were around three thousand. The Catholic Church in Chicago assisted Poles to remain by each other’s side in order to be stronger, while living in a country oceans away from home. And by doing so, Poles have created their own sense of home, to which they have always contributed since immigration and still continue to do so.

Further Reading:

Melvin G. Holli and Peter D'Alroy Jones, eds. Ethnic Chicago: A Multicultural Portrait (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994).

Edward R. Kantowicz, Polish-American Politics in Chicago: 1888-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1975).