The stirring story of the Polish National Catholic Church, newly admitted member of the National Council of Churches, is one of irrepressible freedom. It is a story of belated Reformation, with all the conflict and struggle that marked that phase of church history, taking place in the 20th century on American shores.
The Polish National Catholic Church was not founded in Poland, but in the United States of America. And from the U. S. missionaries went back to Poland to establish in the homeland branches of this independent “national” church founded on foreign soil.
Now 61 years old, this church has had phenomenal growth. Starting in 1897 with little money but great enthusiasm, 156 local churches have been organized in this country to date. In most of them three services must be held on Sunday to serve a membership of 272,082. In addition, before communism cut off the diocese in Poland in 1951, parishes in that country numbered 122.
The drama begins in the 9th century when Cyril and Methodius brought Christianity from Constantinople to the scattered Slavic peoples, giving them their first Slavic alphabet, translating the Scriptures for them into the common language, and conducting worship for them in that tongue. Thus, Christianity was accepted by the Slavic people as a national religion, a church of a people united by language and a spirit of brotherhood.
In the year 965, when Otto the Great had already incorporated other Slavic nations into the Holy Roman Empire, the Poles accepted Roman Catholicism in an attempt to ward off one pretext for German intervention. Their Slavic liturgy was soon replaced by Latin services. This and other encroachments stirred them to seek independence when the Reformation was stirring in other lands. But the tide was stemmed and with the dismemberment of Poland and alien rule, many Poles fled to other countries.
An increasing stream of immigrants poured into the United States until nearly a million Poles resided there in the decade preceding World War 1. They brought with them their religious fervor and their dream of freedom and sought to recreate the community life they had known in the homeland. There the parish was the center of everything, where they had not only prayed with family, relatives and neighbors, but where they had participated in community activities and festivals and sung music half-popular, half-liturgical, the peculiarly Polish Christmas carols, the Kolenda, and tragic Gorzkie Zale Lamentations in memory of Christ’s passion. In the U. S. as in Poland, the church was an integral part of daily life.
At the turn of the century there were nearly 200 Polish parishes scattered throughout the U. S. The demand for new parishes outstripped the Roman Catholic Church’s willingness or ability to create them. There were no Polish bishops and the Poles said the Irish-German hierarchy had little concern for their welfare. They saw themselves relegated to second-class membership with no rights, only obligations.
They could not establish a church of their own without securing the bishop’s approval and they had to accept the pastor he appointed. When the houses of worship they had erected in the new country through toil and sacrifice were declared to be the sole possession of the bishops of the various dioceses, they were outraged. They particularly resented orders to give up teaching the Polish language and culture in their parish schools.
Discontent blazed into open revolt and mass upheavals took place in numerous Polish communities, among them Chicago, Cleveland and Buffalo, as well as smaller communities in New England and New Jersey.
In Scranton, Pa., a parish delegation of Polish anthracite miners and factory workers, who made up the congregation of the large and imposing Sacred Heart Church to which they had contributed hard-earned funds, requested lay representation in parish affairs. They were refused. A group then tried to block entrance of the priest into the church. The diocesan bishop called the police and a riot developed. Fifty-two persons were arrested.
Within weeks, the alienated groups organized a new parish and a few months later purchased land for a new church. They invited a young Polish-born priest, Father Francis Hodur, who had already endeared himself by participating in social work, publishing one of the first parish newspapers, and otherwise showing his concern for their welfare, to accept leadership of their flock. It was a fateful decision for him and he knew it, but on March 21, 1897, he celebrated Mass for them in the basement of the unfinished structure that was to become St. Stanislaus, mother church of the new movement. Two hundred fifty families formally united with the new parish.
Scarcely five months later the movement leaped beyond Scranton and began its march through the Pennsylvania anthracite fields. Other disaffected groups turned to Scranton for guidance. In April 1897 Father Hodur, a believer in the power of the press, started; weekly paper and in it poured out advice and encouragement, In February, 1898, he went to Rome and sought a recognition of American-Polish problems which he could not get from the American hierarchy. He was unsuccessful and the result was complete severance between Scranton and Rome. Father Hodur and the Scranton Parish were excommunicated. Father Hodur read the document to his congregation, then burned it and threw the ashes into the brook below the hill on which St. Stanislaus Cathedral stands. To the tolling of bells, people sang, prayed aloud, embraced each other and started their “new, free and dangerously expendable life.”
On Christmas Eve, 1900, the walls of the now completed St. Stanislaus Church resounded for the first time to Mass sung in the Polish language. Other Polish parishes followed suit.
Four years later, in September, 1904, the first Synod of the new Polish National Catholic Church was held in Scranton with 147 clerical and lay delegates representing two dozen parishes and 20,000 adherents in five states. Father Hodur was chosen Bishop-elect and administrator of the new church. People believed in him. They saw he was a true man of God. The Latin service books were ordered reprinted in Polish.
A theological seminary was established and a mutual benefit society – Spojnia – founded to serve the material needs of communicants. Spojnia has carried on extensive social, educational and humanitarian activities, giving financial aid to many students and youth organizations and publishing over 100,000 parish school books. Two large farms were bought for vacation camps, school societies and homes for the aged and disabled. The church owns its own printing plant and has published a mounting stream of newspapers and journals, pamphlets, prayer books and catechisms.
The first Synod defined the purpose of the new church as follows:
1. To sanctify people by introducing them to the living Christ;
2. To preach the pure Gospel of Jesus, interpreting it with sound knowledge;
3. To help mankind create a church which, in living practice, would meet the standards of Jesus Christ.
The new constitution had a decidedly American flavor. The source of sovereignty was declared to rest in each democratically organized parish, which owned, controlled and administered all parish property. The parish selected its own pastor, it paid pastoral and other salaries and had the right to elect to the General Synod one delegate for every 50 active members of the congregation. Ultimate and virtually complete authority was handed to the church’s legislative body, the General Synod.
The First General Synod of 1904 gave unquestioned support to the ancient Christian concept of Apostolic Succession, according to which no man could legitimately exercise episcopal authority without receiving that authority from a bishop who himself was in direct line of descent from the Apostles. Father Hodur was consecrated September 29, 1907 in St. Gertrude’s Cathedral, Utrecht, Holland. The consecrators were Most Rev. Gerard Gull Archbishop of Utrecht and head of the Old Catholic Churches of Europe; Rt. Rev. John Van Thiel, Bishop of Haarlem; and Rt. Rev. Michael Bartholomew Spit, Bishop of Deventer.
The Utrecht rite symbolized the establishment of Old Catholic intercommunion-a form of spiritual alliance between the American and European churches, and the passing on of Apostolic Succession. Thereafter the American denomination followed its own way without further recourse to Europe for assistance.
Within 20 years the membership of the new church had grown beyond all expectation. Seceding groups of Roman Catholic Slovaks and Lithuanians in New Jersey and Pennsylvania sought affiliation. New parishes appeared in New England, Minnesota and Missouri. To meet his problems of far-flung administration, Prime Bishop Hodur consecrated four additional bishops.
This growth was not achieved without generous giving by faithful parishioners, often at considerable personal sacrifice, and gifts of labor as well as money. At Kewanee, Ill., and Richmond, Tex., for instance, men and women turned out en masse and built their churches with their own hands. Many congregations assumed their church mortgages so that they owed nothing to anybody but themselves. In the depression of the 30s, members of the Duluth, Minn., congregation mortgaged their own homes and saved their church from liquidation. During a veritable scourge of fires, memberships doggedly rebuilt their churches: once at Nanticoke, Pa. (1910) and Dickson City, Pa. (1920), and once at Trenton, N. J. (1947); twice at Bayonne, N. J. (1912 and 1915) and three times at Duryea, Pa. People do not desert what they own and have won by sacrifice.
After World War I, in sending relief aid to the new republic of Poland, the American Polish National Catholic Church sent missionaries as well. The work took root despite opposition by the established churches, police and civil authorities. Before the Nazi invasion blighted all growth, the church claimed a membership in Poland of 50,000 people, organized in a diocese of 56 parishes.
After the eclipse of the war and loss of one-third of its priests, the church achieved a remarkably swift revival and by early 1950 had, as had been said, 122 parishes in the homeland, staffed however, by only 70 priests. In 1951 the Bishop in Poland became a victim of communism and died in a communist prison at Warsaw.
The outward symbol of the oneness of all churches within the Christian Catholic family which had been demonstrated at Utrecht in 1907, was demonstrated again in 1956 when the Polish National Catholic Church entered into intercommunion with the Anglican Church of England and the Episcopal Church of the U. S. and Canada.
In 1948 when the World Council of Churches was founded in Amsterdam the Polish National Catholic Church was a part. In the United States as well as in Poland the Polish National Catholic Church has cooperated in the general activities of the local church federations except in sacramental or liturgical functions. Membership in the National Council of Churches, delayed by the long illness of Bishop Hodur, was granted at the Council’s General Assembly in St. Louis last December.
Prime Bishop Hodur, active to the last day of his earthly life as head of the Polish National Catholic Church, made 14 trips to the homeland. In 1936 a lasting illness claimed him and for eight years prior to his death he was blind. Despite these handicaps and the infirmities of age, he nevertheless preached every Sunday to his congregation in Scranton until February 8, 1953, by means of a loud-speaking system which carried his voice from the rectory into the church. A week later, on February 16, he died at the age of 86. Three bishops of the Episcopal Church took part in his funeral services: Rt. Rev. Charles Street of Chicago, Rt. Rev. Frederick Warneke of Bethlehem, Pa., and Rt. Rev. Lauriston Scalfe of Buffalo, N. Y.
The present Prime Bishop is Most Rev, Leon Grochowski, who also heads the Central Diocese with headquarters at St. Stanislaus Cathedral, Scranton, Pa. Other dioceses with incumbent bishops include: Eastern, headed by Rt. Rev. Joseph Soltysiak, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Manchester, N. H.; Western, headed by Rt. Rev. Joseph Kardas, All Saints Cathedral Chicago, Ill., (the Rt. Rev, Francis Rowinski is the Bishop of the Western Diocese since 1959) and Buffalo-Pittsburgh, headed by Rt. Rev. Thaddeus F. Zielinski, Holy Mother of the Rosary Cathedral, Buffalo, N. Y.
There are 156 parishes and 136 ordained clergy having charges today, with a membership, as stated above of 265,870 in the U. S. and 7,600 in Canada. Sunday schools in the U.S. number 216 and every parish has a parish school which holds classes after the regular public school hours and on Saturdays. These schools have a two-fold purpose to teach the Polish language and to impart religious instruction. The use of the Polish language in the Mass and other services is a basic principle although use of English in preaching and in administration of the sacraments is being introduced where needed.
The Synod of July 1958, Chicago Ill., decreed that, where expedient, parishes may institute the practice of one Mass in English in addition to the Polish Masses.
The rites and ceremonies are Catholic in form. In 1928 Bishop Francis Bonczak, editor of Polska Odrodzona, a weekly then published in Krakow, Poland, wrote:
“The form of worship is like style in architecture. It is a reflection of the soul of the worshippers, an outward expression of their inner devotion to and adoration of their object of worship–God. The form of worship, therefore, should not be antiquated, stiff, imitative, but natural, sublime, elevating. A reform in this particular is very much in order. A service of worship should be beautiful, brief, simple, and inspiring. The liturgy of the Polish National Catholic Church should be light in form and deep in content. It should contain prayers and readings expressive of the deep religious experience of our Polish poets and writers. What they said and wrote flowed from truly Polish hearts. The rich bequest of their thought and experience should be incorporated into our religious life and into our worship”.
Seven sacraments are practiced, with baptism and confirmation reckoned as one sacrament since confirmation is the completion of baptism. The Word of God heard and preached is also proclaimed as a sacrament.
Two forms of confessions are now in general use: private confession for children and young people up to the age of 21 and a general public confession for adults.
The doctrine of the Polish National Catholic Church is founded on the Holy Scripture, Holy Traditions, and four Ecumenical Synods of the undivided Church. This doctrine is expanded in the Credo as adopted by the General Synods and in the Eleven Great Principles.
“To bear the light of Jesus Christ before men, to bring constantly to our minds that our purpose is a life in the spirit of God, in the spirit of truth, love and righteousness, to help us grow like Christ Himself through fulfillment of our duties to God, family, nation and humanity-that is the appeal, the mandate and the purpose of the Polish National Catholic Church.”