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Left out in the cold: The story of Polish Catholics in Duluth

DCN Correspondent

The coldness of the Duluth winter could never equal the coldness of hearts that February morning in 1907, when the faithful priest and worshipers of St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish found the doors locked—the doors of the church they had sacrificed so much to build. They begged and pleaded, but in vain; Rome wanted no part of them.

Central Hillside holds a church with a history—a long history full of sacrifice and struggle. St. Josephat's Polish National Catholic Church was home to a group of Polish immigrants who, like many others, came to this country in search of a better lifestyle.

What they found was excommunication.

In 1872, the Catholic community of Central Hillside built Sacred Heart Parish. The number of Polish Catholic immigrants was increasing dramatically, demanding a new church be built. With a desire to keep their Polish traditions, a group of Polish families built a separatist church called St. Joseph's parish in Gnesen township, 10 miles north of Duluth.

Back then this was an all-day commute, so in 1881, another group of Polish families decided to build a church closer to home—in fact, it is only a few blocks from Sacred Heart. They called it St. Mary Star of the Sea.

Having always considered themselves devoutly Catholic, the congregation respected the traditional Catholic customs, while interweaving them with their own beliefs and practices—things such as making committees and having all of the services spoken in Polish. This created organization and harmony in the parish.

“It helped to attach the Polish people to their church, and made of it a 'Polish Catholic church,'? said a 1947 40th anniversary church publication. “From within, it preserved the language and the patriotic spirit for the immigrant; from without, it organized large congregations, built tremendous churches, hospitals, and orphanages.?

However, this peace and harmony was not to last forever.

Roman Catholics did not like that the Polish were deviating from the strict and sacred Catholic traditions, so they created the American Roman Catholic Hierarchy in an attempt to “Americanize? the Polish churches. Parishes were forced to assign their property to the Bishop of the diocese, committees were outlawed, and pastors were forced to assume the position of the Bishop's administrator.

The Polish continued to fight for their religion that they held so dear, but to no avail. Eventually, priests were suspended, congregations were excommunicated, and church buildings were closed to public worship.

In such a position on that February morning in 1907, the Polish Americans of St. Mary Star of the Sea, with nowhere else to turn, decided to gather at a Lutheran church just a few blocks away—at least there they were welcome.

It was here that they prayed. According to the 50th anniversary church publication, they prayed that God would grant them a church of their own—one that would accept them for who they were and never lock them out. They prayed even while the Roman Catholic members of St. Mary Star of the Sea threw mud and rocks at their temporary location, breaking the windows, but not their spirits.

This time, their struggle was not in vain.

That group of faithful Polish Americans, after mortgaging off their houses and giving all they had to the cause, finally got their own church: St. Josephat's Polish National Catholic Church. Although it was a church that broke away from the Roman Catholics who would not accept them, they kept the title of “Catholic,? because that is what they have always been—they were not willing to give up their religion.

“Our church is Catholic, universal, because she teaches all the Gospel of Jesus Christ,? said a 1957 50th anniversary church publication. “The holy scriptures are the foundation of our church as also the traditions of the early church which have been handed down to us through centuries; the word 'Catholic' indicates our faith is for all peoples, regardless of race or color, and of any church which adheres to the Christian faith and Gospel, recognizing Christ as the sole head of the church—and conforming to the traditions of the Apostles is Catholic in the true meaning of the word.?

In fact, being Catholic is one of the biggest things the Polish identified with.

“The 'Catholic' church was so much of their spirit, that many considered a non-Catholic Pole not Polish,? said a 1947 49th anniversary church publication.

However, the Roman Catholics kept them separate, and it is so even to this day.

“They are outside of our union,? said Richard Partika, a retired Catholic priest of many churches in the Duluth area. “They broke away and became part of the national group that considered themselves very Catholic, but they are not part of our Catholic diocese.?

Robin Brazerol, current secretary of St. Josephat's, said that the Catholic Church does acknowledge the Polish Catholic Church, but only because they know the congregation considers themselves Catholic.

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St. Josephat's church around the year 1920 on the left, and present day on the right. (Left photo courtesy of Northeast Minnesota Historical Center Archives; right photo by Kendra Richards)

“They see us as the same, but not equal,? said Brazerol. “They would allow a Roman Catholic to come into our church to take communion, but they would not let a Polish Catholic take it in one of their churches.?

The excommunication did not stop the Polish Catholics, and neither did the financial struggle that came with the new church. The faithful priests and worshipers continued to give all they had, and successfully kept this church alive—this church that still stands and functions on the corner of East Fifth Street and Third Avenue East.

“Yet she stands in silent witness to the devotion of that small group of Christian men and women who have built her, who have borne the burden of her cost and maintenance, and who now keep her,? said a 1957 50th anniversary church publication. “She is a shrine, sacred and apart, for the worship of the Almighty God and His only begotten son Jesus Christ.?

And their struggle was not a selfish one. As of November 2006, the Polish National Catholic Church has 126 Parishes in the United States and Canada, with a membership of 60,000, according to the official Polish National Catholic Church Web site.


My father served the parish as its pastor in the early 1920s when it underwent another financial crisis and was threatened with be closed. My mother wrote quite a bit about their experiences there in her memoirs.

The church building itself was considered to be someting of an architectual marvel due to the lack of internal pillars. The old organ and the bells also were among the first in that part of Minnesota, she said.