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Act Now, Before It is Too Late

by Rev. Wally Rakoczy

Editor’s note: Fr. Rakoczy’s copy, written specifically for the Polonia of Northwest Indiana, applies to all Polish American communities.

I offer my reflections and observations on the state of the American Polonia, specifically here in Northwest Indiana.

Too often we see a problem in Polonia and blame it on the clergy, the fraternals, the people who have moved away, or the people who have stayed.

I was born and raised in the Indiana Harbor and Calumet sections of East Chicago. I have great grandparents who settled in northern Wisconsin after the Civil War, who became pioneers in Indiana Harbor, and an uncle by marriage who arrived after World War II. Most of my family is still in Northwest Indiana. I am the only one of my generation that speaks any Polish, although some understand it to a degree and most still feel “Polish.” Both my home (Polish) parishes are closed.

I was fortunate to study at Orchard Lake for college and seminary at the end of its ‘silver age’ – when most of the students were still of Polish ancestry and reveled in our Polishness. Orchard Lake was quite a place. Too bad Polonia never appreciated or supported it as it could.

This month, I will celebrate 40 years of priesthood. How much has changed, particularly in our little corner of the world! Just look at our Polish parishes.

Polish immigrants established 20 parishes in Indiana, beginning with St. Mary of Częstochowa in Otis (1873) and ending with Holy Family in Gary (1926). There were also a few farming communities in central Indiana that, for various reasons, never established a parish of their own (e.g., Ege). Fourteen of these parishes were in what is now the Diocese of Gary. Five have been closed, two are now missions, and several have been re-designated as territorial parishes. Of the remaining parishes, most are struggling and losing their Polish identity even quicker than they lose their Polish-speaking or Polish-identity pastors and parishioners. Mass is still celebrated for diminishing numbers in Polish at six parishes/missions, and five host Devotions in the Polish language. Excluding the Carmelites and Salvatorians, there are only three diocesan priests left who speak Polish to any degree. We are all three retired. Priests from Poland are not welcome in the diocese. Excluding the Albertines, there are practically no Polish religious order sisters left.

In times past, Polonia centered on the parish, the parafia. Here, faith and culture were preserved and passed on to the next generation, sometimes even despite a pastor who tried to “Americanize” his people. Across the country we see Polish parishes crumbling. Some parts of the country are fortunate to have alternate “Polish centers” to fall back upon, or have created new ones. The future of ministry to the Polish-speaking in Northwest Indiana will most likely come to be entrusted to the care of the Polish Carmelites and Polish Salvatorians. Thank God they are so strategically located in Munster and Merrillville. How this ministry will develop remains to be seen. And how much can they save the Polish American heritage of the Calumet region?


Quo Vadis Polonia? The future does not look too promising for our Polish parishes. A few will remain as non-ethnic or Hispanic parishes. One hundred years from now will there even be evidence that a Polonia once existed in places like East Chicago, Hammond, Whiting, or Gary? In some respects, we are already invisible, as compared to other ethnic groups, such as the Serbs or the Greeks. Where have our people gone?

We’ve made it in America. We are one of the three most economically successful ethnic groups in America today. We have — as some sociologists put it — “become white.” We are part of mainstream American society, some of us to the point of Anglicizing our family names. Others have abandoned all ties to cultural markers, such as observances, celebrations, and foods. Yet, in spite of all this, we are still noticeably absent from the boardrooms of the Fortune 500, national politics, and on the local political scene.

On the positive side, one does see increasingly more Polish names on movie credits, and in the professional, academic, and scientific world. There are now more American bishops of Polish ancestry than ever before. Men with Polish surnames are still entering the priesthood. However, a Polish last name is not a guarantee of a connection to their heritage or Polonia. How ironic that some parishes survived Irish-American bishops, only to be closed by bishops with Polish ancestry?

Polonia’s parochial schools have done an excellent job of educating our young, who tend to go away for college – and keep going. They have a hard time finding jobs to match their skills here in the region. In school they often learn about the culture and history of foreign lands – even their languages. And more often than not, they know little or nothing of their own Polish heritage, history, and culture. As far as mainstream America is concerned, we are at best a curious footnote to world history and to the American Experience. The farther our young move from their geographical ethnic roots, the more they become lost in the mainstream.

Not all our young people move away. Many if not most of those who remain, intermarry with other ethnic groups. How do we help them, and their children to preserve their heritage? Equally important, how do we educate our non-Polish neighbors that there is more to us than polkas, pierogi, kielbasa, kapusta, Pulaski, and Kościuszko?

With every passing day, we lose more and more of our Polish-Americana through the death of our elders and through apathy, ignorance, or carelessness on the part of their heirs. Letters, photos, records, artifacts are lost. Sometimes people bring things to me because they know I treasure things Polish. I only have so much room for these things. I end up sending it to Orchard Lake or the Polish Museum of Chicago. Once I was brought something which was a mystery to the bearers: they wondered how Dziadzio came to have Scottish bagpipes. I told them they were dudki, Polish bagpipes. They never heard of such a thing.

We need a Polish Museum or Center here in Northwest Indiana. Too much has been lost already. Too much stands to be lost. I have a rather large collection of things Polish – including several thousand books, some rare or hard to find. I dread the thought that, after I go to my eternal reward, these things might end up in a landfill. I would rather find a home for these things here in Northwest Indiana. There are some other people like me. I know that several years ago the late Fr. Milewski of Holy Family in Gary faced a similar dilemma regarding his Polish collection. He sent a lot of things to Orchard Lake. I shudder to think what became of what he did — and did not — send to the archives and museums there. I hope to find a home for my collection closer to home. There is no place at present in northwest Indiana. As things are now, my collection will probably not find a home where I know they will be appreciated and useful. Orchard Lake and the Polish Museum in Chicago have plenty to exhibit, and I suspect much of what I have, they already possess.

What will happen to the paraphernalia of our Polish veterans’ groups, social clubs, and societies when the last member is gone to his or her reward?

My penultimate assignment was as pastor of the fifth largest parish in the Gary Diocese. It is a territorial parish. Many of my people trace their roots to the ethnic parishes of neighboring Lake County or the Pittsburgh area of Pennsylvania. The children are usually of mixed ethnic, even racial ancestry. I promoted ethnic awareness in the parish school. Children like to learn about their heritage. Every year, one grade celebrates Ethnic Week, during which they explore their ethnic ancestry or ancestries. At the parish they have Christmas wafers (opłatki). I ran an explanation several times in the bulletin, and many people, especially our Mexican-Americans warmly embraced the practice. The blessing with chalk of homes, and classroom doors was introduced, as well as the blessing of Easter baskets. The children, and even some of the adults are surprised they are not “American” customs. Well, they are becoming American customs. As for pierogi … well, that is another story.

For my Silver Jubilee the school children sang “Sto Lat,” and enjoyed learning it. Children love field trips. They love the ethnic Christmas trees at the Field Museum in Chicago. They love visiting Eastern Rite and Orthodox Churches. They return from visits to the centers in the Indiana Dunes Parks with a new appreciation. Let us give them the opportunity to not only hear about, but to see, touch, and even hear a little of Polish and local Polonian culture and history.

I am not proposing an elaborate, expensive or expansive building. I am sure an appropriate site can be found. More important for a start is a convenient, accessible, stable location. Perhaps a room or two borrowed from Calumet College or some other institution other than the Church for a start, until an autonomous, permanent site could be found. A retired Iraqi-American started the first and only Assyrian-American Museum single-handedly in a Chicago strip mall. (Of course, he owned the strip mall!) One community started with an old gas station adjacent to a major highway. Once established, outside funding was found. A few years later the outside was remodeled in their ethnic architectural style. It can be done here. It needs to be done here. I suspect the biggest obstacle to a Polish Center or Museum in Northwest Indiana would be getting the various Polonian groups to work together and agree on a location and funding.

I cannot emphasize how strongly I feel that the time for action is now. I do not naively propose this as a simplistic solution to all the problems our local Polonia faces. But it can play a role, if only one of preservation of our past, and point a finger to the future.

For many decades the Polish American organizations have played a major role in promoting Polish language and culture in the region. These organizations worked very hard towards a free and independent Poland. It was a worthy and necessary, and sometimes thankless task. Poland is now rejoining its rightful place in the world. Now is the time to turn our attention and efforts more towards the needs of our local Polonia. I feel it is critical if there is to be a future for Polonia. I present to you today one need I feel is not only real but also attainable. The future of Polonia is our children. We are losing them. It is more than not speaking Polish. It is about knowing and keeping the customs tradition and history alive. We need to do everything and anything we can to keep them not only part of Polonia, but also active in Polonia. Their future is in our hands. We owe it to them to pass on to them what we and our Polish ancestors so cherished.

A final thought: all is not doom and gloom. A group wanting to replace the damaged bust of Paderewski at the International Friendship Gardens in Michigan City, led to the organization of an annual Polish Fest, thriving from its first year, attracting not only locals but people from South Bend, Michigan, and Illinois. The replacement bust is almost ready to be installed in a much improved Polish garden.

The future is ours to work with. Long live Polonia! Tak nam dopomóz Bog!

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