Bishop Franciszek (Francis) Hodur is well known among the members of the Polish National Catholic Church as its organizer, visionary, patriot, and charismatic leader. He has dedicated his time and effort to preserving the catholic faith and Polish heritage among immigrants in the United States and Canada. Bishop Hodur had a unique gift of not only practicing his faith, but also inspiring others to love God, and to love our neighbors, especially those poorest in our society, and build the Kingdom of God without forgetting about our earthly fatherland – Poland. This amazing spiritual leader and patriot seems to be forgotten by the current Polonia. Therefore, it is just right and appropriate to remind us of this exceptional individual and spiritual leader, who has changed the course of our Polish-American history, on the 70th anniversary of his passing.
The beginnings of this spiritual and intellectual giant can be traced back to Poland, then non-existing on the European map, to a little village of Zarki, approximately 35 miles from Krakow, where he was born on April 1, 1866, as a son of Jan and Maria Hodur. Life in the Austrian-ruled part of Poland, called Galicia, was difficult for most Poles. The same daily struggle was part of the Hodur's life. The parents of future Bishop Franciszek were very hardworking and religious individuals who supported their family of seven children by working on a small farm and through Jan's part-time job as a village tailor. Young Franciszek started his education at ten at his village school and finished it as an excellent student at thirteen. He already desired to become a priest then. Therefore, Franciszek continued his education at the prestigious St. Anne Gymnasium in Krakow, which he finished in 1889. During his school years, he rented a room, but lived in very difficult conditions, supporting himself just by tutoring other students. Although he was extremely intelligent and talented, being a poor peasant's child, Hodur had to endure bullying and humiliation from other students and teachers which left a permanent mark on his psyche [Kubiak 1982].
After completing the secondary school, Franciszek entered the Krakow Theological Seminary and began his academic endeavor in the Department of Theology at Jagiellonian University. Besides his academic studies, Hodur extensively immersed himself in readings that fluctuated from the newly issued social encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII, to some of the socialist thinkers. The seminarian Hodur also became a passionate follower of the activist Father Stanislaw Stojalowski and got involved in a student group promoting Stojalowski's program for peasant rights — educational and economic.
Hodur studied for three years, passed all the required course exams with a summa cum laude degree, and received minor clerical orders. However, for some uncertain reasons, he resigned from the seminary in Krakow and emigrated to the United States. There is no evidence that he was a member of any organized movement which would have gotten him into problems with religious or civil authorities. Some historians point out his involvement in a seminary "strike" for better living conditions improvement that could have been perceived as an act of insubordination by the Church authorities. [Kubiak 1982; Wieczerzak 1983; Wlodarski 1974]
Upon arrival in New York in 1893 and with the help of Fr. Benvenuto Gramplewicz of Nanticoke, PA, Hodur was accepted to the Scranton Diocese and the Seminary at St. Vincent's Benedictine Archabbey. After several months, he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest by Bishop William O'Hara on August 19, 1893. Fr. Hodur was assigned to the ethnically Polish congregation of Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary Parish in Scranton, PA. He immediately became famous among Polish immigrants as a patriot, enthusiastic propagator of Polish literature, organizer, and civic leader fighting for the rights of those oppressed, exploited, and persecuted, especially coal miners and factory workers. Therefore, Fr. Hodur was called the "people's priest." In 1895, Bishop O'Hara transferred Fr. Hodur to Nanticoke, PA as the pastor of Holy Trinity Parish where he continued to be a "people's priest" organizing cultural, educational, and religious activities. He also encouraged parishioners to join the Polish National Alliance and the Alliance of Polish Youth.
Fr. Hodur was equally shocked by the starvation wages of the coal miners and factory workers, as by the heartlessness of some of his clergy colleagues who extorted fees and donations from their parishioners threatening them with the withholding of sacraments or Christian burial, or with hell, to name a few. In some parishes, the administration of finances by their pastors was not transparent and created unnecessary tensions. This was the exact situation between Fr. Aust, the pastor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary Parish in Scranton, PA, and the parish committee. After several attempts by the committee to control parish finances and establish transparency in 1896, around 700 parishioners gathered to prevent Fr. Aust from celebrating Mass. At the request of Fr. Aust, police brutally intervened, severely wounding a few people and arresting some, including three women [Kubiak 1982]. After this incident, the parish committee decided to leave the parish and build a new church.
The Polish immigrants started organizing a new St. Stanislaus church and invited — without the bishop's approval — the "people's priest", Fr. Franciszek Hodur, to be their spiritual guide. He accepted the call, left Nanticoke, and returned to Scranton. Initially, the building committee had Bishop O'Hara's consent for the new construction and there was nothing against the Roman Catholic tradition. However, a change in the goals and the radicalization of the movement took place when the diocesan bishop retracted his consent to consecrate the church. The creators of the parish decided to send Fr. Hodur to Rome to present their petition to Pope Leo XIII. They petitioned for a Polish bishop, autonomy in parish affairs, and possessing of a title of ownership to consecrated objects by parish committee [Kubiak 1982]. The answer to the petition was negative, and on October 2, 1898, Fr. Hodur and the parishioners of St. Stanislaus were excommunicated. Formally, this is considered to be the beginning of the Polish National Catholic Church. Nonetheless, it is assumed that the church existed from March 14, 1897, the day of the general assembly in the St. Stanislaus church hall.
The first step of the new religious movement was the replacement of Latin with the Polish language in the liturgy. Fr. Hodur desired to prepare immigrants for a future free Poland, as well as to defend their social, cultural, and economic interests while they were living in the United States. To be effective in these efforts, he decided to unify Polish independent organizations and independent parishes. The first attempt took place in 1904, and the Synod I of national and independent parishes was called to Scranton, PA, including Bishop Kozlowski (Polish Catholic Church) and Bishop Kaminski (independent). After Synod I, the charismatic leader, Fr. Hodur was elected bishop and the constitution of the church was adopted. Fr. Franciszek Hodur was consecrated as bishop of the Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC) at the hands of a representative of the church of the Union of Utrecht (the Old Catholic church) on October 29, 1907. [Wieczerzak 1983] From this time on, an autonomous Catholic church begins its full existence by having a bishop with an unquestionable Apostolic Succession.
Bishop Hodur, among other things, introduced very transparent rules for church administration, including that the church estate be administered by the church committee elected by the parishioners, properly approved, supervised by the priest, and answerable to the general assembly representing the majority of the parishioners. Additionally, the ownership of the church property rested in the hands of the parishioners and all arrangements in the church had to be done through an elective process. Successive General Synods of the Church solidified the democratic character of the PNCC, leading to its current organizational form. It is why the PNCC is called a Catholic and democratic Church.
The emphasis on serving the Fatherland was not merely a cheap declaration of Bishop Hodur. It materialized itself in the pastoral programs of the PNCC and his engagements in organizations supporting independent movements. As an example, I will mention that Bishop Hodur had to work hard due to the opposition of the Roman Catholic clergy to ensure that PNCC had representation at the Convention of the Committee of National Defense in Chicago in 1913. [Kubiak 1982] Six years later, Bishop Hodur proposed in Buffalo, NY, to obtain a loan of twenty million dollars to help in rebuilding Poland after it regained its independence. He also introduced other initiatives to strengthen the spirit of patriotism among Polonia. One of them was the introduction of national holidays in the PNCC liturgical calendar, e.g., the holiday of the Polish Fatherland introduced by the General Synod in 1921 and celebrated on the second Sunday in May. As mentioned before, he sanctified the national culture and the Polish language by introducing them into liturgy seventy years before the Roman Catholic Church did. It was decided on December 16, 1900, at St. Stanislaus in Scranton, to use the Polish language in the liturgy, and the first mass in Polish, the Midnight Mass, was celebrated by Hodur on December 24, 1901.
Bishop Hodur placed a very strong emphasis on the cultivation of Polish literature and Renaissance thinkers in every PNCC parish. As a result, all parishes in the U.S. established Slowacki, Mickiewicz, Krasinski, or Konopnicka societies which helped in raising the new generation of Polish-Americans in the spirit of patriotism. Throughout his life, Bishop Hodur remained focused on the social well-being of all hard-working people in coal mines, factories, and other establishments. In 1908 the PNCC faithful started organizing and, in 1909, established the Polish National Union, "Spojnia", as a fraternal aid organization providing death benefits, insurance policies, establishing nursing homes, Polish schools, reading rooms, and scholarships for all students at every level of education. The Union also supported the church in its charitable, educational, and national activities.
Prime Bishop Franciszek Hodur died on February 16, 1953, in Scranton, PA. He witnessed the PNCC grow from a single congregation of 250 families to 150 parishes in the United States and Canada, and 95 in Poland. This charismatic leader will be always remembered as a protector of the abused, the organizer of a new religious movement, and an incredible patriot loving his Fatherland, Poland, wholeheartedly. Prime Bishop Hodur, during his entire life, fearlessly spread God's love, equality, and justice, within the realm of the people's hearts.