The Polish National Church was founded in 1897 in Pennsylvania by Reverend Francis Hodur. Father Hodur was born in Żarki in 1866, in the Austrian dominated sector of Poland. In 1893, he emigrated to the United States and was ordained into the priesthood at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Parish in Scranton, PA. A political activist, Father Hodur undertook a mission to Rome to secure a greater voice for Poles in the American Church. Unrest among the Polish parishes was common during this period and rioting broke out in his parish in a dispute over the ownership of church property, use of the Polish language, and selection of local priests. Priests often assigned to predominately Polish parishes only spoke English, rendering Confession worthless and the Homily impossible to understand. In addition, with their high sensitivity to property ownership, Polish parishioners resented having the deeds of the churches and schools that they themselves financed handed over to the local Bishop.
In 1897, Father Hodur separated his parish away from the local archdiocese, blaming the church in Rome for failing to support Polish national ambitions during the period of the partition. He also criticized the Roman Catholic Church for building “magnificent basilicas” while ignoring the needs of their poor parishioners. He felt Poles were poorly represented in any positions of authority.
Father Hodur was excommunicated by the Church in 1898. He burned the excommunication documents and threw the ashes into a nearby river. He was consecrated as a bishop in the Dutch Old Catholic Church in 1907 which marked the beginnings of the Polish National Catholic Church. Twenty-three nominally Polish parishes in Chicago, Buffalo, and Detroit would leave the Catholic Church and join the newly formed PNCC.
The Polish National Catholic Church also found fertile ground to establish itself in Milwaukee with the growing rift between local Poles and the policies of Archbishop Sebastian Messmer.
In a private letter, the Archbishop had written:
The longer I think it over the more it seems to be a dangerous experiment at this stage to give the Polish people a bishop, for the very reason he would be considered the bishop for all Poles of the U.S. The Polish people are not American enough and keep too aloof from the rest of us.
Tensions increased between the Milwaukee Archbishop and the local Polish community. In January of 1912, a group of parishioners staged a walkout at a church during a homily which strongly criticized the editorial policies of the popular Kuryer Polski newspaper. The Archdiocese responded by excommunicating the group’s leader. A month later in a pastoral letter Messmer declared that anyone reading the Kuryer or its sister paper in Chicago, Dziennik Narodowy, would be denied sacramental absolution for their sins, the sacrament of marriage, last rights for the dying, and a Catholic Burial.
Should any such Catholic dare to go to confession and communion without confessing or telling the priest that they still read or subscribe to the papers mention, let them understand that…. they commit horrible sacrilege.
It was the harshest measures taken yet by the Archdiocese against the Kuryer which had become increasing strident in calling for greater recognition of Poles within the Archdiocese and the appointment of a Polish Bishop. The Milwaukee church hierarchy also set its sights on a dissident group called the American Federation of Polish Catholic Laymen, forbidding membership to practicing Catholics. The controversial directive also prevented members of the Federation from being buried in the consecrated St. Adalbert’s cemetery.
In 1914 a group of worshipers wanted to celebrate a Mass in honor the January Uprising in Poland. As the group arrived at the church, Father Zych denied them entry claiming that they were not officially registered at this particular parish. An editorial appeared in the Kuryer Polski announcing: “It is high time the enlightened Polish people of Milwaukee should organize, and in a free nation, build a Free National Church’.
Following this event, local resident Antoni Zywicki took it upon himself to begin the organizational efforts to begin a branch of the PNCC in Milwaukee. Bishop Hodur himself journeyed to Milwaukee with the hope of assisting in Zywicki’s efforts. The Bishop met with the staff of the Kuryer and distributed flyers in the community which attracted 200 potential members.
On May 26, 1914 the first PNCC Mass was celebrated by Bishop Hodor at the Juneau building at 6th and Mitchell, which they had rented. Father Brykczyński was assigned as the temporary priest for the new parish. After just two months, the group was denied further use the Juneau building so Józef Smoleń loaned the parish $2000 with which they purchased two lots to begin construction of their own church building. With an additional loan of $3000 from the Nowakowski family they were able to begin laying the foundation for the house of worship.
By 1916, the construction of the church building was so advanced that it could provide collateral for a new bank loan of $20,000. The building of the church proper began in 1916 and in order to secure a loan of $20,000 the bank, many parishioners pledged their homes as collateral for its construction. The church was blessed by Bishop Hodur in September 2, 1917. It was remodeled in 1929 and a new organ added as the parish became home to about 300 families during the 1920s.
Father Bończak was sent to Poland in 1922 by the PNCC church council to organize there and was replaced in Milwaukee by Father Wladyslaw A. Słowakiewicz. Father Bończak believed strongly in the cause of an independent Polish church which could free Polish Catholics from the domination of Rome. The priest had been born in Poland in 1881 and came to the USA in 1902, being ordained as a Roman Catholic Priest the following year. After joining the PNCC, he first served parishes on the East Coast and became editor of Straż, the official paper of the Polish National Church.
Father Bonczerak would work in Poland for seven years and helped to start branches of the Polish National Church in the land of his birth. Under his direction, twenty-four parishes and missions were organized throughout Poland and in 1924, Father Boncak was consecrated as bishop for the PNCC in Poland. He also edited a weekly church paper called “Polska Odrodzona” (Poland Reborn) and built a seminary for PNCC clergy in Krakow. And to add to his many accomplishments, he published the church song book, which was used in all the Polish National churches as the official hymn book. Bishop Bończak returned to Milwaukee in 1930 to resume his pastorship of the parish.
In 1953 Bishop Bończak submitted his resignation to the parish after 32 years of service due to failing health. He was replaced by Father Walter Słowakiewicz. On December 29, 1952 Bishop Bonczak passed away, after more than fifty years of service to God.
Father Słowkiewicz presided over several renovations of the church including a new terrazzo floor. On March 16, 1958, the parish found itself free of debt for the first time in 44 years. A rededication of the renovated church was held on September 27, 1959. Father Słowkiewicz also organized new PNCC parishes in South Milwaukee and West Allis in 1956.
Father Słowkiewicz was succeeded by Father Kolwicz in 1961. During the 1960s additional improvements were added to the church, new stained-glass windows, a new organ and complete renovation of the altars. Dedication of the organ and altars took place on March 12, 1967. In 1968 a carillon bell system was installed.
There were now 1500 PNCC members in the Milwaukee area and 235 at Holy Name. Father Ben Kosziba was named as pastor in 1981 to be followed by Father Francis Rowiński in 1983 and Father Henry Galas in 1988.
Currently, the church is open. This beautiful, historic building is used by the Mexican Catholic community, for which Father Gabriel carries out the pastoral ministry. The temple building is a silent witness to the history of Polish emigrants and social changes in Milwaukee.
Photography: Marcin Murawski.