Polonia in Turn of the Century Milwaukee

Jim Nelsen

America has often been described as a melting pot--a place where tired, poor, huddled masses can satisfy their yearning to breathe free and in the process shed their ethnic identities and take on the American one. This image has recently given way to one of ethnic pluralism-- several separate ethnic groups embracing and living out their own cultures yet still connected through the common bond that they are all Americans. But this nothing new. The truth is, America has been a multicultural nation ever since the first white settlers arrived on the Atlantic coast and met the Native Americans of the time. This diversity continued well into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Southern and Eastern Europeans immigrated to America. Although many of them were profusely loyal to their new homeland, they still tried to retain ties to the old country and to each other. It comes as no surprise then that many of these ethnic groups settled together and formed close knit communities, and Polish-Americans were no exception to this.

Most Poles originate from a tribe of Western Slavs who banded together to form a political unit in what is now Poland. They became Christian in 966 after the conversion of their king and continued to expand their boundaries well into the sixteenth century. But over the next 200 years political and economic weaknesses began to creep in, and Poland eventually fell to Russia, Prussia, and Austria in the eighteenth century (1). During this occupation, most Poles owned little or no land which meant they were very poor and many starved because they had no farms to grow food on. Prussian Poles also faced a system of forced assimilation referred to as the Kulturkampf in which Prussia tried to suppress the Polish language and Catholic religion. Under these pitiful living conditions, the Poles were faced with three options. They could begin seasonal work on feudal estates; move to a city and try to find an industrial job, or they could emigrate (2). If they chose the third option they often headed to American cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee where they established something called Polonia (Poland in America)--a complex entity composed of churches, mutual aid societies, and Polish language newspapers (3).

When the first Poles came to Milwaukee in 1846 they found the Catholic church dominated by Germans. The Diocese of Milwaukee had been created three years earlier and was headed by Archbishop John Martin Henni, a Swiss-German who established a reputation for catering to the needs of German-speaking newcomers much to the scorn of the Irish and the Poles. Several other German bishops followed him and most continued to favor Germans, partly because the German population was so large and partly because they themselves were German and considered their fellow Germans to be superior people (4).

Most of Milwaukee's early Polish immigrants settled on the south side of town and attended German or Irish churches until their numbers became significant enough to make Polish parishes possible. A group of interested poles would then form a committee to raise funds and lobby the bishop for the establishment of a parish. If they had enough funding and support in the community the request would usually be granted, and a Polish priest would be appointed pastor if one was available (5). This is very significant because the Polish people were (and still are) intensely religious and devoted to their faith. One description written in 1922 had this to say:
Religion permeates the Polish peasant's thought, speech, and daily life. The names of Christ and the Virgin are on his lips all the time. His legends and folklore are religious in character. His patriotism and religion are inseparably linked together in his mind. A good Pole is expected to be a good Catholic (6).

Indeed, the local church was considered the hub of the community and the parish priests were both religious and political leaders. As a testimonial to this religiousness, the Poles built several outstanding churches. Milwaukee's first Polish Catholic church was St. Stanislaus which had actually been a Lutheran church located at 5th and Mineral Streets, but the Poles purchased it for $4,000 in 1866. Six years later they began construction of the present church located at 5th and Mitchell with an adjoining school, the first Polish parochial school in the United States. It was run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame and several area children attended school there (7).

Despite these accomplishments at St. Stanislaus, the most impressive Polish church was St. Josephat's Basilica at 6th and Lincoln. Designed in a Neo-Renaissance style by Erhard Breilmair, the church measures 128 feet by 212 feet with a large copper dome reaching 250 made it the fifth largest church in the world at the time of its completion. It seats 2,500 people with standing room for another 1,500 and is decorated with oil paintings and marble. Construction lasted from 1896 until 1901 and accidentally claimed the lives of several parishioners. Wilhelm Grutza, pastor and founder of the parish, bought the stones from the old Chicago Federal Building and Post Office for $35,000 and brought them to Milwaukee on 500 railway flat cars to save money. Unfortunately, the cost of preparing the stones for the basilica actually made them more expensive than new material would have been, and costs in general skyrocketed (8). This would become a bone of contention for many Poles. (More on this later.)

The second major aspect of Polonia was a network of fraternal organizations. The Poles established several aimed at pooling human and financial resources to construct schools and churches and to provide life insurance and social programs such as picnics, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and musical and theatrical performances. Many organizations also promoted American and Polish patriotism and tried to direct consumers to Polish owned businesses. In other words, most organizations were intended to provide economic benefits or leisure activities, but they also served as a way to unify the Polish people and preserve their cultural identity (9). This common sense of identity and ability to maintain Polish culture is at the core of Polonia.

The first major Polish fraternal that formed in America was the Polish Roman Catholic Union. Founded in Detroit in 1873, the PRCU was formed to promote loyalty to the Catholic church among Polish immigrants. This was largely a response to a growing "national" movement among American Poles who saw themselves as Polish first and Catholic second (10). Milwaukee's first PRCU group did not form until 1907 after several unsuccessful attempts, but once the first one was established several others quickly followed until it became necessary to divide Milwaukee into two umbrella "councils" for better organization (11). According to one publication that the two councils collaborated on, the first PRCU group in Milwaukee was organized "to fill a crying need for thousands of their fellowmen in [the Milwaukee] community (12)." It did this by giving out thousands of dollars in death benefits and college scholarships, sponsoring war bond drives during both World Wars, and purchasing a camp on Lake Waubasse for use by its youth groups (13).

As the national PRCU by-laws prescribed, individual groups were based in local parishes and maintained strong ties to their sponsoring church (14). The problem with this was that some Poles felt excluded because they were not Catholic or because they did not believe the clergy should have so much control over a fraternal organization. To this end, a group "nationalist" Poles formed the Polish National Alliance in Philadelphia in 1880. Later, both the PRCU and PNA would move their headquarters to Chicago where the Polish-American community was the strongest. The fundamental difference between the two organizations was that the PRCU saw Polishness and Catholicism as inextricably linked whereas PNA believed that anyone born in Poland who believed in the national cause should be admitted for membership. Consequently, it admitted Christians, Jews, and atheists as well as Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and members of other ethnic who were not Polish but who had been born within the geographic boundaries of Poland prior to the partitioning (15). The preamble to PNA's by-laws reflects these principals. It does not use the word "God" even once whereas the PRCU's preamble uses it several times (16). However, both preambles are very patriotic, and PNA's even links itself back to the Polish generals Kosciuszko and Pulaski who fought in the American Revolution. Here is an excerpt:
When the Polish nation...lost its independence and... became doomed to triple bondage...that portion thereof, most severely wronged, voluntarily preferring exile to cruel bondage in the Motherland, sought refuge under the guidance of Kosciuszko and Pulaski, in the free land of Washington... These valiant pilgrims, ever mindful of their duties to their newly adopted country and their own nation, founded the Polish National Alliance of the United States of North America (17).

Rather than allow the clergy to dominate Alliance affairs, PNA set up a civil government called the Sejm which was composed of representatives from all lodges nationwide. It usually met annually to decide important matters and elect national officers who ran operations between meetings. One officer was designated "censor" and served as a kind of constitutional monarch. He had little real power but was responsible for oversight and keeping PNA publications in tune with the Alliance's purposes. The main publication was Zgoda (Harmony), a weekly Polish-language paper still published today. This unified national structure allowed PNA to spread much more rapidly than PRCU which had little such leadership. To combat this the PRCU established a national government in the 1880s and two of its own national publications, but it was never able to stop PNA's greater momentum. PNA had only 12 lodges in 1883 with total assets of only $175.55, but by 1894 there were over 200 lodges in 21 states; in 1920 there were 1,600 in 32 states with assets of $5.1 million. The PRCU had membership that was less than half this (18).

PNA's first Milwaukee lodge was formed on October 28, 1880 and was known as the Polish Patriotic Society. By 1946, the group had a hefty membership of 370 with assets of $4,500. In addition to selling life insurance, it also sponsored a fund for members suffering from illnesses and distributed money for college scholarships. Children could participate in camping trips, sports, and musical events which filled a need for recreation in a time when there were few publically sponsored youth programs. The lodge also promoted several patriotic causes in both the United States and Poland. Two of its members served in the Spanish American War, ten others served in World War I, and forty-three were in World War II. Fortunately, only one of those fifty-five men died in battle (19). It is also important to note that this was just one PNA lodge within Milwaukee. When combined with several hundred groups nationwide plus the PRCU and other fraternals, it becomes clear that they were a powerful organizing force.

The third major aspect of Polonia was the Polish press which provided a means of communication between Poles and their organizations. The first Polish newspapers made their appearances in the 1860s and grew rapidly. Some were published monthly and others weekly or daily while some published only occasionally. A lot depended on the publisher's financial resources and the number of people interested in reading it (20). By World War I there were fifteen daily Polish papers in America and sixty weeklies with circulations of 1.2 million. Zgoda is America's oldest Polish weekly and was published in Milwaukee for the first ten years of its life, 1878-1888, after which it moved to Chicago. Milwaukee was also the birthplace of the Kuryer Polski, the first successful daily Polish paper in America (21).

The Kuryer was founded by Michael Kruszka in 1888 and became extremely controversial because it actively criticized the Catholic church in Milwaukee. Kruszka came to America in 1880, staying in New Jersey for three years before moving to Milwaukee where he and some business partners tried starting a weekly paper, but Kruszka was only 25 years old at the time and very inexperienced. His early journalistic efforts reflected youthful enthusiasm often taking controversial stances on political and economic issues, but the paper folded after only three months because of financial problems. Nonetheless, Kruszka remained committed in his efforts and borrowed $125 to start the Kuryer, this time trying to stay away from controversial issues in order to keep sales up. He even pledged allegiance to the Catholic Church and supported the PRCU rather than the nondenominational PNA, but this stance began to change in 1893 when Kruszkas's brother Joseph immigrated from Poland in 1893 and became coeditor of the Kuryer (22).

The Kuryer's first major spilt with the church came in 1896 when the Polish Educational Society was founded with help from PNA. Joseph helped draw up their list of goals, the chief one being "betterment of school and other educational facilities for children of Polish descent (23)." This included infusing a Polish curriculum into the pubic school system which the clergy objected to because such a program might replace the traditional role that parochial schools had played, and parents might be tempted to put their children into free public schools. The Kuryer did not agree with this. Rather, they pointed out that there were already about 500 Polish children in the public school system, and they had as much right as anyone to study their own language and culture. The Kuryer argued this was necessary to preserve Polonia because existing parochial schools could not accommodate all Polish children (24).

Having no newspaper of their own, Milwaukee's Polish priests denounced the Kuryer from their pulpits calling it a "horrible, atheistic, and lying paper (25)." They also told their congregations that Michael was a foolish unbeliever who consorted with the devil. Rival newspapers that were loyal to the church also formed putting Michael, Joseph, and their paper on the defensive. As a result, the Kruszkas began to distance themselves from the church and adopted a utilitarian view of religion. They argued that the chief purpose of the Roman Catholic Church was to provide unity in the absence of a Polish state. They also began to adopt the view held by PNA that Poles should be Polish first and Catholic second and that you did not have to be Catholic to be a good Pole (26).

Complicating matters was Michael and Joseph's half-brother Wencelaus, a Milwaukee area priest who was often critical of the German hierarchy in the archdiocese. Wencelaus began seminary work in Poland as a Jesuit where he was active in seminary affairs and had a reputation as being quarrelsome. After immigrating to America in 1896 he quickly became a leader in a society of Polish seminarians and was ordained and made pastor of a small church in Ripon, Wisconsin shortly thereafter (27). While in Ripon, Wencelaus began to write about the archdiocese which he saw as dominated by Germans who did not care about the Polish people. One of his main criticisms surrounded St. Josephat's Basilica. Originally budgeted at $100,000, by the time construction was finished the parish debt was more than three times that which worked out to more over $300 for each of the 1,000 families in the parish. That was more than a year's wages, but Archbishop Katzer refused to lend any kind of assistance to keep costs down (28).

Wenceslaus and Michael also began to criticize the church on a number of other issues, too many to be discussed here. Some conflicts dealt with finances, others concerned education, and still others involved the role of the Polish language in churches (29), but fundamentally what was at issue was whether or not the Catholic church could ever be truly multicultural. Based on what they considered to be unequal treatment, the Kruszka's said the answer was "no" and called for a radical restructuring in which multiethnic diocese would have one bishop for each major ethnic group. In essence, this meant that the German and Irish archbishops across America would have to yield some of their authority to Poles. A Polish-American Congress was called in Buffalo in 1901 and endorsed this plan with the blessing of some Church officials. Wencelaus was chosen as one of two delegates to visit Pope Pius X and make a case for multiple bishops. It was the feeling of many at the Congress that this would slow the number of Polish Churches who were declaring independence from the Roman Catholic Church (30).

In 1904, the Pope agreed to a compromise. He would not appoint separate bishops for the Poles, but he said he would begin appointing Poles to auxiliary positions in cities with high concentrations of Poles. However, Sebastian Messmer, a German, was chosen as Milwaukee Archbishop in that same year (31). He did not approve of some of the Kruszka's more radical ideas and refused to transfer Wencelaus from Ripon to a church in Milwaukee. He did this for two of reasons. One was that Wencelaus had reportedly had an affair with a woman, although this was never substantiated. The other was simple politics Messmer did not want any challenges to his authority and giving Wencelaus a Milwaukee pastorate would only give him a wider following; it was better to keep him at a distance. After hearing this Wencelaus went ballistic, writing letters and giving speeches on the subject. He also began a bi-weekly column in the Kuryer which hammered away at Messmer and other people who he considered to be enemies of the Poles (32).

Messmer and his supporters retaliated by forming a new weekly newspaper, the Nowiny Polskie (Polish News), which was controlled primarily by Messmer and supported his policies. Funding for the paper was provided through advertisements and subscriptions, but local priests were also asked to buy stock in the paper. The two papers slugged it out for several years in what became known as the "Polish Church War." The Nowiny considered the Kruszkas disloyal, and the Kuryer referred to the Nowiny as a propaganda tool (33). However, it is interesting to note that the Kruszkas never fully gave up their support of the Roman Catholic Church. This was at a time when several Poles were leaving the Church in favor of the newly formed Polish National Catholic Church, essentially a Catholic denomination independent of Rome that formed as a reaction to discrimination against Polish-Americans by the German and Irish church hierarchy in America.

A thorough discussion of the Polish Church War would make an excellent paper topic, but since this paper deals with Polish organizations and not religious politics it will not be discussed here except for the facts mentioned in the preceding pages which are largely concerned with the role that the Polish press played in it. Suffice it to say, arguments continued back and forth between the two papers for years. In 1910 the Polish Association of America sided with the Archbishop and transferred its printing from the Kuryer to the Nowiny. Michael Kruszka tried to get the Polish National Alliance to intervene, but it refused to take sides so he formed his own organization in 1911 called the American Federation of Polish Catholic Laymen. Its chief aim was to gain proportional representation of Poles in the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy, and today it is referred to as Federation Life Insurance of America (34).

Archbishop Messmer quickly forbade Catholics from joining the Federation and from reading the Kuryer, but the new organization proved to be very popular and it quickly became the second largest fraternal in Wisconsin (behind PNA) with several lodges in other Midwestern states (35). Members were required to be Roman Catholic or had to pledge to return to the Roman rite after the Federation accomplished its goals (36). According to the Kuryer's records, circulation did not decline significantly despite the Archbishop's threats (38).

As time went on many of the issues that the papers faced began to change. For a while, both sides tried settling things in court. The archdiocese also got a Polish auxiliary bishop in 1913 which helped ease tensions, and Wencelaus was assigned to a parish in Milwaukee like he wanted. World War I also helped unify the community, and the death of Michael Kruszka in 1918 meant the nationalist side lost one of its major leaders (39). However, the ultimate solution came with time--eventually the second and third generation Polish Americans began their adulthood and assimilated which finally put an end to the Polish Church War in the Milwaukee (40).

In conclusion, Polonia was composed of a network of interlocking churches, fraternal benefit societies, and newspapers. Together these agencies helped foster a sense of identity for Poles living in America, allowing them to be Americans while maintaining ties to their motherland and preserving their culture. The Poles were (and still are) a very religious people, so the formation of Polish churches was very important to them. St. Stanislaus Church and St. Josephat's Basilica are shining examples of this devotion. Poles also formed fraternal benefit societies to provide low cost life insurance and social and cultural activities for members. From these organizations sprang the Polish press which served as a means of communication and a way to link Poles together.

Finally, it is important to note how these three components of Polonia came together in the Polish Church War. The war began when the Kuryer Polski defended the right of Polish children to attend public schools. Soon the whole thing snowballed and became a very vocal debate over alleged discrimination on the part of the Roman Catholic Church in America. Rival papers were started as well as rival fraternals, but most Polish Catholics in Milwaukee never left the Church as other had done in other parts of the country. They preferred to make changes from within and were ultimately successful despite casualties on both sides. This parallels many of the struggles that minority groups face today as they struggle to gain recognition from the cultural majority, but one important difference is that many of these minority groups do not want to assimilate. Will the coming generations decide as the Poles did? A new wrinkle to this old question comes in the form of global communication. Some scholars have said technology will increase multicultural awareness because we will become more aware of other cultures, but others have said these technological advances will only homogenize us. Only time will tell.

Works Cited

  1. Victor Greene, "Poles" in Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 789.

  2. Ibid., p. 790 and James S. Pula, Polish Americans: An Ethnic Community (New York: Twaine Publishers, 1995), pp. 1-2, 14-17.

  3. Joseph Swastek, The Polish American Story (Detroit: Endurance Press, 1954[?]), pp. 6-7.

  4. Anthony J. Kuzniewski, Faith and Fatherland: The Polish Church War in Wisconsin, 1896-1918 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980), pp. 8-11.

  5. Pula, p. 21.

  6. Paul Fox, The Poles in America (New York: Arno Press, 1970 [originally 1922]), p. 107.

  7. Thaddeus Barun, We, the Milwaukee Poles (Milwaukee: Nowiny Publishing Co., 1946), pp. 3-4 and Swastek, p. 9.

  8. Gregory Filardo, Old Milwaukee: A Historic Tour (Vestal, NY: Vestal Press), p. 112 and Kuzniewski, p. 41.

  9. Kuzniewski, p. 23; Pula, p. 32; Polsih-American's Citizens Club (Milwaukee, WI) records, 1934-1946 (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Archives), box 1, folder 1.

  10. Pula, p. 33.

  11. Barun, p. 187.

  12. Polish Roman Catholic Union (Milwaukee, WI) records, 1911-1980 (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Archives), box 1, folder 4.

  13. Ibid. and Barun, p. 185.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Pula, p. 34.

  16. Polish National Alliance of North America Records, 1918-1978 (University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee Archives), box 1 and PRCU, box 1, folder 4.

  17. By-Laws, PNA of USNA Records, box 1.

  18. Pula, pp. 35-36 and PNA of USNA Records, box 1.

  19. Barun, pp. 172-173.

  20. Pula, pp. 30-31.

  21. Barun, p. 53 and Fox, p. 98

  22. Barun, p. 53 and Kuzniewski, pp. 28-31.

  23. Kuzniewski, p. 36

  24. Ibid., p. 36-37.

  25. Ibid., p. 38.

  26. Ibid., p. 38-41.

  27. Ibid., p. 31-32.

  28. Ibid., p. 42-43.

  29. Ibid., p. 42-46; Barun, p. 54; letter from Michael Kruszka to Archbishop Messmer, in Kuryer Polski Records, 1907-1961 (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Microfilm), 13 June 1907.

  30. Kuzniewski, p. 47.

  31. Ibid., pp. 47, 52-55.

  32. Ibid., pp. 59-61.

  33. Ibid., pp. 67-70.

  34. Barun, p. 199.

  35. Angela T. Pienkos, "A Brief History of Federation Life Insurance of America," in PNA of USNA records, pp. 7, 26.

  36. Ibid., pp. 1-4 and Kuzniewski, p. 83.

  37. Kuryer Polski Records, various memos in the paper's scrapbook and Kuzniewski, p. 121.

  38. Kuzniewski, pp. 103, 106, 109-111.

  39. Ibid., pp. 109, 122.

  40. Ibid., pp. 124, 127.

Primary Sources

Kuryer Polski Records, 1907-1961 (University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee Microfilms). 13 June 1907.

Polish-American Citizens Club (Milwaukee, WI) Records, 1934-1946 (University of Wisconsin Milwaukee-Archives).

Polish National Alliance of the United States of North America Records, 1918-1978 (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Archives).

Polish Roman Catholic Union (Milwaukee, WI) Records, 1911-1980 (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Archives).

Secondary Sources

Barun, Thaddeus. We, the Milwaukee Poles. Milwaukee: Nowiny Publishing Company, 1946.

Filardo, Gregory. Old Milwaukee: A Historic Tour. Vestal, NY: Vestal Press, 1988.

Fox, Paul. The Poles in America. 1922. New York: Arno Press, 1970.

Greene, Victor. "Poles" in Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Kuzniewski, Anthony J. Faith and Fatherland: The Polish Church War in Wisconsin, 1896-1918. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980.

Pula, James S. Polish Americans: An Ethnic Community. New York: Twaine Publishers, 1995.

Swastek, Joseph. The Polish American Story. Detroit: Endurance Press, 1954[?].

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