At the dawn of the twentieth century my grandparents left soon-to-be-restored Poland , traveling by steamship to the United States of America with hundreds of thousands of their countrymen. They assimilated to the best of their ability, worked very hard, and created opportunities for their children and grandchildren by the sweat of their brow. They brought with them their culture, music, food, and most importantly, their faith.
In the neighborhoods of the east side of Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Lackawanna, where Polish immigrants built their lives, magnificent churches lifted their spires to God in thanksgiving for the grace and blessings they had received. St. Stanislaus, St. Luke's, St. Adalbert's, Holy Trinity, and so many others came into being through the generosity of a people who didn't have much but knew where it needed to go; a magnificent testimony to the faith and culture of the Polish people. The parishes were the center of life for their members, educating their children, offering social activities including clubs, bowling alleys and skating rinks, and encouraged devotions to the Blessed Mother, Polish saints, and Our Lord in the Eucharist.
The Polish are faithful, loving, and hard-working. They are also pragmatists. They knew then that the best opportunities for their children would come with assimilation into the new culture. These were American children, and were raised to love their new country. They fought in World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam. They worked in the factories, the stores, and the businesses that were the life blood of the community. They became public servants, politicians, and leaders in the community. They pursued higher education and became doctors, teachers, engineers and professionals. For all intents and purposes, the community became a model of success for those emigrating to the United States of America.
As the second and third generation Polish community continued to succeed, significant changes began to develop in the way the community expressed its faith and solidarity as a people. As economic conditions changed for the better many moved away from the original neighborhoods for suburban homes. The cultural practices that bound them together slowly deteriorated; most of the third and fourth generation Polish community cannot speak or understand the Polish language. The foods and celebrations have often been relegated to holidays only. Few maintain the ties that offered strength and stability to the early immigrant communities, and the assimilation is nearly complete.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the abandoned, neglected churches and neighborhoods that were once called "Polonia". Edifices of social and civic clubs have been made public community centers and even Buddhist temples. Neighborhoods that once bustled with children are now abandoned to the poorest of the poor, some with fifty percent or more of the homes boarded up and abandoned. Crime is rife on streets that once cradled successful businesses and stores. Few of Polish descent remain; many who do are poor themselves and unable to relocate, or hold out hoping for better days that seem not to come. In recent years church after church shuttered their doors as fewer and fewer of the faithful came to pray.
I am nostalgic for the sights, sounds and smells of my youth...polkas on the radio in grandma's house, the smell of kielbasa on the stove, the taste of czarnina on a cold afternoon, the sounds of the crowd in the market, the excitement of an afternoon in Sattlers, the heavenly odor of candles and incense in dimly lit churches...but I know much of this is lost to time and neglect, much as the neighborhoods and churches of Polonia, victims of an assimilation that was both necessary and detrimental. Pragmatism led to indifference and apathy. So much has been lost. We have succeeded; we are leaders, we are academics, professionals, patriots. But with each passing generation we become less and less Polish. For me and many like me, that is a sad predicament.
My greatest fear is that we will lose the one thing left that binds us and keeps us whole: our faith. We are the descendents of one of the most faithful cultures in Christendom. The Catholic Church is our heritage; it belongs to us, to our family tree. If we abandon this most important aspect of who we are we become nothing at all. For this reason I am faithful. For this reason I have taught my children to love their Church, their faith; and for this reason we must lift our voices to Heaven for the faith of all our brothers and sisters.
No, my children do not have a devotion to St. Stanislaus or Our Lady of Czestochowa. No, there are no Polish hymns sung in our church, nor would my children, or I for that matter, recognize them if they were. Despite that, our faith life is alive, vibrant and active. Perhaps my grandparents would not recognize our devotions or be able to follow the vernacular mass, perhaps they would question why we don't celebrate certain feasts and saints, enjoy certain foods, or speak the native tongue. But they most definitely would recognize our love for our Church, Our Blessed Mother, and Our Lord Jesus Christ. THAT is what matters. That is what we, as a Polish people, must hold on to with all our might. For no matter where we are, what circumstances or situations we live in, our faith defines us, molds us, and makes us who we are.