The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Home Lands

October 31, 2010

'Many parishes boast Polish roots'

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, conditions in Poland were deplorable because of  the 100-year domination by Austria, Russia and Prussia. That led masses of Polish people to seek refuge and a better life in America.

When they journeyed here, they brought their faith.

Tony DeGol, secretary of communications for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, said the Polish heritage has played a large role in the history of the regional Catholic organization.

“Many parishes boast Polish roots, especially in Cambria and Somerset counties,” he said.

“To this day, the Polish tradition remains strong in many of our faith communities.”

There are a number of Roman Catholic churches in the area that have Polish heritage, but almost all have undergone mergers within the past 15 years.

In Cambria County, the Polish churches include:

St. Stanislaus Kosta, which merged with four parishes to form Prince of Peace Parish in Northern Cambria in 2000;

Holy Family Parish in Colver;

Our Lady of Czestochowa (St. Mary) Parish, which merged with St. Patrick Parish in Gallitzin to form St. Demetrius Parish in Gallitzin in 2000;

St. Casimir Parish, which merged with St. Emerich Parish in 1997 to form SS. Casimir & Emerich Parish, which then merged with four other parishes in 2009 to form Resurrection Parish in Cambria City;

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, which merged with St. Brigid Parish in Lilly to form Our Lady of the Alleghenies Parish in Lilly in 1995;

Sacred Heart of Jesus, which merged with Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in 1999, and St. John the Baptist in 2004 to form Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish in Portage;

St. Anthony Parish, which merged with St. James in South Fork and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Ehrenfeld to form Most Holy Trinity Parish in South Fork in 1995.

And in Somerset County:

St. Stanislaus Parish, which merged with St. John the Baptist in Acosta to form All Saints Parish in Boswell in 1995;

Sacred Heart of Jesus, which merged with St. John the Baptist Parish in Central City to form Our Lady Queen of Angels Parish in Central City in 1999;

St. John Cantius Parish, which merged with St. Mary Parish in Windber to form St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Windber in 2000.

“The large number of parishes with Polish roots clearly shows the local Polish-American community’s desire to celebrate its faith,” DeGol said.

“The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown is blessed to have the contributions of so many devout Polish-Americans over the years.”

Church chronicles

When early Polish immigrants arrived in the Cambria City section of  Johnstown, there was no Polish church, so they chose the best solution available and joined St. Stephen’s Parish, a Slovak-speaking congregation.

In 1892, while attending the church, the Poles organized St. Casimir’s Lodge, and shortly after began a plan to establish a parish for Polish-speaking people.

In 1901, the parish of St. Casimir was formed, and in 1902, construction began on the Romanesque-style building under the direction of prominent local architect Walter Myton, who also designed the church’s social hall, the Polski Dom, on present-day Power Street.

Construction was delayed for several years until 1906 because of a mine accident that claimed the lives of 40 church members.

St. Casimir Parish was officially dedicated on May 12, 1907, by Pope Pius X.

The church members also constructed a grade school at Fifth Avenue and Chestnut Street, with the first floor completed in 1913 and a second floor added in 1925. As late as the 1950s, pupils studied the Polish language along with the history and customs of the country.

But because of dwindling enrollment and increasing expenses, the school became a part of West End Catholic School.

The new school was formed in the mid-1960s through the consolidation of eight Roman Catholic parishes located in the city’s West End.

By 1996, St. Casimir Parish saw a decline in parishioners and was experiencing financial hardships.      

Parishioners petitioned Bishop Joseph V. Adamec to merge the church with St. Emerich Parish, a Cambria City church that was organized by Hungarian immigrants in 1905.

On June 29, 1997, the merger was official and the two churches became one faith community known as SS. Casimir & Emerich Roman Catholic Church. The St. Emerich Church building was demolished in 2003.

In 2009, the decision was made to combine the five Catholic churches in Cambria City into one parish.

SS. Casimir & Emerich merged with St. Columba, St. Rochus, Immaculate Conception and St. Stephen’s to form Resurrection Parish.

The congregation worships in the former St. Stephen’s Church.

Upon arriving in the Portage area, Polish immigrants sought a place to worship and joined St. Joseph’s Church, which was the only Roman Catholic Church in the area, and, as a result, it led to overcrowding.

In 1908, the Poles organized the Sacred Heart Society and they formulated plans to establish a Polish Roman Catholic Church.

“The Slovaks were the first people here, so when the Poles came, they had no church of their own,” said Father Ronald V. Osinski, pastor of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish.

“They wanted to pray in their own language.”

On June 21, 1909, land was broken for Sacred Heart Parish on its current site on Mountain Avenue.

The cornerstone was laid in October 1909 and Polish people, along with societies and organizations from all parts of the county, came to Portage to help celebrate the day.

The first Mass was celebrated on Dec. 25, 1909.

In 1922, the church building was expanded using a Spanish- California mission style. A parish house also was built at the same time with the same style of architecture as the church.

Languages, traditions

By September 1999, the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown began a reconfiguration of parishes and Sacred Heart merged with Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish, a Slovak congregation, and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish was formed.

Then in July 2004, under another diocesan reconfiguration, the Parish of St. John the Baptist, which had its origins in serving Hungarian-speaking immigrants, closed and its members became one with Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.

“Before the merger we would do some Polish hymns, but now we try to incorporate the three ethnic groups,” Osinski said.

“I’ll do an occasional Polish funeral and I do hear some confessions in Polish.”

Annually, the church holds Pulaski Day, where the Polish Heritage Choir sings Polish hymns, but the Mass is said in English.

Although a majority of Polish-Americans joined or formed Roman Catholic churches, some became disenchanted with the church’s hierarchy.

The U.S. church in the 19th century had no Polish bishops and few Polish priests, and the Polish language was not allowed to be spoken in Mass since it was traditionally done in Latin.

Poles were unable to understand the language and wanted to have Mass celebrated in Polish.

A request to the Vatican was rejected, and as a result a break away from the Roman Catholic church occurred in 1897, and the Polish National Catholic Church was formed in Scranton.

In Cambria County, there are two Polish National Catholic churches – Holy Cross Parish in Johnstown and Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Lilly.

“We always had Mass in Polish, but in the past 20 years with the younger generations coming in who don’t speak the language more, English  has cropped up,” said Father Paul Zomerfeld of Holy Cross Parish.

He said a Polish Mass may be said on occasion and some hymns are still sung in Polish.

The two parishes are under the Buffalo Pittsburgh Diocese, PNCC.

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