Brief PRCUA History
The Polish Roman Catholic Union of America (PRCUA), headquartered in Chicago, IL, is the mother of Polish American fraternals. Established in 1873 by Rev. Teodor Gieryk and Rev. Wincenty Barzynski, C.R., it has grown into the largest Polish Roman Catholic fraternal benefit society in the United States. In its early years, the PRCUA pioneered social programs to assist its members financially by collecting donations for widows, orphans and the needy. It also raised funds to build an orphanage and a hospital.
In 1886, an insurance system was adopted and membership increased. The PRCUA donated large sums of money to build many churches and schools in the Polish American community, especially in Chicago, Detroit and Buffalo. That same year, the PRCUA established its own weekly publication, which underwent several name changes, and has continued as Narod Polski since 1897. The PRCUA urged members to blend the best of their Polish culture and their deep religious faith with their newly-acquired American ideals to create a Polish American community based upon their dedication “To God and Country,” which became the organization’s motto.
In 1897, the PRCUA led the way among fraternal organizations when it granted equal rights to women, over two decades prior to the 19th Amendment that gave American women the right to vote. By 1902, membership had reached 19,000 and was growing rapidly. In response to this expansion, in 1913, the organization built its headquarters at Milwaukee Avenue and Augusta Boulevard in Chicago – the same building that it occupies today. At that time, the PRCUA also opened a library in its new building, which currently houses one of the largest collections of Polish books in the United States of America.
In 1935, the PRCUA – under the leadership of President Joseph Kania – founded the first ethnic museum and archives in America, which has become a priceless treasury of artifacts from Poland and Polonia, known today as The Polish Museum of America. The Museum, housed on the third floor of the PRCUA headquarters, not only preserves the Polish past in America, but also promotes Polish culture through traveling exhibits, concerts, folk art workshops, etc.
The PRCUA has continued to promote camaraderie among its members by sponsoring national sports tournaments, social events and youth programs, including 25 Polish language and dance schools in six states, where close to 2,000 children are taught Polish language, folk dances, songs, culture, history and traditions. It also sponsors teen programs, such as the annual Cinderella-Prince Charming Ball and the Michigan State Ball. The PRCUA has a over 140-year legacy of supporting charitable endeavors. During WW II, members sent food, medical supplies and ambulances to Polish refugees. During martial law in the 1980s, the PRCUA raised funds to purchase five ambulances that were sent to Poland. The organization continues to support charitable causes, such as its annual donations to Polish seminarians at the Orchard Lake Schools in Michigan.
The PRCUA is currently licensed to sell life insurance in 27 states. In addition to offering low-cost life insurance programs to its members, it also makes low-interest home mortgages, college loans and educational scholarships available to its members.
This fraternal organization of nearly 50,000 members enjoys financial stability and looks forward to a bright future, created by over 140 years of effectively serving the needs of its members and the Polish American community.
Early PRCUA History ▼
In June, 1873, Rev. Theodor Gieryk wrote open letters in Polish language newspapers encouraging Poles in America to unite in a national organization to protect Polish immigrants from discrimination and to preserve their cultural heritage and identity. This idea was warmly received by Jan Barzynski, editor of the “Pilgrzym” Polish newspaper in Washington, Missouri – one of the oldest Polish language newspapers in America. Mr. Barzynski enthusiastically promoted Fr. Gieryk’s idea. Thus, on October 3, 1873, Fr. Theodor Gieryk, Jan Barzynski, Peter Kiolbasa, John Glosowski, Rev. Vincent Barzynski, C.R. (Jan Barzynski’s brother), Fr. Leopold Moczygemba, Fr. Joseph Dabrowski and others met at St. Albertus Parish in Detroit, Michigan. This meeting brought about the establishment of the PRCUA, a fraternal organization for Polish Americans of the Roman Catholic faih, whose motto was established as “For God and Country”.
The first goals of the organization were:
- to build Polish churches and schools,
- to promote adherence to the Roman Catholic religion, and the religious and cultural traditions of the Polish nation,
- to give fraternal assistance to Poles,
- to take care of widows and orphans,
- to help Poland to become an independent country again,
- to establish “Pilgrim” as the official organ of the organization.
From the beginning, information about the PRCUA was disseminated in the “Pilgrzym”. However, in 1886 the “Gazeta Katolicka” became the official publication of the PRCUA. In 1888, the name of the weekly PRCUA newspaper was changed to “Wiara i Ojczyzna.” The latter two newspapers were published in Chicago. At the 1896 PRCUA National Convention held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the delegates decided that the organ of the organization would be called “Narod Polski” which has remained the official publication of the PRCUA to this day. The first issue of the Narod Polski appeared in January of 1897.
The newspaper was published weekly until 1946 when it changed to the current semi-monthly schedule. Between 1921 and 1939 the PRCUA also published a daily newspaper called “Dziennik Zjednoczenia” which was printed in a print shop at the home office in Chicago in the area of the current Social Hall. Narod Polski was published entirely in the Polish language and covered local and worldwide news of interest to the Polish American community, as well as fraternal news. In the 1970s the newspaper’s format was gradually changed from mostly Polish to half English, half Polish. Currently the Narod Polski has a circulation of approximately 27,000 and is mailed to members nationwide.
Father Leopold Gieryk (1837-1878), one of the founders of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America, was a remarkable man. He served as the PRCUA’s first President from 1873-75. Born in 1837, in the Prussian section of partitioned Poland near Marienwerder, he served as a chaplain in the Prussian army. In 1872, Father Gieryk immigrated to the U.S.A. along with many Poles who were refugees of Otto Von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. Years of repression and religious persecution instilled in these émigrés a strong sense of nationalism and they were determined to maintain their ethnic identity in America. These strong ties to their native language and customs targeted the Poles for discrimination, particularly during the economic depression of 1873 which had devastating effects on the poor immigrants.
Ethnic parishes helped their members to a certain degree by serving as buffers between the Old World immigrants and the new American society, with all its strange customs and beliefs, within which the Poles had to function. Although many groups tried to address the problems at the local level, with the large wave of Polish immigrants who settled in many different regions of the United States in the late 1800s, it became apparent that a national organization was needed. Fr. Gieryk was among the earliest advocates of such a national organization.
In 1873, Father Gieryk became pastor of St. Albertus parish in Detroit, Michigan, which was founded just three years earlier. Much of Father Gieryk’s time was spent arranging for the initial building of the church, collecting funds for building and administering to the needs of the Polish immigrants who comprised his parishioners. He was moved by the generosity of his parishioners, despite their meager means. Fr. Gieryk was driven by the desire to do something to help his parishioners protect themselves against discrimination in this “land of the free and home of the brave.” He also wanted to encourage them to preserve their native language and customs, despite the inevitable assimilation into American society.
Beginning in June of 1873, Fr. Gieryk wrote open letters to all the Polish language newspapers in the United states, urging the leaders of various Polish American communities to ban together into a national organization for their mutual benefit. One of Fr. Gieryk’s strongest supporters was Jan Barzynski, editor of the “Pilgrzym” Polish language newspaper published in Washington, Missouri. He published a series of Father Gieryk’s letters in his newspaper, and gave his idea much media coverage.
As a result of these articles, Father Gieryk called for at meeting a his parish in Detroit, Michigan on October 3, 1873. In attendance at this meeting were many of the religious and civic leaders of the Polish American community, including: Rev. Leopold Moczygemba, founder of the Polish immigrant settlement in Panna Maria, Texas, in 1854 and the oldest Polish Church in America – the settlement’s Immaculate Conception Parish, as well as Superior of the Conventual Franciscan Missionaries in Texas from 1856-58 and First Commissary General of the Conventual Franciscans (1858-1866). This meeting led to the establishment of the PRCUA.
The following year, the first national Convention of the PRCUA was held in Chicago and Father Gieryk was elected national president. At this convention, the group issued a statement of its purposes which included preserving the Catholic faith and national spirit of Polish Americans and passing on these values to future generations. Participants also voted on establishing a bank, hospital, local libraries, teachers’ seminary and other institutions of higher education for Polish Americans.
Father Gieryk stressed the need to maintain the group’s Catholic identity and this special apostolate to Polish immigrants was placed under the patronage of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The religious tone of the organization lent special support to Polish clergy who often had to struggle to maintain their ethnic parishes, which were opposed by some of the church hierarchy. This was viewed by Fr. Gieryk as a threat which could lead to the total assimilation of Polish priests into the American way of life.
The Convention made Father Gieryk come away from the meeting with a great sense of support by the participants. He was so optimistic and hopeful for the organization, that he left his pastorship to devote himself fulltime to the very time-consuming affairs of establishing this national organization in accordance with the wishes of the delegates at the First Convention.
There were other segments of the Polish American community who did not want the clergy to be part of this fraternal organization and who did not want the Roman Catholic religion to play such an important part in the organization’s foundation. These groups broke away from the original group to found other non-religious Polish American fraternal organizations, such as the Polish National Alliance.
Father Gieryk had taken upon his shoulders a formidable task. Not only was he battling the church hierarchy in Detroit and the various factions which wanted the organization to go in a different direction from that proposed by Father Gieryk, but he was also troubled by poor health which was rapidly deteriorating.
In an attempt to lead a more peaceful, less stressful life, Father Gieryk decided to move to the newly-forming rural town of Radom, Illinois, where he hoped to continue his ministry and regain his health.
At that time, Civil War hero General John Turczyn was recruiting Polish immigrants for the Illinois Central Railroad to settle in southern Illinois. He arrived there in April of 1875, when St. Michael’s Parish had just marled its first anniversary. There was no rectory and Radom fell far short of the “paradise” promised in Illinois Central advertisements. So Father Gieryk, St. Michael’s first resident pastor, moved into the near-by barracks of the railroad workers.
Once again, Father Gieryk became deeply concerned about the spiritual and material welfare of his people. He learned that the people were buying land and farming it, but they didn’t hold the deeds. Father Gieryk started asking people where their deeds were and told them they should have the titles for their land. When the land agent heard about all of this, he called the people together and vehemently assured them of his honesty. The agent then told the people that their new pastor was a troublemaker and they should get rid of him if they new what was good for them. Thus, In April of 1876, Father Gieryk was asked to leave Radom.
Father Gieryk served in Berlin, Wisconsin, for a short time, then he returned to southern Illinois. He was offered a parcel of land by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad to establish a church about 14 miles northeast of Radom. Thus he moved to this farm in Jefferson County and served German Catholics living in the vicinity. He never built a church, though. In late September, he became critically ill.
Father Dezyderjusz Liss, OSF, brought him the Sacraments and on his deathbed Father Gieryk forgave the people of Radom for any hurt they caused him, according to the Radom parish history published in 1924 on the occasion of the dedication of the present church. Father Theodor Gieryk died on November 3, 1878, at the age of 41 years. His grave was marked by a small tombstone placed by his housekeeper, Matilda Stryzyzewska.
On May 31, 1937, hundreds of PRCUA members gathered at Radom to honor our co-founder at the unveiling of a 14-foot high granite cross which the PRCUA erected at Fr. Gieryk’s gravesite.
At the gravesite, the then PRCUA Vice Chaplain Fr. Paul Janeczko praised Father Gieryk’s zeal and understanding for the temporal concerns of his people. “With all of his heart, Fr. Gieryk sought the good fortune and progress of the Polish people. He looked to the future. Therefore his works have such a profound meaning for all Polish people in America.” Fr. Janeczko said.
The impact of Fr. Gieryk’s ministry was further recognized in 1970 when the pioneer priest’s remains were exhumed and transferred to the Honor Section of the cemetery located in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa.
Rev. Vincent Barzynski – introduced an insurance system in 1886.
Rev. Leopold Moczygemba, President from 1875-80 (1824-1891) – was born in 1824 in Wieka Pluznica, Poland, in the Opole Region of Poland that was under Prussian rule at that time. He was ordained a priest in the Order of Friars Minor Conventual at Pesaro, Italy, in 1847. He continued his higher education in Germany after ordination. In 1852, Bishop J. M. Odin, the First Bishop of Texas, visited the Franciscan Monastery in Bavaria, Germany, to recruit missionaries. Among the five friars who accepted this missionary call to America was Father Leopold Moczygemba, age 27. The pioneer band of missionaries arrived at the Port of Galveston, Texas, in the early summer of 1852. They were entrusted with 4 parishes and 12 missions serving German Catholics.
Fr. Moczygemba wrote glowing reports to his family in Poland about the numerous new opportunities of America – freedom and abundance of everything which was denied them in Europe. Silesia at that time was a region of great poverty, rising food prices, rampant cholera and typhus epidemics and an oppressed people under the yoke of the Prussian rulers who longed for freedom. He encouraged his family to come to America. As a result, more than 100 families from Upper Silesia sold their possessions and boarded a vessel headed for Galveston, Texas. Altogether, there were about 800 men, women and children who decided to take the priest’s advice. They brought with them plows, farm implements, bedding, kitchen utensils and even a large cross from their old parish church. Their voyage lasted 9 weeks. They landed at the port of Galveston, Texas, on December 3. They then proceeded down the coast to Indianola, a smaller port and journeyed another three weeks on foot and on carts to San Antonio, arriving there on December 21. Fr. Moczygemba met the party there and he led them 55 miles southeast to the junction of the San Antonio River and the Cibolo Creek, to a place chosen by Father Moczygemba as their future settlement – the new village of Panna Maria, Texas. The immigrant group arrived at a site on December 24, 1854. Under the historic oak tree, Fr. Leopold offered Mass with the settlers and thus established the oldest Polish settlement in the United States.
At first the peasants lived in dugouts, in grass huts or under the spreading oak trees. In time they build more substantial wooden and stone buildings. A year later, in early December 1855, bad weather set in. It started with a series of cold, wet periods which lasted until March of 1856, then it was followed by 14 months of the most severe droughts Texas ever suffered in its entire history. All the vegetation disappeared altogether, crops and livestock were lost and the Silesians had to use their life savings in order to stay alive. Had it not been for the wild game in the area, many would have died of starvation. Many families left the area to go to American cities and seek work. The drought not only destroyed the economic prospects for the immigrants, but it also destroyed their faith in their spiritual leader.
Just as the Israelites murmured against Moses after he led them out of Egypt, so too the settlers had become openly hostile to the spiritual leader who had urged them to come to such a desolate wilderness. Family legend says at one point Fr. Leopold’s brother, Joseph, wanted to return to Poland. The missionary reportedly threw Joseph’s passport into the fire to prevent a breakaway from the colony. His brothers Joseph, John, Anton and August, and several cousins, remained in Texas while his parents and brother, Franciszek cancelled their plans to come to America. Another story relates how the colonists broke out in open hostility against the priest who brought them there. One group wanted to hang him and the other group wanted to drown him in what little water remained in the San Antonio River.
Father Moczygemba had just completed the building of Immaculate Conception Church in Panna Maria which became the oldest Polish Church in America. In 1856, the cross brought from Poland by the settlers was erected before the main door of the new church and blessed by its pastor, Fr. Moczygemba.
Fr. Moczygemba, now 32-years-old, was pulled in many directions. On the one hand he felt responsible for the settlers and their welfare, but they needed food and all he could offer were prayers. On the other hand their discontentment with him was something that could not be ignored. As a later pastor among them summoned up the situation succinctly: “They complained and cursed the priest so strongly that he had to escape.” He repeatedly wrote to Rome requesting a Polish priest to take charge of the settlement. In October 1856, right after the dedication of the church, Fr. Moczygemba left Panna Maria and went to Castroville. He remained there until 1857 when he left Texas only to return for brief visits in later years.
In 1856 he was appointed as Superior of the Conventual Franciscan Missionaries in Texas, a position which lasted for 2 years. In 1858, Fr. Moczygemba became the First Commissary General of the Conventual Franciscans, a position which he held until 1866. In 1858 he left for Europe on the first of several such trips he would make in his lifetime. He went to Rome and also visited his family in Silesia and raised funds for the missions in America. He recruited several priests to return to America with him and in November of 1858 they arrived in New York. Fr. Moczygemba received a letter from the Bishop of Albany which proposed the possibility of having the friars work among the German immigrants in his diocese. Fr. Leopold agreed and in March of 1859, the bishop transferred two urban parishes to the friars. Fr. Leopold founded the first motherhouse of the Order in the U.S.A. in Syracuse, New York, and parishes in Utica and Syracuse for the large German-speaking immigrant population.
In the meantime, funds solicited by Fr. Moczygemba in Europe began reaching the missions in Texas and Father Francis Gatti was appointed as superior of the Texas missions, where he and another priest were sent to minister to the needs of the Silesians. In 1860 Fr. Moczygemba sent priests to Louisville, Kentucky, where they established St. Peter’s Parish. Two years their order received charge of the nearby St. Anthony’s Parish in Jeffersonville, Indiana. During the Civil War, he was concerned with wartime inflation and keeping his seminarians from being conscripted into the Army, so much of his time was spend fundraising.
In the winter of 1863-64, Peter Kiolbassa, a handsome 27-year-old Union Army officer came to Chicago to spend his furlough. Shortly after his arrival, Kiolbassa involved himself in the Polish community’s affairs to establish a Polish parish. During his Chicago furlough, Kiolbassa contacted his close friend, Rev. Leopold Moczygemba and suggested that the priest come to Chicago. Peter Kiolbassa arranged to have Fr. Moczygemba make his first trip to Chicago to hear the Easter confessions of 30 German families at St. Boniface Church and the Polish community, where a chronicler noted that “the Polish community received Father Leopold with vivid joy and elevated spirits.” He was the first Polish priest to minister in Chicago. He made contacts in the city which became helpful in later years. His contact with Peter Kiolbassa would lead to Fr. Moczygemba’s involvement with the founding of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America.
From 1868-70 Fr. Moczygemba served in Rome. In 1870 he traveled back to America and took charge of St. Mary’s Church in Litchfield, Illinois. There his top priority was to establish a Catholic school for German immigrant families who moved into the area to work on the railroad. He moved out of the rectory and transformed it into a combination school and convent for the Ursuline Sisters from Alton, Illinois.
Fr. Moczygemba hoped to be appointed Bishop of Montana but his appointment was frustrated by the local bishop who would not support his election. He moved to St. Joseph’s parish in Terre Haute, Indiana for a year and then to St. Anthony’s Parish in Jeffersonville, Indiana in 1875, where he stayed for 2 years.
During the 1870s, Fr. Moczygemba devoted more and more of his time to activities with members of the Polish community in America, which he continued until the time of his death. He had been present at the founding meeting of the PRCUA in Detroit, and some accounts even declare that he served as Chairman of this meeting. In 1875, at the third PRCUA convention. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Fr. Moczygemba was elected as President of the PRCUA. He was friends with Rev. Joseph Dabrowski who discussed with him the idea of founding a Polish teacher’s college and seminary for training young men for the priesthood.
Fr. Moczygemba wrote to the superior of the Congregation of the Resurrection, a nationalistic Polish religious order, reporting to him that due to an increasing immigration of Poles to America there was a great need for more members of his order in the US. Under Fr. Moczygemba’s leadership, the PRCUA sponsored the settlement of Polish immigrants in central Nebraska on lands being offered for sale by the Burlington and Missouri Valley railroad. Jan Barzynski was one of the land agents involved in this settlement. In 1877, about 300 families located in the area of Sherman and Howard Counties and this area became the proposed site for the planned seminary that had been discussed.
Side note: In 1876 Father Moczygemba rescued one of the pioneer Polish Catholic newspapers in the U.S. “Gazeta Polska Katolicka” by donating to it $2,500 from his own personal funds.” This newspaper later became the official publication of the PRCUA.
In 1878, Fr. Moczygemba made his final trip to Europe. He went to Rome to secure Papal endorsement for his plans to found a college or seminary for the Poles in America and to transfer from the Friars Minor Conventual with whom he was having personal problems, to the Polish Congregation of the Resurrection. Father Moczygemba submitted two undated petitions to Pope Leo XIII, one in Latin and the other in Italian requesting permission to establish a college/seminary. In Latin he used the work “collegium” and in Italian the word “seminario”. The Holy father approved both petitioned on January 14, 1879.
Fr. Moczygemba successfully transferred to the Congregation of the Resurrection who suggested he be sent to Chicago to work with the Polish immigrants. In 1880 he returned to America, arriving in New York and traveling by train to Chicago, where he spent the next two years at St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish on the near north side of Chicago. He described his life in Chicago thusly: “Father Wincenty Barzynski takes care of the parish and I care for the house, brothers and postulants. We have 4 brothers, 3 Polish and 1 Italian, and 2 postulants, young Poles, and it seems that they are good boys. I assist in the parish as much as I can.”
At this same time, problems arose in Nebraska. The colony was not prospering, and the Resurrectionists admitted they lacked sufficient financial support for the educational venture there. Nevertheless, Fr. Moczygemba continued to support the effort, even buying 380 acres of land for the site of the proposed school with his own funds. In 1882, he became pastor of St. Alphonsus Church in Lemont, Illinois, a combined congregation of 175 German families and 350 Polish families. Although they constituted the minority, the Germans owned the church building and controlled parochial affairs at the parish. Therefore, Fr. Leopold set about establishing a completely separate congregation for the Poles, Ss. Cyril and Methodius Parish, while administering to the spiritual needs of the Germans as well.
He purchased 20 acres of land on a hilltop in Lemont and deeded a portion of this to the Diocese of Chicago for a church building. he sold the remaining acreage to local Poles as residential lots around the church and called the subdivision Jasna Gora. He called a meeting of all Poles in the area and assessed each family a specific sum to be contributed to the church’s building fund. The cornerstone was laid in August 1883.and the building was sufficiently complete for the first Mass to be held there in April 1884.
Fr. Leopold was visited by his nephew, Rev. Leopold Moczygemba, called “Jr.”, who celebrated his first solemn Mass as a priest there in June of 1884. He was born in San Antonio, Texas, to Leopold’s brother Anton in 1859. His other brother, Joseph, also had a son who became Monsignor Thomas J. Moczygemba, who served the Archdiocese of San Antonio all his life. After a few months, the young priest returned to Lemont to assist his aging uncle for the remainder of his tenure in the parish.
In 1884 Fr. Moczygemba health began to fail and he transferred to Father Joseph Dabrowski the major role in bringing plans for a seminary to fruition, but he remained associated with the effort until its completion.
Fr. Dabrowski decided it would be more advantageous to shift the proposed location for the seminary from Nebraska to Detroit, Michigan, which was fast becoming a largely Polish populated area. The Bishop of Detroit gave his formal approval the two clergymen began fundraising efforts. In August of 1884 Fr. Moczygemba sold his land in Nebraska and secured $5,800 which he gave as a loan to the Diocese of Detroit to purchase the land. According to the still-preserved agreement, he did not expect repayment of the principal, but rather to be allowed to “live and reside in the aforesaid Polish Seminary” and to receive interest in the amount of 4% annually as a stipend for his expected retirement.
Fr. Moczygemba also contributed substantially from his own funds to establish the seminary. In a letter he wrote in 1886, Fr. Leopold discussed his efforts in the seminary venture: “… Here I must add that if it were now for my funds, the Seminary would never have existed. When I made a good beginning [with donated funds], the others joined with their work and considerable funds/ Otherwise they would never have given their support.” he attended the laying of the cornerstone of Ss. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in 1885, which also coincided with the millennium of the great Slavic missionaries (885-1885). The seminary was dedicated in 1886.
Fr. Moczygemba remained in Lemont until 1887, when he moved to the Polish Seminary. In 1888 he petitioned for perpetual secularization, which was approved, and spent the remainder of his life as a secular priest in the Detroit Diocese.
From 1887 through 1889, Fr. Leopold lived in the Detroit area, teaching at the seminary and serving as chaplain for the Felician Sisters in Detroit and the Sisters of Charity in nearby Dearborn. He was unhappy with his treatment in Detroit, feeling that he was not treated with proper respect. Therefore in July of 1889 he secured a temporary position as pastor of St. Mary’s Church is Parisville, Michigan, the oldest Polish settlement in the state. He served there until June of 1890. Then he moved to officiate at St. Stanislaus Church in rural Hilliard, now Dorr, Michigan, from October 1890 to January 1891. He became very ill and complained that “the Michigan cold is killing me.” In January 1891, he was unable to continue his priestly duties at Hilliards, so he returned to Dearborn where he spent the next few weeks growing weaker and more ill. He died on February 23, 1891 at the age of 65 years. He was quietly buried in the priest’s lot at Mount Elliott Cemetery in Detroit and mourned throughout the Polish American community. In his will be gave the remainder of his estate to the Diocese of Detroit for the support of the seminary.
Fr. Moczygemba’s mortal remains lay there for 83 years beneath an undistinguished faded tombstone. In 1972, the pastor of Panna Maria, Texas, made a pilgrimage to Detroit to view the gravesite of Fr. Moczygemba. He was shocked to find that not a single clergyman or layman in the Detroit area could or would lead him to the site. Upset by this lack of recognition afforded the founder of the oldest Polish parish in America, the Texas Poles immediately took steps to transfer his remains to Panna Maria, Texas, in order to give him a final resting place “among his relatives and friends.” They received all the necessary permissions and on October 13, 1974, in a concelebrated field Mass including over a dozen priests, two of them from Father Moczygemba’s home region in Poland, and including the Archbishop of San Antonio, Father Leopold Moczygemba’s remains were reinterred in the churchyard at Panna Maria. The reburial took place beneath the same oak tree under which he had offered the first Mass with the newly-arrived Polish immigrants on Christmas Eve in 1854. Two years later an imposing granite gravestone bearing a life-size bronze bust of Father Moczygemba was placed over the grave, which is visited by hundreds of people annually. The marker bears in Polish a quotation from Fr. Leopold: “As a Silesian, I have more Polish feelings than I can express.” He was honored with the title “Patriarch of American Polonia.”
Ladies PRCUA History ▼
The Polish Roman Catholic Union of America, established in 1873, was the FIRST Polish American organization to grant equal rights to women. At that time, it was considered both a bold and extremely progressive move on the part of this fraternal benefit society. The issue of granting equal rights to women was introduced at the 24th PRCUA Convention of 1897, held in Chicago, Illinois. One hundred years ago, on July 30, 1897, the Convention accorded women the right to become members of the PRCUA. Previously, women could only join under their husband’s name. After 1897, they became independent members with insurance policies up to $250.
This was a significant triumph for immigrant Polish American women in their new homeland. It brought home the real meaning of the American philosophy that “all people are created equal” and brought the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” within the grasp of the “fairer” sex. The idea of equal rights for women was strongly supported by the local Roman Catholic clergy.
Two years later, on October 18, 1899, the PRCUA became the first organization in Polonia to grant women the right to vote, over two decades before women were granted equal rights by the U. S. Constitution’s 19th Amendment!
The right was accorded to Polish American women at the 26th PRCUA National Convention when the Convention Committee proposed an amendment stating that women should have right to establish Societies with their own administration and the right to send voting delegates to the Conventions. Since this is the date when the first Women’s Societies began to form, 1899 is recognized as the birth date of the PRCUA Women’s Division. Women joined PRCUA quickly. By 1948, there were 62,721 female members.
The issue of equal rights for women had been a controversial subject in Chicago for decades, since 1869 when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton came to Chicago to discuss women’s rights. At that time, Frances Willard, who later became the first Dean of Woman at Northwestern University in Chicago, declared: “The idea that boys of 21 are fit to make laws for their mothers, is an insult to everyone.” Insult was added to injury when, in 1870, a new Illinois State Constitution was adopted that provided voting rights for African American males, but not for women. Through the decades that followed, many suffragists continued to rage against the injustice caused by the fact that former slaves and newly-arrived immigrant men could vote, while women remained deprived of this right.
Because of the suffragists’ close ties to the temperance movement, the liquor lobby was steadfastly opposed to granting women the right to vote. When a ballot asking whether or not women should be given the vote was included in the 1912 Chicago primary election, the proposition was overwhelmingly defeated 135,410 to 71,354. Yet, in Polonia, by 1909, a woman already held the position of Vice President in our fraternal organization!
In 1899 the first four Women’s Societies were established in Chicago: Maria Osuch founded the Polish Women’s Society of Mary #38 at St. Hedwig Parish; St. Barbara Society #33 was founded by Barbara Kirschenstein in St. Adalbert’s Parish; Society of the Mother of God of Czestochowa #53 was founded by Katarzyna Rostenkowski at St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish, and the Polish Women’s Society of St. Ann #66 was founded by Anna Korzeniewski at St. John Cantius Parish. Soon new Societies sprang up in other cities.
The 1901 PRCUA Convention was historic because the first four women delegates participated in the sessions: Maria Osuch, Barbara Kirschenstein, Katarzyna Rostenkowski and Anna Korzeniewski.
In 1905, at the 29th Convention, the editor of the Narod Polski proposed the election of a permanent representative for the women members. Maria Osuch from Chicago was chosen as Women’s Representative and held the position until the next Convention in 1907. Maria Osuch initiated the idea of having the women of PRCUA collect enough money to finance the first official PRCUA banner, which was presented by her to the PRCUA during the 30th Convention in 1907 in Erie, PA. There were 15 women delegates representing 383 members from 10 Societies present at the 1907 Convention, where Anna Jozwiakowska was elected Representative.
During the next election in Cleveland, in 1909, two women were chosen to the PRCUA administration: Magdalena Dumanowska from Chicago became the first Lady Director and Konstancja Chamska was elected Women’s Representative. In 1911, Konstancja Chamska was re-elected Representative, and the Directors were Magdalene Dumanowski and Franciszka Nowakowski from Buffalo, NY.
In 1913, about 20,000 of the 63,000 PRCUA members were women and female delegates representing 77 Women’s Societies were at the 33rd Convention, held in Milwaukee, WI. Marie Osuch was elected as Representative at that Convention and the Directors were Marta Zolinski of Chicago, Franciszka Czaja of Chicago and Franciszka Nowakowski of Buffalo. At the 34th Convention in 1915 there were 13 women serving either as part of the administration or on Committees. The number of Lady Directors from Chicago increased from 2 to 3 and 2 women Directors from outside of Chicago were elected. It was also agreed at this Convention that each committee working with the PRCUA administration should include at least one female member. Also, the women representative was to be called the PRCUA Vice President from then on, but she was only an advisor. Thus history was made at the 35th Convention in Pittsburgh, PA, when Marie Osuch was re-elected under the title of Vice President; she served until 1917 but thereafter remained active in PRCUA until her death in 1949 at the age of 84.
Mrs. Osuch was a very prominent member of the PRCUA. She organized three PRCUA Societies: Polish Women’s Society of Mary #38 at St. Hedwig Parish in Chicago, Illinois; St. Lucy Society at St. Hedwig Parish, and St. Sylvia Society at St. Constance Parish.
She was a Delegate to many Conventions and took a very active part in PRCUA affairs, even though she was the wife of the Michael Osuch, one of the original supporters of the Polish National Alliance (PNA) who became National President of the PNA in 1887. Mrs. Osuch also raised a family.
She was an active member of various committees acting in the best interest of the PRCUA and Polish nation. She urged Society #38 to financially assist St. Joseph Home for the Aged in Chicago, IL. She went to numerous parishes encouraging their members to became active in our fraternal organization and to assist Poland. She was always ready for work, whenever she was called by the PRCUA administration, believing that this was her duty and honor. In the book commemorating the Silver Anniversary of the PRCUA in 1923, it is written of Mrs. Osuch: “PRCUA was her life – any misfortune in the organization was due her own failure, any success was due to her own success. For her work and commitment, she deserves the highest respect.”
In April of 1915, Polish American women representing the PRCUA addressed a Memorial to the Women’s Peace Congress in Hague, Denmark, in which – on behalf of the 35,000 women members of PRCUA – they demanded a free and independent Poland.
In 1917, Agnieszka Klawiter-Osowska was elected Vice President, a position she held until 1922, when Anna Jozwiakowska was elected Vice President for a three-year term. The official name ‘Women’s Department’ was established during the 1925 Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, by Marta Zolinska, which also introduced extensive reforms which gave the Department more independence. It was at this Convention that the first full administration of the Women’s Department was elected and it was decided that the PRCUA Vice-President would also be the President of Women’s Department and the Directors would be among its officers. Thus newly-elected Vice President Marta Zolinska became the first President of Women’s Department. She remained in office until 1931. The first Women’s Department meeting took place on June 21, 1926 at PRCUA Headquarters. At the meeting, rules were made and officers were elected: Marta Zolinska, President; Maria Osuch, V.P.; Waleria Gorska, Financial and Corr. Secretary; and Anna Ostrowska, Treasurer.
On October 20, 1927, Vice President Martha Zolinski with the Women’s Department organized a ball. Proceeds were devoted to charity and from that fund the Women’s Department prepared “food baskets” for poor Polish families for the Christmas of 1927. Since then the Women’s Department has organized similar activities annually to raise money for various charities, such as the Laski Institute.
At the 39th Convention in 1928 a new position of State Woman Vice-President was established for the states of: Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Ohio, and Michigan. Also, this Convention established a Youth Department and a Sports Department. Since then the Women’s Department devoted increased efforts to organizing youth activities. In 1931, under the leadership of Vice President Klara Palczynska-Donahue, the Women’s Department began to celebrate Mother’s Day and Swiecone.
Because the PRCUA headquarters is located in Chicago, up to this time all the National PRCUA Lady Vice Presidents had been from Chicago. However, at the 41st Convention in 1934 – held in Springfield, Massachusetts – Aleksandra Bednarko-Politowska from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, became the first out-of-state Vice-President to be elected to the PRCUA’s administration.
During the mid-1930s, the Women’s Department was quite involved in organizing Polish girl scouts (Cory Zjednoczenia). At that time, the PRCUA sponsored large groups of Polish Boy Scouts called Harcerstwa, as well as the Cory. The Women’s Department also helped financially disabled Polish Army veterans, and prepared “food baskets” for the poor at Christmas.
Between the years of 1934-1937 there were about 60,000 female members in PRCUA. At that time it was suggested that branches of the Women’s Department should be established in other states. In January of 1938 the first 3 branches were established in Milwaukee, WI, Detroit, MI, and Buffalo, NY, by the State Women Directors. At that time the Women’s Department started to celebrate the Oplatek on regular basis and in 1935 Union Day (Dzien Zjednoczenia) was established.
Because the first PRCUA banner was almost worn out, in 1936 the Women’s Department decided to fund the new one, which was blessed at the Convention in 1937, held in Wilkes-Barre, PA.
In 1938 the Women’s Department, under the leadership of Vice President Antonina Wlodarska-Czerniak, was very helpful in opening and later enlarging the Polish Museum of America at PRCUA headquarters in Chicago and the Archives. The Department also founded St. Bobola Chapel at Fr. Gieryk Youth Camp.
In 1939, the officers of the PRCUA warmly welcomed the great Polish pianist and statesman, Ignacy Paderewski, to the PRCUA, where he gave a fund-raising concert on March 19th in Chicago.
Due to the German invasion of Poland in 1939, on September 21, 1939, the Women’s Department adopted a Resolution to help Poland’s citizens, especially women and children. On November 28 the Women’s Department organized a dinner-dance which was attended by 500 people. All proceeds went to a special fund to help Poles. Also in 1939, the Connecticut and Massachusetts Women’s Departments were opened.
Thanks to the PRCUA Women’s Department, on March 3, 1940, in Wilkes-Barre, PA, 1,000 female members of Kolo Polek Wzajemnej Pomocy merged with the PRCUA and a Central Pennsylvania branch of the Women’s Department was opened.
In 1940, the Presidents of the State Women’s Departments were: District I – State of Connecticut – Zofia Zysk-Kline; District II – State of New York – Stefania Babula; District III – State of Pennsylvania – Maria Jedynak; District IV – State of New Jersey – Anna Maria Swistak; District V – State of Michigan – Szeslawa Matkowska; and District VI – State of Wisconsin – Jadwiga Nowaczyk.
At the Women’s Division Swieconka on March 27, 1940, the special guest speaker was General Joseph Haller from Poland.
On July 23, 1942 Women’s Division appealed to the women of the world to help women and children who were being murdered in Poland by the Nazis. The women met and rolled bandages and sent packages to Poland containing food, clothing, medical supplies and first aid supplies. They worked side-by-side with the American Red Cross. By 1943 the Women’s Department in Chicago had shipped about 15,000 parcels all over the world to help Polish war prisoners and refugees. They also collected food, clothing, soap, and cash for the Polish refugees and children around the world. Other branches of Women’s Department also participated in the fund raisers to help Poland. In immitation of the Red Cross, the Michigan Women’s Department introduced to its members uniforms: white dresses, golden lined navy-blue capes with the PRCUA emblem and a navy blue cap, also with the emblem, which were very popular during the war years.
On December 17, 1942 PRCUA Vice-President Antonina Czerniak together with Cory Zjednoczenia welcomed Polish General Wladyslaw Sikorski, who visited Chicago to appraise Americans of the situation in Poland.
The Women’s Department helped actively with many other worthy causes. They donated money toward the Paderewski Hospital erected in Great Britain, and in 1943, they gave $3,000 to Rev. Bonifacy Slawik to aid Polish orphans in India. Also, in 1943 Director Aniela Gorna became a Director of the Chicago Department of American Red Cross and Director Stanislawa Wisniewska became President of Ladies Auxiliary of Polish Welfare Association. In July of 1943, Vice-President Antonina Wlodarska-Czerniak welcomed to Chicago the first group of 706 Polish refuge orphans who came via Russia, through other countries and Leon, Mexico.
The Women’s Department and Youth Department were very active in the USO Club organized in 1942, which helped American soldiers with food donations and entertainment and was operating in Catholic Army Centers. Many young women members enlisted in the Armed Services of the USA, including Director Jadwiga Nowarczyk of Milwaukee, WI, who served our country in Europe as a WAC.
In 1947, Secretary General Jan Niblibore passed away and, for the first time, a woman was elected to the position of National Secretary General of the PRCUA to replace him: Miss Maria Skoczylas. She was re-elected to that position again in 1950 and 1954. The Women’s Department expressed their support of her nomination in a letter to the Convention in 1950.
In 1947, thanks to Vice-President Aniela Gorna, the Central School of Singing, Dance, Drama and Culinary Arts for girls was established in Chicago. The PRCUA was very involved in youth activities. Cory Zjednoczenia held scouting activities and the PRCUA sponsored a summer camp for youths in Yorkville, Illinois.
In 1948, the number of women Convention delegates almost equaled the number of men delegates. In 1949 the Women’s Department celebrated 50 years of voting rights for PRCUA women. It began with a recruiting contest which brought 4,260 new members. Cultural and educational program were developed, more dance, singing, art, and literary groups were established in different parts of the country. Each branch organized local festivities in honor of the 50th Anniversary. In Chicago, a Holy Mass was celebrated at St. Hedwig Church. During the Golden Jubilee year of the Women’s Department there were 6 women Supervisors and 68,734 female members of PRCUA.
The Women’s Department was extremely active in the 1950s. Each year they continued to sponsor the traditional Swiecone and Oplatek, as well as celebrations of Mother’s Day, Union Day at the American Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, and numerous trips to festivals and cultural events.
In 1954, Stanislawa Wisniewski was elected PRCUA Vice President. She was very active in the Polish Welfare Association, having served as both President and Vice President and she was Secretary of the State Division of the Polish American Congress. She had also served three terms on the Board of Directors of the PRCUA before becoming one of its executive officers.
Stella M. Nowak was elected to the position of Vice President in 1966 and served for three consecutive terms of office, until 1978. Vice President Nowak was a staunch supporter of PRCUA Sisters and Teachers Day, which honored the women involved in the teaching profession, to whom students and society owed a debt of gratitude, at a special annual luncheon sponsored by the PRCUA. When Mrs. Nowak completed her last term as National Vice President, she was elected to the office of National Treasurer from 1978 to 1982, thus becoming the first woman Treasurer in the PRCUA.
Under the leadership of Vice President Lorie Rose Gorny, the Women’s Department initiated ‘pinocle tournaments’. Although they were reported as being very enjoyable, they were short-lived. She also organized several dance and language schools and arranged a Grand Recital at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater in which all PRCUA dance school participated. V.P. Gorny also led an entourage to Kosciuszko, Mississippi, for a national celebration held by the U.S. government honoring General Thaddeus Kosciuszko. Her entire family were active PRCUA members. Her father, Mr. Dudek, sponsored and managed a baseball team for PRCUA and her grandmother, Mrs. Wilczynski, organized several PRCUA Societies.
Vice President Regina Ocwieja was an enthusiastic organizer while serving the PRCUA, first as Director of District #8 and later as Vice President for two terms from 1982 to 1990. She founded the PRCUA Cinderella – Prince Charming Ball in 1972, sponsored by the Adult Culture Group. She is also the founder of the Coalition of Polish American Women in Chicago, which meets monthly and presents a forum where Polish American women can invite political candidates running for office to express their point of view and their stand on various issues at the local, state and national level.
She was succeeded by Vice President Dolores Spejewski of Munster, Indiana, who has served as Resident Vice President of the PRCUA since 1990 and is in the fourth year of her second term of office. During the time Mrs. Spejewski has been in office, she has taken upon herself the great responsibility of directing the entire Fraternal Department, which means the Sports Department, as well as the Dance and Language Schools.
The sports programs in PRCUA began with a bowling tournament in 1937 and has branched out into annual tournaments in bowling, golf, basketball, and softball. John Czech served as Sports Director from 1934 to 1942 and Vincent Versen was Sports Director from 1942 to 1959. In 1951, Stella Walsh, a member of PRCUA, was named the Greatest Polish American athlete, for her stunning track victories in Canada, where she won the 60 yard International Open Sprint in just 7.2 seconds, plus her triumph at the Polish Athletic Games staged by the Polish Falcons and finally her National AAU Pentathlon victory in New York, which established her supremacy in the feminine world of sports. She also played in the PRCUA basketball tourney that year and her team won. Joseph C. Osmanski took over that position from 1959 to 1988 and Russ Duszak was Sports Director from 1988 to 1992. In 1992, Vice President Spejewski assumed the duties and responsibilities which the previous Sports Directors had performed.
Our members who are sports enthusiasts are pleased with the way she is handling the job as is attested to by the large number of participants in the annual sports tournaments. She appoints the Director of each tournament and works closely with the hosting Society(ies) to ensure every detail is just right. Today, the PRCUA sponsors 28 Polish dance and language schools in 4 states, which are coordinated V.P. Spejewski, who is known for her excellent record-keeping. She has demonstrated that the days of the Lady Vice President coordinating only the schools and PRCUA social events are gone forever. She is a valuable asset at the PRCUA, both as the key administrator of the Fraternal Department and as an integral part of the team of executive officers who keep our fraternal organization growing and advancing far into its second century of success.
During all these years, the participation of women in the activities of the PRCUA has been reported in PRCUA publications. When women became more active, a need for a separate column in the newspaper, dedicated to their work, became necessary. First, in 1903, Editor Karol Wachtel introduced such a section in Narod Polski. It was printed on an irregular basis under different heading: “Dzial Naszych Polek”, “Dzial Polek Zjednoczenek”, “Dzial dla Polek”. When PRCUA started publishing Dziennik Zjednoczenia a Women’s section was printed in that newspaper, as well as in regularly in Narod Polski. For years, the women’s column was edited by a male editor. Since 1913, at several Conventions, women proposed that the women’s column in the PRCUA publications should be edited by a woman, however the proposal was not approved until 1935, when Editor-in-Chief F. S. Barc employed Zofia Zebrowska as editor for women’s column.
From time to time women have written columns in Narod Polski. Of particular note was the Sabina’s See-Saw column written by Sabina Logisz, who is still employed as a librarian at the Polish Museum of America’s Library. The column covered cultural events and offered commentaries about various situations and events in the Polish American community. It also included a “Bag of Tales” section where she reported on the personal events which occurred in various PRCUA members’ lives. Miss Logisz’s biography was included in the 6th edition of The World’s Who Who of Women in 1980.
In 1989, another historic moment in the annals of PRCUA history was made when Kathryn G. Rosypal was appointed as the first female Executive Editor of Narod Polski newspaper. Today, this semi-monthly fraternal newspaper is completely written, type-set, produced and edited by an all-women staff consisting of Executive Editor Kathryn Rosypal, who writes the English Section and Managing Editor Lidia Kowalewicz, who writes the Polish Section.
The PRCUA is the mother of all other Polish American fraternals. Not only is our fraternal the oldest Polish Roman Catholic fraternal in the US, but we have consistently been the “pace-setting fraternal in Polonia” The PRCUA is proud to have had the distinct privilege and pleasure of being the first Polish fraternal to grant equal rights to women. Although granting equal rights to women was a controversial issue in 1897, the leadership of the PRCUA had the courage and foresight to see that only good could come from such a Christian-based, American ideal – men and women equal in the sight of God and equal in the mind of mankind.
Throughout PRCUA’s history, women have assumed more and greater positions of responsibility and authority. Our fraternal organization has grown and endured largely because of the active roles taken by women through a century of progress.