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A History of the Poles in America to 1908

Part Four: Poles in the Central and Western States

Reviewer: John J. Bukowczyk

By Waclaw Kruszka. Edited with an introduction by James S. Pula, with assistance from M. B. Biskupski, Stanley Cuba, et al. Translated by Krystyna Jankowski. 1901-1904; revised and enlarged edition, 1905-1908. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2001. Hardcover. viii+ 296 pp. Index. $59.95.

The Reverend Waclaw Kruszka (1868-1937) stands as a singular figure in the history of Polish America. During an era of religious schism involving lay trusteeism, Polish nationalism, immigrant leadership, and personality conflict, Kruszka, in his role as a committed clerical activist managed successfully to combine obedience to the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy with a principled defense of cultural pluralism in an ecclesiastical context: Polish representation in the episcopate. Contemporary advocates of bilingualism and multiculturalism would do well to include Kruszka's classic 1901 essay, "Polyglot Bishops for Polyglot Dioceses," in the United States history canon as an example of an early expression of a tolerant and inclusive cosmopolitanism (the essay appeared in the New York Freeman's Journal on July 29, 1901).

Kruszka, a priest-activist, was also a historian, and in that capacity authored one of the first--and still impressive--histories of Polish America, Historya Polska w Ameryce (A History of the Poles in America to 1908). Of considerable scholarly merit, this multi-volume work also served as a political salvo in the ‘church wars' of the period, testifying to the maturation of Polish Roman Catholicism in the United States and thus advancing the argument that the Poles had earned a voice in church affairs (see my reviews of vols. 1-3 in Sarmatian Review, 15:1, January 1995, 298-9; 15:1, April 1996, 396-7; and 20:1, January 2000, 681-2). The book has served as one of the bedrocks on which subsequent generations of Polish-American history have been erected.

In 1993, scholars were treated to the first installment of an ambitious translation project that for the first time promised to bring Kruszka's Historya, reorganized into four volumes, to English-speaking readers. The recent appearance of volume four of Kruszka's History marks the culmination of this scholarly undertaking and a milestone in Polish American Studies. The first volume (1993) provided a conceptual and historical background for the project and reviewed the institutional history of the Polish immigrants (covering such topics as the immigrant Church, the educational system, organizational life, and the press). The second volume (1994) focused on Poles in Illinois, with much of the work centered around internecine strife in Chicago's contentious Polish parishes. The third volume continued Kruszka's monumental effort to chronicle the history of Polish American Roman Catholic parishes, treating Polish enclaves in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, the Middle Atlantic states, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, but also noting the small Polish presence in the balance of New England, eastern Canada, the Southern states, Texas, Arkansas, and Cuba. The fourth volume, covering Minnesota (and western Canada), the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and the Far West, completes Kruszka's geographical survey. Of special interest to Polish Americanist scholars, almost half of the volume is devoted to Wisconsin Polonia, an important locus in the history of Polonia and the ethnic community that sheltered Kruszka's own home parish in Ripon (see Anthony J. Kuzniewski, Faith and Fatherland: The Polish Church War in Wisconsin, 1896-1918, Notre Dame, IN., and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980; and Victor Greene, The Rise of Polish and Lithuanian Consciousness in America, 1860-1910, Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1975. The book also contains the work's cumulative index.

As in previous volumes, Kruszka once again mingles antiquarian minutiae with significant historical detail and trenchant observation. Among the former, readers will encounter a quirky, ascetic Polish hermit and self-styled unitarian in Flintville, Wisconsin (44); a Milwaukee priest who died a month after completing construction on a new church and requested that the first brick used to build it be placed in his casket (73); and a Minneapolis Pole who excelled in Lake Minnetonka's ‘industry,' frog-catching (116). In a similar vein, it also might surprise readers to discover that a group of Polish Baptists established a colony in Pound, Wisconsin (48); thirteen Poles settled in Alaska during the Klondike gold rush; some fifty Poles, mostly Galicians, performed grueling plantation labor in Hawaii; and several of the hundred Polish volunteers who served in the American army in the Philippines stayed on there (207).

Of more significance, the volume provides some insight into the workings of Polish religious affairs in Wisconsin which form a backdrop for Kruszka's efforts to broaden Polish representation in the Catholic Church hierarchy. Kruszka excoriates Polish saloonkeepers as "propagators of immorality and unrest,"(11) schismatics as "evil, recalcitrant, and stubborn,"(10) Germans as arrogant; and Satan as tireless. The author also presents glimpses of several of the protagonists in the era's Polonian affairs, including Rev. Joseph Dabrowski, Archbishop Sebastian Messmer, and Omaha schismatic, Rev. Stefan Kaminski.

Throughout, Kruszka regards the building of Polish Roman Catholic churches as creating the strongest bulwark against deculturation and germanization. The building of new churches was one of Kruszka's central goals. However, the volume offers no elaboration of Kruszka's political activities.

The publication of A History of the Poles in America to 1908 represents dedication, support, and labor on the part of a large number of institutions and individuals, chief among which are the project's principal editors and the translator. While the volumes may be priced beyond the means or inclinations of the average reader, they should become part of the holdings of every research university library and would be a useful addition to the libraries of specialists, genealogists, and collectors. In the completion of this project, the editors have brought to fruition a work of major scholarly significance. Among other things, the Kruszka volume amply documents the fact that, by the late nineteenth century, Polish immigrants had spread to the remotest corners of the United States, winning them an uncontested place among the "We" who built America.

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