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September 2006

Volume XXVI, No. 3

Hyphenated Catholicism: A Study of the Role of the Polish-American Model of Church, 1890-1908, by Casimir J. Wozniak. San Francisco-London: Catholic Scholars Press, 1998. xi + 277 pages. Two appendices and a bibliography. ISBN 1-57309-140-5. Hardcover.

This is a solid work of derivative scholarship. From this book I learned more about early Polish immigration to America than from all other books on the topic I have read, including Kruszka‘s, Baker‘s, and the twentieth-century compilations. Wozniak is a reliable scholar: he footnotes and annotates conscientiously. At the same time, the book reminds one that the Polish American problems are under-theorized and that most books on the subject do not articulate anything in a novel or captivating way and instead, summarize and rephrase the available sources.

The book starts with the cogent assumption that Polish immigrants differed from other immigrants to America because of their strongly maintained ties to the Polish language and culture, and their strong adherence to Catholicism (grounded in their Polishness). The Poles came from partitioned, that is, colonized Poland, and they clung to their national identity to express their defiance of Protestant and rapacious Prussia on the one hand, and Orthodox, rapacious, and destructive Russia on the other. They remained Catholics because they were Polish. The author correctly observes that the American church hierarchy did not understand this unique symbiosis of religious and national identity, and exerted no effort to accommodate it.

Wozniak concentrates on the patriarchal and medieval aspect of the Catholic Polish parishes in America, and on the tension between secular Polish organizations and this patriarchal model of religious organization. He refrains from stating forcefully that by destroying the ethnic parishes and eradicating the Polish language from church services, the Irish and German bishops in the United States destroyed a good deal of Catholic identity. This conclusion leaps at the reader from the pages of this book, but Dr. Wozniak is too mild a person to accuse anyone outside the Polish community of doing anything wrong. The fact that segments of the Polish community broke away from the Catholic Church to form the National Polish Catholic Church, or that Polish Americans today have become cafeteria Catholics no less than their German American or Irish American counterparts, is due largely to the action of those non-Polish bishops who banned the Polish language from Sunday schools and from liturgies in the predominantly Polish American churches. Wozniak makes it clear that the church hierarchy made no effort to provide Polish communities with Polish-speaking priests. There is no evidence that the bishops ever tried to negotiate with their Polish coreligionists matters such as church ownership and administration, or that they tried to promote ascendance to higher church functions (bishoprics, for instance) of the Polish American priests. Wozniak does not spell out these matters clearly (perhaps being a priest has something to do with it-he does not want to criticize the hierarchy too boldly), but they jump at the reader as the obvious implications of many situations here described. Instead of quoting John Courtney Murray, Wozniak quotes a priest of dubious Catholic orthodoxy, Fr. Richard O’Brien, as an authority on what the American Church was and should be, like. Again, Fr. O’Brien is as remote as can be from the problems of Polish American Catholics; indeed, from the problems of Catholics of non-Western European descent.

In summarizing Polish American history, Wozniak relies excessively on declarations and public statements (usually made at meetings and conventions), and he does not sufficiently investigate practical implementation of these declarations. There is too little emphasis on case research and too much reliance on what some relatively insignificant chronicler wrote in his/her book or article. Wozniak does not care to suggest any further perspectives or avenues of research, and he makes no substantive comparisons to other Catholic minorities and their ways of solving the problem of acculturation in America. Wozniak’s contribution consists in providing a very competent summary of what earlier authors said. All the stereotypes about Polish social classes and their attitude to Catholicism are unquestioningly accepted. A more critical approach would have yielded a richer harvest. For instance, the oft-repeated truism that the Polish intelligentsia and nobility were not religious whereas the Polish peasantry was bears scrutiny. Wozniak does not seem to distinguish between genuine spirituality on the one hand, and somewhat mechanical church attendance on the other. The peasants’ knowledge of their faith was often skin-deep. W. S. Reymont’s novel The Peasants [1904-09, awarded the Nobel in 1924] shows this clearly. The peasants were deferential to their priests, and their social life centered around the church, but this does not necessarily indicate deep religiosity. It was not the nobility but the common men and women of Warsaw that hanged a few traitor bishops during the Kosciuszko Rising. While Mickiewicz pulled at the sleeve of Pope Gregory XVI during his Vatican audience, he and others wrote poetry reflecting deep Catholic spirituality. The educated classes were perhaps more democratically inclined than the Polish clergy, who eagerly lapped up the deference extended to them by the peasants. It does not occur to Wozniak to explore the implications of this submissiveness to priests and the passivity which it bred. He assumes that it indicated deep religiosity.

One is struck by the absence in this book (and in the Polish American model of the church that Wozniak discusses) of any discernible links to the rich intellectual tradition of Catholicism. There are no discussions mentioned, no names invoked. If Polish Catholic life in America was indeed so isolated, from intellectual currents of the Church in Poland and elsewhere, this should have been mentioned and criticized. In particular, the passivity of the Polish Catholic community in America concerning the elevation to sainthood of various holy men and women of Poland should have been discussed. The only instance of Polish American activity within the universal Church mentioned in Wozniak’s book is a feeble movement to have a Polish American bishop ordained. How pathetic. Unlike Pope Benedict XVI, who recently called on Poles to be more active in the universal Church and proselytize more, Wozniak is perfectly content to leave Polish American Catholics to follow whoever happens to be intellectually and spiritually alive in the Church.

The book’s style strikes one as excessively humble. The author is knowledgeable and bright, yet he manages to create an undercurrent of the “excuse me for living” or “excuse the Poles for existing” tone so prevalent in Polish American publications. One misses here the “I matter” tone which is so clearly heard in the writings of clergy of English or German background. Apparently Wozniak would be perfectly content if Polish Americans continued to feel like the poor immigrants they once were, without any aspirations to leadership in the ecclesiastical arena. (sb)

The Orange Ribbon: A Calendar of the Political Crisis in Ukraine, Autumn 2004, compiled by Wojciech Stanislawski. Warsaw: Centre for Eastern Studies (, 2005. 126 pages. Paper.

What the title says: an accurate record of what happened in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution. Poland would not be Poland if it did not generously support the cause of freedom of its eastern neighbors. The book is carefully prepared and meticulously copyedited. But-why does this book not have an ISBN number? In the twenty-first century, this sentences the book to nonexistence except for a very narrow circle of readers.

Literatura polska w świecie: zagadnienia recepcji i odbioru, edited by Romuald Cudak. Katowice: Gnome Publishers (ul. Drzymaly 18/6, 40-059 Katowice, Poland), 2006. 308 pages. ISBN 83-87819-74-3. Paper.

A collection of papers on the presence of Polish literature in various countries of the world. The papers were given at a 2005 conference hosted by the University of Silesia.

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