Immaculate Heart of Mary Church
The Struggle for a Polish Church in Cleveland's Warszawa
On August 19, 1894, Immaculate Heart of Mary Church opened its doors for the first time to its congregation, all of whom had been recently excommunicated from the Catholic Church by the Bishop of Cleveland. Excommunication did not bother the ethnic Polish parishioners attending Immaculate Heart of Mary Church because the opening of an independent Polish-American church was a triumph they had waited years to achieve.
In the early 1890s, parishioners of the Polish Catholic Church, St. Stanislaus, became unhappy with the role of the Diocese of Cleveland in their religious affairs. Members of the congregation, led by Father Anton Francis Kolaszewski, demanded that St. Stanislaus should have a more autonomous role in the diocese as a separate Polish church. The congregation wanted to be able to select its own pastors, parish leaders, and manage church finances independently. Because the congregants were Polish, they did not feel comfortable being managed by an American diocese, and wanted church business to operate in a more ethnically and culturally sensitive manner. The Bishop of Cleveland, Frederick Horstmann, refused. Despite this rejection, Fr. Kolaszewski continued to preach his desire for an independent Polish church. In 1892, frustrated by Kolaszewski’s refusal to accept the authority of the Diocese and accusations of sexual abuse against him, Horstmann forced Kolaszewski to resign as pastor of St. Stanislaus.
Many supporters of Kolaszewski’s and an independent Polish catholic church met this decision with indignation. When the new pastor Benedict Rosinski arrived at St. Stanislaus to assume his duties, members of the parish greeted him with their broomsticks; they wanted Kolaszewski to continue as pastor and pursue a more independent Polish Catholic Church, and Rosinski represented a departure from that rhetoric. As news of the conflict spread throughout the Warszawa neighborhood, rival supporters of both the diocese and Kolaszewski arrived on the scene to participate in the brawl.
While violent scenes like the one that greeted pastor Rosinski did not occur with regularity, the Polish community continued to request permission to form an independent church from Bishop Horstmann. Again, Horstmann refused those requests. In early 1894, after two years of consistent denial, the St. Stanislaus parishioners called upon Pastor Kolaszewski to return to Cleveland. Kolaszewski returned to assist the community in fundraising and other planning related to the construction of the new, independent Polish-American Catholic Church. Despite threats of excommunication from Bishop Horstmann, Immaculate Heart of Mary opened its doors to parishioners later that year.
Immaculate Heart of Mary’s parishioners remained outsiders until both Kolaszewski and Horstmann died several years later. After both of their deaths, the Diocese of Cleveland accepted the church into its diocese and it continued as a regular member of the church district.
When Poles discuss the conflict today, they often characterize as a conflict between the diocese and Kolaszewski, rather than a major fracture in the social structure of Warszawa. This distinction is important, as the memories of the conflict passed down reflect a struggle of authority and a demagogue, rather than one that divided a community.
The story of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church illustrates two major themes of immigrant Polish life: the importance of religion to Poles and the desire for an independent Polish-American rhetoric. Polish communities across the United States participated in squabbles over church ownership, resulting in myriads of independent Polish churches. The church's providing the grounds for this kind of conflict is also significant as it blatantly displays how central the church was and is to Polish life. Poles wanted independent control in their churches because in Polish communities, the church not only provides religious support, but also social and educational support. Control over their own churches therefore meant greater control over all aspects of life in a Polish community.