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March 29, 2009

Parishes feeling the shift of Polish immigrants leaving U.S.

By Michelle Martin


Chicago has long claimed the title of the secondlargest Polish city in the world, behind Warsaw, as successive waves of Polish immigrants have settled in the city and suburbs since the early 1800s.

There are about 465,112 people from Poland or of Polish descent in Cook and Lake counties, the territory covered by the Archdiocese of Chicago, according to the archdiocesan Office of Research and Planning.

In Chicago, the Poles who arrived established some of the largest and most impressive churches in the Archdiocese of Chicago, including St. Stanislaus Kostka, St. John Cantius and St. Hyacinth Basilica, along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor.

On the Southeast Side, they settled around the steel mills and spilled into northwest Indiana, and on the Southwest Side, they settled along Archer Avenue.

They established the Polish Museum of America, the Polish National Alliance and the Copernicus Center, a cultural center.

But it is no longer home for some Polish immigrants — especially those who are young, and who came recently, without proper documents to allow them to work legally and to bring their families.

“They are going back, especially those who don’t have any hope that there will be an amnesty to put together their families,” said Resurrectionist Father Michael Osuch, pastor of St. Hyacinth Basilica, 3636 W. Wolfram St. on Chicago’s Northwest Side. “A lot of them have their children and wife in Poland. If it is many years, I say, ‘You can’t wait any more. Go back to the family.’”

A Chicago Tribune story on Jan. 18 called attention to this trend. In the story, writer John Hunley wrote that only “perhaps a few hundred” Poles are immigrating to Chicago in recent years. “And during this same period, something else happened, something no one anticipated or even believed possible: unprecedented numbers of Poles have started to pack up and return to Poland,” Hundley wrote. “No precise figures exist, but one reliable estimate puts the number of returnees at 50,000 since 2004.”

Closer to home

Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, Poles can travel freely to Britain, Ireland and Sweden to work. And if they stay in Europe, it’s a much easier trip home to see their families.

So many Poles have sought work in the British Isles that some experts now believe London could challenge Chicago in terms of Polish population.

But the change is not affecting all groups of Poles — or all Polish congregations — equally.

Society of Christ Father Andrew Maslejak, director of Holy Trinity Polish Mission, said he hasn’t seen so many leaving from his parish, but he has heard that Polish young people are going back to Poland. In the year and a half he has been in Chicago, he knows of five people who left.

“Most of them, they went home for their retirement,” he said.

But then, Holy Trinity’s congregation tends to be older, he said.

“They are mostly Solidarity immigrants from 20 years ago,” he said, referring to the free Polish labor union that struck the Gdansk shipyards in 1980-81, under the leadership of Lech Walesa, and helped bring down Communist rule in Poland.

Still, Holy Trinity lost more than 38 percent of its weekly Mass attendance from October 2007 to October 2008, according to the Office of Research and Planning.

Maslejak said more of the change is caused by worshippers moving to the suburbs and attending other churches.

No hard numbers

Overall, the number of people attending parishes that offer Polish- langauge Masses declined 2.4 percent in the same period. Overall Mass attendance in the archdiocese declined a half percent.

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki, Cardinal George’s liaison to Polonia in the Archdiocese of Chicago, said he has heard, anecdotally, that some Polish immigrants are returning to their homelands, but like his pastors, he has no hard numbers.

However, he said, the change has not been enough to bring changes in the way ministry is provided for Polish-speaking Catholics in the archdiocese. No one has talked about canceling Polish-language Masses, for instance, he said.

“Right now, it’s a smaller-scale phenomenon,” he said.

Repatriation isn’t the only reason some parishes are seeing their numbers of Polish worshippers changing, Osuch said.

“The numbers are changing, for a couple of reasons,” he said. “First, people are going back to Poland. Second, they moved to the suburbs, and now they have Polish Masses in the suburbs. With the price of gas the way it was, they wouldn’t drive 20 or 30 miles for Mass, especially if there was a Polish Mass closer.”

St. Hyacinth saw about a 10 percent drop in its attendance last year, part of a trend of declining attendance. Still, five of its nine regularly scheduled weekend Masses are celebrated in Polish.