The Great Legacy of Chicago’s Polish League

News: Commentary
by Fr. Paul John Kalchik  •  •  June 9, 2023   

Holding the line in a time of great evil and confusion

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Chicago's history has been full of ups and downs. But for the last 50 years or so, the Windy City has been amidst a moral and cultural nosedive — in part due to cultural Marxism infesting both society and the Church.

Mark Lambert and Gavin Ashenden

Mark Lambert, a Catholic blogger and British friend of mine, recently spent a week in America's murder capital, and his observations and experiences are a testament to this assertion. Lambert and Gavin Ashenden, a Catholic writer and Lambert's traveling companion, were amazed by the stunning beauty of Chicago's Catholic churches.

The beauty they saw on their tour of the Windy City, he said "traumatized" him. He had no idea Chicago would contain so many breathtakingly gorgeous Catholic churches. He associated Chicago with gangsters, steel manufacturing, meat packing and murder, rather than with the extravagantly stunning and opulent Catholic churches it boasts.

Lambert effused:

I have to say my expectations were pretty low. There is a clear disparity between the culture of the U.K. and that of the U.S., measurable not just in centuries but millennia. Experiencing the vibrant faith of Marytown, St. John Cantius and St. Mary of the Angels came, then, as even more of a shock. These buildings were venerable and full of beauty. Curated with love and a deep understanding of the via pulchritudinis, and what is more, the people were alive with the Catholic faith in a way that was intensely familiar for a faithful Catholic but also both humbling and inspiring. Returning to England, I am spreading the message: Don't go on pilgrimage to Italy or France; go to Illinois!

After Mark returned to the United Kingdom, I, being a native Chicagoan, informed him that the massive structures they had visited were only a fraction of the many magnificent churches that were saved by the Polish League of priests in the archdiocese of Chicago following Vatican II.

Tragically, many of the most beautiful Catholic churches that had remained untouched are under attack today. Saint Adalbert is up for sale. Saint Michael in south Chicago has been permanently closed.

I am particularly struck by the fact that St. Michael on 83rd Street has closed down. St. Michael's is the largest Catholic church ever built in the city of Chicago (but there are many other huge churches).


St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church


In 1998, I was newly ordained and served as a deacon at St. Michael's Parish. At that time, the parish was thriving and featured a grade school that educated over 400 students.

Father Joseph Nowak, the retired pastor, resided at the parish. "Father Joe," as everyone called him, was then in his 80s and suffered from ill health.

Due to my nursing background, I was the ideal candidate to serve as Fr. Joe's in-house nurse. He was a true gentleman, and, as a patient, he was easy to assist. Not only that, he was a repository of valuable historical knowledge.

During the time we spent together, he reminisced about how, in the aftermath of World War II and the Second Vatican Council, he and other Chicago pastors bound together to form Chicago's Polish League.

They worked together to help the Church in Poland to resist communism and, at home, they held the line against modernists, especially those in the Chicago presbyterate, who were wreaking havoc in the Church.

Don't go on pilgrimage to Italy or France; go to Illinois!

Unlike many other pastors in Chicago who renovated their churches after the council, the Polish League pastors in Chicago did not. This formidable group of Chicago-based Polish priests left the architecturally spectacular and spiritually meaningful Communion rails, tabernacles, sanctuary lamps and pulpits intact when other priests and left-leaning laymen carried out the infamous "wreck-o-vation."

Father Joe recalled how, in the immediate aftermath of the council, there were numerous directives sent from downtown — meaning the chancery — to do this, that and the next to accommodate the new Mass. They all violated the true spirit of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI's intentions.

But Chicago's Polish League was successful precisely because the priests supported each other in resisting these modernist changes.

Bp. Alfred Abramowicz

The Polish League was founded by Bp. Alfred Abramowicz. It was officially named the Catholic League for Religious Assistance to Poland. He was widely recognized in Chicago for his efforts in defending Poland and upholding the Church's Tradition. "Bishop Alfie," as the priests called him, oversaw the league for 35 years. Unfortunately, it has significantly declined and is now just a shadow of its former self.

I had the opportunity to witness Bp. Alfie's strength firsthand, and I recall him as a steadfast figure whom both the young and old admired in Chicago.

Thanks to his leadership, the Polish priests were able to maintain the physical and liturgical integrity of nearly every Polish church in the Chicago archdiocese, including St. Adalbert, St. Hedwig, St. Mary of the Angels, Holy TrinitySt. Stanislaus Kostka, St. Wenceslaus, St. John Cantius, St. MichaelHoly Innocents, and many more. None of these parishes underwent the wreck-o-vations that occurred in other areas of the archdiocese of Chicago right after the council.

To my shame, I admit that I aided my father in the removal of the Communion rail at St. Gertrude following the implementation of the new Mass in 1970.

St. John Cantius

The pastor requested that my father remove it entirely. My father and some fellow parishioners and I worked hard to remove the impressive marble and bronze rail. Looking back at this ill-conceived project, it was a lot of wasted effort and served to diminish the church.

At that time, none of us comprehended the reason behind the removal of the rail. We only understood that the pastor instructed us to remove it — that we had "orders from headquarters." And so it went, piece by piece, painstakingly reduced to holy and blessed bits and pieces of marble and bronze rubble, hauled away as trash.

At least my father consoled himself by removing the large rail without damaging the terrazzo floor. He took great care while grinding down the steel anchors to avoid causing any damage to the terrazzo.

Bishop Alfie and the Polish League of Chicago Priests, however, successfully maintained the traditional appearance of their parish churches without giving in to the temptation of modernizing them. Chicago takes great pride in the numerous beautiful and spacious Polish churches that were saved by the faithful Polish League priests. Each of these churches was constructed with the grandeur of a cathedral. Lambert and Ashenden were able to witness the beauty of these edifices due to the efforts of the Polish League.

Thanks to their behind-the-scenes work supporting the Church in Poland during the Cold War, Bp. Alfie and the Polish League of Chicago Priests were able to carry out their resistance efforts without being caught. Bishop Alfie was renowned for carrying millions of dollars on his person into Poland to support the fight against communism, all collected from Chicago's Polish Catholics.


Then-Cdl. Karol Józef Wojtyla with Fr. Joseph Nowak

(Chicago, 1976)

Bishop Alfie's unwavering support for Poland over the course of several decades earned him numerous friends within the Polish hierarchy. In 1976, Cdl. Karol Józef Wojtyla, now known as Pope St. John Paul II, visited Chicago to express his gratitude to the Polish community for their longstanding financial support.

After Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978, the Polish League found in the sainted Polish pope a validation of its efforts aimed at both combating communism in Poland and resisting modernists in Chicago.

Following Wojtyla's appointment as pope, the downtown officials ceased pressuring the Polish-speaking Polish League priests to modernize their parishes (because they knew the pope "had the league's back"). Since many of them, including Fr. Joe, had established a personal relationship with the Polish pope, nobody dared to bother or trouble them.

In my opinion, Bp. Alfie, Fr. Joe and the other priests from the Polish League died with clear consciences. (I was present at Fr. Joe's bedside at the time of his passing.) I believe that they died with the knowledge that during their tenure, the league upheld the Faith in Chicago.

No one was going to remove that rail on my watch.

During the years I lived with Fr. Joe at St. Michael's, I learned that resistance and "holding the line" are essential for maintaining one's faith. One could argue that the removal of a Communion rail is insignificant, but, for Fr. Joe, unwavering determination to preserve the rail was everything. 

"No one was going to remove that rail under my watch," he said. He meant that he was not just another lemming.

Moving now to the Church crises of our time, as the "Synod on Synodality" at the Vatican comes to a close in October, there will be influential individuals who will attempt to dictate to the rest of us what actions we must take to be considered "with it," to appease the gods of this fallen world, or what rails to tear down.

The beauty that Lambert witnessed is a testament to the legacy of the Catholic League. I will follow in the footsteps of my mentor, Fr. Joe, and the other members who resisted the distortions of the true spirit of the last council. I will hold the line.

--- Campaign 31538 ---


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