CHURCH OF THE HOLY CROSS IN MASPETH
The bright profile of the Church of the Holy Cross rises up above the rows of trees and houses lining 56th Road. This neighborhood of residential homes is as intimate as the church’s sanctuary, “raised by the hands of Polish fathers and the prayers of Polish mothers.” Today, just as it was one hundred years ago, it is a source of comfort, reinforcing the feeling of pride in Christian faith and Polish tradition. The wide stairs and doors of the sanctuary invite you to come inside to pray and leave behind the worries of everyday life. Right next door, in the garden of the Rectory, a statue of His Holiness John Paul II – patron saint of the Polish School – seems to rise up in an energetic march and invite passers-by to “Follow me.” Holy Cross is the ninth Polish church established in the Diocese of Brooklyn, and this year commemorates 100 years since its dedication.
The histories of the church and of the surrounding Polish community in Maspeth are parallel, over time replenishing each other and intermingling like rosary beads. While the church was under construction, it was understood by all that even the most beautiful building would be insignificant if not filled with faithful and ardent prayers. So, from the very beginning, the sanctuary abounded with life, and parishioners faithfully served God. The Poles who began settling in 1888 around Hill Avenue and Clinton Road were not only hard-working (employed at nearby farms, sawmills and factories), they were also devout and had very strong connections to Catholic traditions. For support in a foreign, if welcoming, country, they relied on themselves and trusted in God.
Records from this period in Maspeth confirm that the first settlers, who arrived long before the church was built, availed themselves of houses of worship that were quite distant from their homes. For Sunday services and catechism, they traveled as far as St. Casimir’s Church in Brooklyn or St. Adalbert’s Church in Elmhurst. Notes from 1910 speak of 600 settlers (families and so-called “boarders”) from Poland, who arrived from lands partitioned between Russia and Prussia. In those places, at a time when Poland and its captive lands did not exist on the map of Europe, the Church and the Catholic religion were not just manifestations of faith in God, they were also sources of strength in the struggle for independence. So many generations of captive people believed that the time of independence was at hand, and at the same time so many people emigrated, seeking bread and a bit of human dignity, believing that they would find their place on earth far across the ocean. That place, here in Maspeth, became home to the Krygier, Kowalski, Smolinski, Jamrozy and Stemberg families and to many others as well. They slowly created organizations providing mutual neighborhood assistance and eventually, for the protection of their families and their livelihoods, they created the Tadeusz Kosciuszko Society, which “accomplished much good for its members and their families in Maspeth.”
God, Faith, and Country: basing their lives on these concepts, Polish immigrants gradually overcame the distrust they encountered in the young American democracy. Uniting in ever more powerful and active groups, they looked for opportunities to increase the influence of their community. “Assembling in prayer and entrusting their fate as humble people to the Suffering Christ was one path to spiritual freedom” — as was recorded back then. At the same time, the settlers connected the holy images they saw here with memories of their native churches and chapels. Besides the religious, spiritual dimension, this connection served the very human need for continuity of memory and belonging. The desire for a church of one’s own, with a Mass in Polish and a school for the children, was felt in Maspeth as early as the first years of the twentieth century.
Establishing a Polish Church in Maspeth
Polish immigrants who wanted to give their children a Christian upbringing had to send them to faraway Catholic schools in Brooklyn and Elmhurst. Fr. Wojciech Nawrocki, at that time pastor of St. Casimir’s Church and who was attentive to the needs of his fellow countrymen, was asked to intercede in the matter of establishing a church in the developing area of Maspeth. The pastor, seeing the people’s concern and great desire for action on this matter, promised to raise the issue with diocesan authorities. Church officials, however, did not see the need to create yet another Polish parish and church. Efforts to obtain official agreements went on for a long time. The sponsors of the initiative to create a parish and church founded the Society of Saint Joseph and, as found in the records, met with church officials 26 times before they finally heard “Yes”. These pioneers earned the everlasting gratitude of the parish and include, among others, Jan and Kazimierz Nagiel, Michal Daszecki, Tomasz Machalski, Stanislaw Salczynski, Josef Grabowski and Stanislaw Konopko.
In August 1912, Bishop McDonnell, finally persuaded by the indefatigable Poles, agreed to create a new parish in Maspeth, and Fr. Wojciech Nawrocki was entrusted with organizing it. This decision was greeted by the Polish community with great joy, even with the understanding that the building of a church and school would be a daunting undertaking for an immigrant community of modest means. The first church services for the new parish were held on December 23, still at the Church of St. Stanislaw Kostka (now the Church of the Transfiguration). Services for parishioners from Maspeth were held there until September 1913.
The new parish, still lacking its own sanctuary, began functioning very energetically. Several societies were founded, including, among others, the Fraternal Aid Society of the Holy Cross, the Virgin Mary Society and the Queen Jadwiga Association of Polish Women. The first wedding was that of Jan Olszewski and Antonina Lubomska held on January 12, 1913, and the first christening was of Stanislawa Czak, daughter of Jozef and Joanna neé Konopko on January 5, 1913. Common prayers in the ancestral language, mutual assistance and support in troubled times and situations demonstrated the strength to be found in unity. The community was even more united in striving to achieve its principal goal: to build a church.
Fr. W. Nawrocki, at that time still pastor at St. Casimir, decided to acquire property for the future sanctuary, school and pastory. In February 1913, he purchased “one tract of land consisting of 12 lots with frontage,” and in the spring, after receiving approval of the plans from church officials, he ordered the laying of the foundation. The cornerstone was officially set on June 22, 1913, with participation of – as the record states – “18 invited priests and 1,000 people from near and far.” Sisters from the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth lived in a neighboring building purchased by the parish. That same year, the nuns began teaching in the parochial school. Over 300 students were enrolled in six grades, and classes were held in a nearby rented building.
Construction of the Sanctuary
The enthusiasm for founding the parish and construction of the church was shared by the entire community. Everyone hoped and trusted that, by the grace of the Holy Cross, the construction of the church would be completed successfully for their sake and for future generations. The church was designed by William Finn; its chief contractor was Józef Hrostowski. The cost of acquiring the parcels of land and constructing all the parish buildings amounted to $75,000. Loans were made by local banks. Looking back today, it is hard to believe that a construction project of this size, including both the sanctuary and the rectory, was completed by September 1913. Built in the Roman style, in the shape of an architectonic cross, the church was 50 feet wide and 100 feet long, and was designed to hold 400 people. Three marble altars were created by the renowned Italian firm Doprato. While work was in progress, gifts and contributions for the building and furnishing of the church continued to pour in, but, when necessary, Fr. Nawrocki personally went from house to house reminding people of their commitments. Every contribution down to even a nickel was essential to pay the bills. All church organizations and societies took part in fund-raising at festivals, picnics and other entertainment events. Stained glass windows were soon installed with the images of Saints: Anthony, Francis, James, Stanislaw Kostka, as well as John the Baptist, St. Anne, the Holy Mother, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Stations of the Cross, the Annunciation and other religious scenes. Two small stained-glass windows with Polish folk symbols were installed on one of the altars. The names of the many donors were permanently inscribed in the history of the construction of the sanctuary. Likewise, there were generous contributions for the church’s interior decoration and for the maintenance of the grounds surrounding the buildings.
The sanctuary was dedicated on November 30, 1913. Once the building was completed, schoolchildren were transferred to classrooms set up in the church basement. The first graduates received their diplomas in 1916. In 1921, the cornerstone was laid for a new building, since the Catholic school had grown so large that there weren’t enough classrooms. Two years later, students moved into their own new building.
Holy Cross – The Strengthening of Faith
The new church, parish house and school were soon teeming with life. The Polish immigrant parishioners finally felt at home. From then on, they had their own praiseworthy place on earth where they could come in peace and quiet after a hard day’s work to pray to God in their own language for compassion, health and the success for those close to them. The years immediately following the completion of the Church of the Holy Cross saw a strengthening of faith and fulfillment of the spiritual needs of the faithful. Many worthy projects involving youth bore fruit with the founding of the Catholic Youth Club. The great champion for this activity among young people seeking to find their identity was Fr. Julian Zebrowski, whose work was later carried on by Fr. Franciszek Szczechowiak. Sports groups, soccer and nature clubs were founded.
Weekly church bulletins contained announcements as well as advice columns and instructions for the settled population and for newcomers. These included information on important community events, proper interpersonal relations and the basic duties of a good Catholic. They would very often contain advice on getting enough rest and caring for one’s health. In one column, we read: Maintain your good health, avoid windy, dark and damp places, drink clean water, keep your body clean, don’t stint on using soap, a sound mind and spirit in a sound body. Likewise: Don’t pass by the Church without coming in, even briefly, to visit the Blessed Sacrament. Communion. The church was, after all, not just a house of prayer, but also a vital source of information.
The congregants of the Church of the Holy Cross felt the effects of the economic crisis that began in 1929. Many people lost their jobs, but the parishioners, to the extent possible, provided aid to each other and weathered the difficulties of the Great Depression rather well. This period was followed by years of greater stability, during which the magnificent Corpus Christi processions were held, attended by massive throngs of the faithful and people from the local community. Choirs and singing groups were formed. Representatives from the parish participated in the first Pulaski Day Parade in Manhattan. In 1939, the Holy Name Society purchased a new organ.
The 1940’s were turbulent and tragic. Here, as elsewhere, the World War took its terrible toll. Many boys from Polish families did not return from the war. Here at home, funds were collected to help soldiers’ families. The year 1940 saw the passing of Fr. Wojciech Nawrocki, “a devoted priest, upright man and excellent manager” – as the record showed. He had served God and the parishioners for 27 years.
Upon assuming the position of pastor, his successor, Fr. Wladyslaw Mańka, announced an initiative to expand the sanctuary. After all, the parish was growing, and the church appeared unable to accommodate all the congregants attending Sunday Mass. At that time, the church celebrated about 40 christenings and 43 weddings a year. The year 1945 brought the end of the war, and parishioners, along with the whole of society, rejoiced and thanked God for the soldiers’ safe return and for peace on Earth. Five years later, Fr. Mańka set out to implement his plan to reconstruct the church building and widen it by 40 feet. The plan was carried out over the following year. Church walls were rebuilt using stucco, so as to conceal the areas where the old and new sections of the building were connected. When the reconstruction was done, the world-renowned tenor Jan Kiepura appeared in concert at the church. A few years later, the pastory was rebuilt and its residential areas modernized.
In 1960, a grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes was established on a plot of land on the north side of the church. The grotto was endowed and created by members of the Bogdan-Fryzel family. Since then, it has become the custom for newlyweds to place flowers at the foot of the Blessed Mother.
Upon the death of Fr. Władysław Mańka in 1962, Fr. Edward Fus was named administrator of the parish for one year. Fr. Fus put forward a plan to resolve the financial affairs of the church and purchase land for construction of a convent. One year later, Fr. Franciszek Stachowiak became pastor and began collecting funds for construction of a convent for the nuns who taught in the church school. The nuns supplemented the usual curriculum of an American parochial school with lessons in reading and writing Polish. The convent was completed in one year, and a modern, comfortable facility with chapel and living quarters was dedicated in 1965. In 1966, Holy Cross parish celebrated the 1,000th year of the arrival of Christianity in Poland – the Millennium. Congregants collected a considerable sum of money and sent it to the Polish Church, intended for its continued growth under the harsh conditions of communist Poland. In September 1968, Fr. Edward Fus returned to the church, this time as pastor. He started planning an athletic facility for children and young people, an endeavor of great significance, since athletic training and opportunities for spending time in such activities were seen as ways of connecting young people of Polish background to the church and to Polish traditions. In September 1969, the church was host to a notable guest from Poland: Archbishop Karol Wojtyła, who was in the US for a Eucharistic Congress. This visit is still remembered by the oldest parishioners, who still today recall the openness and energy of the future Polish Pope.
One year later, the church hosted a meeting of the Parish Council, which provided much help in the administrative work of the parish. In 1971-1972, the school and church buildings were renovated and refreshed. The work was performed by volunteers from the community itself, and financial support was provided by the Mothers’ Club charity. A new altar and a new lectern for readers were installed in the church. Every year, new Polish-language missals were ordered in order to attract those who wanted to pray in Polish and actively participate in the Holy Liturgy.
Soon after 1981, new immigrants appeared in Maspeth – political refugees, often entire families were uprooted when the Communist regime suppressed the Solidarity freedom movement. Church-related societies and organizations re-activated, with 80 percent of the congregants, Polish and Polish-Americans, fluent in their ancestral language. New immigrants were welcomed with open arms and were pleased to find a place to settle and stabilize themselves and their families.
In 1985, several new immigrant families began a Saturday Polish language school at the parochial school. These lessons helped the Polish community nurture the younger generation – by passing down the language (which had been eliminated from the American parochial school) and Polish Catholic traditions. The founders of the language school were, among others, Robert Dąbrowski and Waldemar Rakowicz (current director of the language school).
The Church’s Diamond Jubilee
In 1988, the church celebrated its 75th anniversary. This Diamond Jubilee was marked by a two-week period of prayer and outreach activities, led by the Franciscan Fr. Konrad Miller. Celebrations lasted several months and included meetings, prayers, and ceremonies involving church clubs, Rosary Circles and choirs. Several Masses dedicated to the anniversary were held. The high point of the anniversary ceremonies was held on April 17, 1988: a Mass of Thanksgiving celebrated by 31 priests, accompanied by church choirs and children of the parochial and Polish-language schools. A group of young Polish-Americans led by Fr. Andrzej Kurowski played an important role in the Mass. At its conclusion, a letter of papal blessing from John Paul II to all families in the congregation was read.
The program of anniversary celebrations and events was skillfully coordinated by Fr. Edward Fus. The Memorial Journal of this period describes the devoted pastor in the following words: “He is known as an advocate for the Polish cause in the complex reality of America. In recognition of the services he has rendered for the Church at both diocesan and parish levels, he has been raised to the rank of Monsignor.”
At the Turn of the Century
Fr. Adam Prochaski was pastor for four years, followed by Fr. John Strynkowski for the remaining five years of the twentieth century. He did much to bring the faithful together and was a strong advocate for the proper education of Polish-Americans and the propagation of Polish culture.
Father Peter Zendzian is the eighth pastor of the church since its founding. He arrived in 2000 from the Church of Our Lady of Częstochowa – St. Casimir in Brooklyn, where he was considered a great leader and a devoted supporter of Polish-Americans. Fr. Peter’s arrival at the church in Maspeth was a return to his roots, since he was born and baptized here. The return to Maspeth was a return to his people. In Danuta Piatkowska’s book “Polskie kościoly w Nowym Jorku [Polish Churches in New York],” we read: “Ks. Piotr nazywany jest „naszym” nie tylko dlatego, że się tutaj urodził, tu mieszkał on i jego rodzice i dziadkowie. Jest „naszym” ponieważ czuje, rozumie, szanuje polskość, z głębią jej historii i tradycji [Fr. Peter is called ‘ours’ not only because he was born here or because he, his family and his ancestors lived here. He is also ‘ours’ because he understands, feels and esteems Polishness, the depths of its history and traditions.]” The arrival of Fr. Peter and his involvement in church affairs were a call to build, in both the spiritual and material senses. The church building had to be renovated and updated to accommodate the needs of the new century. Challenges were great, but just as Fr. Wojciech Nawrocki at the start of the 20th Century began construction of the sanctuary, at the beginning of the 21st Century, Fr. Peter Zendzian began its renovation, so that future generations — whether native-born or immigrant — could securely and earnestly pray in their sanctuary. The pastor had the full support of his parishioners. Many donors generously provided funds, and volunteers very willingly performed essential tasks. The local community was mobilized for this initiative. The church’s steeple soon acquired a new copper covering; the roof and electrical systems were replaced. The air-conditioning systems of the church and school hall were installed; the church’s interior and front doors were repainted, and school hall windows were replaced. Generous gifts from large and small donors poured in. Inside the church was placed the Tree of Life, on whose branches small signs with the sponsors’ names were hung; the tree has grown in every direction. During the following years, with the enthusiastic involvement of the Polish school and students’ families, the hall in the church’s basement was remodeled, and in 2007, it was dedicated to John Paul II.
“Many ethnically Polish churches in greater New York have disappeared, but our church is still entirely Polish. It was founded by Poles, and our worshipers are still mainly Poles and Polish-Americans. We are currently the largest Polish church in New York after St. Stanislaw Kostka. Poles still have a home here,” says Fr. Peter.
According to 2012 statistics, the church has 1,300 registered individual members or families, and at least 2,000 people attend Mass. In recent years, on average about 100 christenings and 20 weddings have taken place at the church annually. The church is still growing, and the Polish community is very active in the church and the local neighborhood. In recognition of his notable efforts to engage with and enlarge the religious community, Fr. Peter was designated a canon in 2001; six years later, he was raised to Monsignor. For four years, Fr. Peter Zendzian was chairman of the Polish-American Priest’s Association (PAPA) and two years its Vice President. He is a Delegate of the Polish Episcopal Conference to the Committee on the Pastoral Care of Poles beyond the borders of Poland. The Monsignor has visited Poland and Polish churches many times, and his prayers at Jasna Gora fortified him to carry out his priestly duties. For several years, Msgr. Peter has been the chaplain and spiritual advisor of the Education Committee of the Polish-American Congress. Thanks to Msgr. Peter, the John Paul II School of Polish Language and Culture has can expand and cultivate Polishness.
Msgr. Peter Zendzian’s tenure as pastor at the Church of the Holy Cross is drawing to a close, but his services to Poles and the Polish community will live on in the hearts of his faithful and devoted parishioners. During our anniversary prayers, parishioners will ask God to watch over our Minister wherever life may take him.
Holy Cross – A Polish Church
We continue to uphold Polish Catholic traditions, Polish customs and rituals, including Christmas Eve services, the blessing of Easter baskets on Holy Saturday, pre-holiday confession, annual caroling, and visits to parishioners’ homes. Two years ago, young parishioners first put on a Passion Play, wonderful in its significance, with a high level of spirituality and artistry. It has become quickly a great emotional experience for the participants and assembled congregants. Every year, the church hosts diocesan priest and religious missionaries from Poland who, through speeches and sermons, remind people of the spiritual dimension of the human existence. Parishioners provide generous material and spiritual support for this program.
Unfortunately, the church was not been able to maintain its parochial school due to the rising costs of education and a decline in the number of students. As a result, the diocese decided to close the school in 2005. Students transferred to other nearby Catholic schools, while the Saturday Polish language school currently has upwards of 600 students. Twelve religious instructors conduct classes for 350 elementary school students. A circle of lectrs systematically takes part in the Holy Liturgy, and there is never a shortage of altar boys and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. The Golden Age Club and the Holy Name Society have been active for several years. In addition to the church choir and the Te Deum ensemble, the children’s singing group “Gaudete” participates in Masses and other celebrations.
In 1991, Fr. Ryszard Koper joined the Church of the Holy Cross. He recently celebrated 35 years in the priesthood. As written in poetic appreciation: “He arrived at our church with an open heart and the spirit of a poet; with the power of a servant of God, he reminds us whence we came.” For the past 22 years, he has been providing advice and help to nearby residents. Here is how Fr. Ryszard sees his mission: “My work has two dimensions to it: Catholicism and Polishness. And so I preach the Gospel, but reflected through a broad, Polish point of view.” He is the spiritual advisor to young people of school age and is a traveling priest. On his initiative, the church has established a program of pilgrimage. Parishioners have made pilgrimage to many holy sites and sanctuaries around the world, most often to the Holy Land. In 2010, pilgrims from Holy Cross brought back a statue of Our Lady from Fatima and began holding Fatima devotions. This group’s ardent prayers contribute greatly to church life. The inauguration of the Confraternity of the Living Rosary and the Living Rosary for Families in 2011 was very significant for the congregation. These shared prayers help renew ties to God and bring generations together.
In 1994, the first Polish Cultural Festival was held. Over the years, Fr. Ryszard Koper has been an advocate and co-organizer of such cultural events among congregants. The festival includes a popular picnic and enriches local neighborhood life with art exhibitions, musical performances and a book fair.
In 1996, thanks to Fr. Ryszard’s initiative, the group Oasis began observing nightly vigils at the church. In addition to his pastoral duties, Fr. Ryszard has found time to write and publish reflections and impressions from his pilgrimages around the world. He is the author of 28 books on his travels and is also the author of the weekly column “Słowo na niedzielę” in “Kurier-Plus.”
Father Dariusz Blicharz has been a priest in the church for several months. He is spiritual advisor to youth groups involved in music and to the St. Hubert’s Club. He also teaches religion classes in the Polish high school.
There has been prepared a photo exhibition titled “A History of Holy Cross written with Pictures”, and the children of the musical group “Gaudete” have produced their first compact disk of music for this occasion.
Celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the church in Maspeth began last year. The high point of the year-long observance will be a Mass of Thanksgiving on April 21, 2013. Parishioners and honored guests from the New York Dioceses will also be invited to a festive banquet.
The 100th anniversary of the church and celebrations marking this milestone are very important events in the life of the religious community. With joyful thoughts of the 100th anniversary of the Church of the Holy Cross, let us express our admiration and thanks for its founders and for those who continue the work of their forebears. Holy Cross has existed for 100 years. Our parish endures, always young, living forever . . .
O Holy Cross, live on and carry our prayers for peace, health and love among people.
To Our Lord God
To Our Lady, Queen of Poland
To Blessed John Paul II
Let us raise our prayers for blessing
For the next 100 years
And from the bottom of our hearts, we thank you
For the last 100 years.
O Holy Sanctuary, O House of God
O Church of the Holy Cross
(This history was prepared by Maria Paluch and translated from the Polish original by professional translators with the advice of the Parish Anniversary Committee)