The Polish Inquisition

Is the Catholic Church engaging in its own kind of ethnic cleansing in Northeast Minneapolis?

An eagle's eye view of Northeast Minneapolis would show an inordinate number of church spires: the onion-shaped parapets of St. Mary's Russian Orthodox Church; the dark, ornate peaks rising from St. John's Byzantine Church; the solid, plain towers staking out the corners of Holy Cross. The neighborhood is home to more than a dozen Catholic churches alone.

Indeed, a drive north up University Avenue is a veritable who's who tour of the lesser-known saints: St. Boniface, St. Cyril, St. Hedwig, St. Maron, St. Constantine. In the 1880s and 1890s, Eastern European immigrants poured into this neighborhood. People gave up everything to build these churches in part because the houses of worship doubled as cultural centers--places where they could speak their own languages.

Solid and functional, like the small, four-square houses that surround it, Holy Cross was built in 1886 by Polish immigrants. As Northeast grew, newer and smaller congregations spun off. But Holy Cross remained Polish Minneapolis's mother church. Even when Latin was the Vatican's language of choice for services, there was always a Polish-language mass at Holy Cross.

In recent decades, the church's membership has waned. Its flock thinned steadily through the mid-'80s, when a new wave of immigrants again sought help getting its feet on the ground. The new blood may have revived Holy Cross, but it also resurrected a century-old feud over exactly whose church it is.

In recent weeks, parishioners took to the streets waving Polish flags and placards in front of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul in protest of the dismissal of a Polish-speaking priest at Holy Cross--the third time that's happened since 1990. In the wake of this latest putsch, Polish immigrants and their neighbors fear that Holy Cross is being systematically stripped of its identity by a small group of church leaders who may have other ideas about Holy Cross's future.

The feud dates to the turn of the century, when Bishop John Ireland presided locally. Minnesota's early church hierarchy tended to be Irish--and hated to see Catholicism identified with foreignness. Ireland himself was proud to be known as "the Great Americanizer."

Many Poles here have heard the legend about the time Ireland threw a group of Slovakian immigrants out of his office. An Eastern European ethnic minority, Rusyn priests were allowed to marry, and the priest accompanying this particular group to its new home was a widower. When the priest presented his credentials to Ireland, the Bishop lost his temper. The immigrants converted to Russian Orthodoxy and built St. Mary's a block east of Holy Cross, decorating it with paintings paid for by Czar Nikolas II.

The joke making the rounds at Holy Cross these days is that the church is haunted by John Ireland's ghost. And it does appear that the Bishop's sucessors want to pick up where the "Great Americanizer" left off. The latest tumult, which followed the firing last month of "Father Stan" Rakiej, follows a decade-long series of tussles involving Polish-speaking priests at Holy Cross. It started when a head pastor named Frank Decowski, whose Polish wasn't good enough to continue the tradition of saying a Polish mass, brought in an assistant from the Detroit-based Society of Christ, a Catholic order that specializes in ministering to Pole immigrants around the world.

As Eastern Europe grew less stable in the closing years of the '80s, the Polish immigrant populace attending Holy Cross got bigger, too. And that enhanced the associate pastor's role. (Today, more than 300 of the church's 1,100 members speak only Polish, and another 200 use Polish-language services.) Antagonisms arose between the Poles and English-speaking old-timers, some of whom believed the new arrivals were flouting the church's hierarchy. In September 1990, the Polish-speaking priest was asked to return to his order.

He was replaced by another Society of Christ priest, Miroslaw Jagielski. An energetic young man, "Father Mirek" reached out to the Poles arriving in the neighborhood. He started a Polish Saturday Club and a cultural program, and began celebrating Eastern European holidays. Almost immediately church elders began to suggest that Father Mirek was creating a rift in the congregation. In 1992, he was shipped back to the Society of Christ without explanation.

Angry, the Polish-speaking parishioners formed a committee to lobby then-Archbishop John Roach for recognition of their need for autonomy. Roach agreed to make the committee a part of the parish council; he likewise agreed that Holy Cross should have Polish-language services for as long as it needed them, and a full-time priest to deliver them. Father Mirek was replaced by a third Society of Christ missionary, Stanislaw Rakiej. Father Stan picked up where Father Mirek left off, drawing new arrivals to the church and organizing activities to keep them coming: a Polish-language choir, dances, 15 new altar boys, and a social hour after mass. He lasted until last month, when Archbishop Harry Flynn unceremoniously gave him eight days to vacate the rectory.

Each week in the Twin Cities, Catholic masses are said in English, Spanish, American Sign Language, Latin, Polish, Hmong, Korean, Ojibway, and Vietnamese. Some of the non-English-speaking clergy are immigrants themselves, while others are seminary graduates who return home to minister to their communities. Many peacefully share churches with English-speaking congregations.

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