Polish-American Heritage Month is a celebration started by Polish-Americans in Philadelphia thirty-two years ago. The term Polonia, an example of Medieval or Church Latin, is applied both to Polish communities in the U.S. and the worldwide Polish Diaspora. Chicago’s Polonia is concentrated in the northwestern part of the city.
Polish is the third most commonly spoken language in Chicago after English and Spanish. At the time of the 2000 Census, Polish-Americans accounted for 7.3% of the city’s population, the single greatest European ethnic group in the city.
However, a few years later, when the U.S. Census Bureau conducted the American Community Survey of 2006-08, the percentage of the city's population comprised of Polish immigrants and Americans of Polish descent had fallen somewhat to 6.7%, while German-Americans and Irish-Americans each accounted for 7.3% of the population.
Chicago has the largest Polish population outside Poland. There were three distinct waves of Polish immigrants to settle in Chicago in mass migrations (after a handful of Polish aristocrats arrived earlier in the century).
The first wave was between the 1850s and the 1920s. First, we received Polish immigrants from the part of Poland occupied by Prussia and the Prussian-led German Empire as Dominic A. Pacyga recounted in his essay “Poles” in The Encyclopedia of Chicago.
Second, we received immigrants from the parts of Poland occupied by the Austrian Empire and the Russian Empire. This first wave was called Za Chłebem (For Bread), because most of the immigrants were peasants who chafed under financial and structural changes to Poland wrought by foreign powers.
By 1930, Polish immigrants and Americans of Polish descent had displaced Germans as the largest ethnic group in the city. The second wave consisted of people who fled here in the wake of World War II and the Soviet Union’s postwar conquest and annexation of Eastern Poland and establishment of a puppet regime with the Polish United Workers' Party, the “People’s Republic of Poland.”
These new immigrants reinvigorated Polish institutions and neighborhoods in the city. A third wave of immigrants began to arrive in the early 1980s. This was called the “Solidarity” wave.
Many of these people were intellectuals or artists. They came after General Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski, Prime Minister of Poland (1981-1989), declared martial law in December of 1981.
Many Polish Catholics attended St. Boniface Catholic Church, a German parish named in honor of St. Boniface, Bishop & Martyr (716-755), where they met hostility from their German coreligionists. In 1867, St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish formed, named in honor of St. Stanislaus Kostka (1550-1568), a Polish aristocrat who died Jesuit novice at the age of seventeen after an exhausting ten-month-long journey from Vienna to Rome on foot. This was the first of almost sixty Polish parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish at 1351 West Evergreen Avenue is just a few blocks north of St. Boniface Parish Church, which stood at Chicago Avenue & Carpenter Street when it was founded in 1862 but was rebuilt at 1358 West Chestnut Street between 1902 and 1904. [In 1983, St. Boniface School merged with St. Stanislaus Kostka School. St. Boniface Parish closed on June 3, 1990.] Today, there is a third Catholic parish between St. Boniface and St. Stanislaus Kostka, Holy Trinity Polish Church at 1118 North Noble Street.
In 1870, Thomas Foley (1822-1879), Bishop of Chicago (1870-1879), invited a Polish religious order, the Congregation of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ to serve Chicago’s Polish population. In 1874, Resurrectionist Father Vincent Barzynski arrived to act as pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka, a post he held until his death in 1899.
Patrick K. Keeley designed the church (1876-1881). Adolphus Druiding designed the towers (1892). Thadeus Zukotynski prodced the apse paintings, which depict the life of St. Stanislaus Kostka.
The AIA Guide to Chicago, 2nd Edition, notes, “The John K. Kennedy Expressway was routed around the church but displaced many parishioners and destroyed the old school.” The firm Beli & Beli designed the new school (1959).
In 2007, Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, designated St. Stanislaus Kostka Church a Sanctuary of The Divine Mercy. Eucharistic adoration goes on there seven days a week since the Iconic Monstrance was unveiled on the Feast of the Visitation, May 31, 2008. While the building has undergone restoration that began in September of 2011, the sanctuary doors have remained open from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. during the workweek and twenty-four hours a day on weekends.
Pulaski Park is kitty corner to St. Stanislaus Kostka School at 1255 North Noble Street. The West Park Commission – which later merged with Chicago’s other park commissions to form the unified Chicago Park District – built Pulaski Park, which is bounded by Blackhawk Street, Potomac Avenue, Noble Street, and Cleaver Street.
The famous landscape architect Jens Jensen designed the landscape (1912). William Carbys Zimmerman designed the Tudor Revival/Craftsman-style field house (1914). The western gable’s owl and book sculpture is a reference to the Chicago Public Library branch that formerly occupied part of the building.
Holy Trinity Church was built in 1873 as an offshoot of St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish because it was not large enough to accommodate the rapidly expanding Polish community. Initially, it was staffed by Resurrectionists from St. Stanislaus Kostka: Fr. Felix Zwiardowski and Fr. Vincent Barzynski.
Between 1873 and 1876, it was staffed by a secular priest, Fr. Wojciech Mielcuszny. Subsequent conflict between Resurrectionists at the two churches and the laymen at the new church led to the new church being closed several times.
The Holy See got involved. Finally, it was established as a separate parish. The Congregation of the Holy Cross staffed Holy Trinity for over eighty years, from 1893 to 1975.
Between 1893 and 1949, the pastor was Fr. Casimir Tricks. He was succeeded by Fr. Lisewski Stanislaw (from 1949 to 1964), Fr. Niemier Bernard (from 1964 to 1971), and Fr. Kazimierz Czaplicki (from 1971 to 1975). Diocesan priests resumed pastoral duties at the church in 1975.
Holy Cross Brothers accompanied Holy Cross Fathers and founded schools. Brother Piotr Pelnil served as director of the elementary school for twenty-four years and the high school for seven years.
Holy Cross Sisters joined the fathers and brothers at the parish to run separate schools for girls and later assumed control of what had been founded as an elementary school for boys. They departed the convent in 1974.
Since the 1960s, Masses have also been said at Holy Trinity in Spanish. In 1987, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, Archbishop of Chicago, designated the parish as the Polish Catholic Mission of Holy Trinity.
A third religious order, the Society of Christ began to staff the church. A second women’s religious order, the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters, began to staff the school in 1989.
 In 1978, Karol Cardinal Wojtyła, the Archbishop of Krakow, was elected pope and assumed the throne name John Paul II. When he toured his homeland in 1979, approximately 500,000 greeted him at Warsaw and 10,000,000 people attended his outdoor Masses around the country. By 1980, the Polish government could no longer borrow enough money from Western powers to subsidize low prices. Workers in factories, mines, and shipyards went on strike demanding higher wages and pensions, a shorter workweek. The government met most of the demands in the Gdansk Agreement, but reneged on most of its promises. The independent trade union Solidarity, led by the electrician Lech Wałęsa, spearheaded opposition to the government, with the backing of Pope John Paul II and the Church in Poland. Other independent unions formed and joined a federation with Solidarity. By the end of 1981, about one-quarter of Poland’s population belonged to the movement. Claiming civil and economic instability would lead to Soviet intervention General Jaruzelski tried to suppress Solidarity by imprisoning its leaders and calling out the militia and ZOMO (paramilitary police) to attack demonstrators. In essence, he transformed a political dictatorship into a military dictatorship. He lifted martial law in 1983, but his regime would collapse in 1989. Wałęsa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. The Soviet Union’s grip on Poland loosened with the reforms of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev. The Peoples’ Republic of Poland dropped the ban on Solidarity in 1989. As a result of the Polish United Workers' Party Round Table Talks with Solidarity agreed to restructure the government with a bicameral national legislature and a president. Solidarity won the parliamentary elections of 1989 in a landslide. Wałęsa won the presidential election of 1990, and held office for five years. Soviet troops withdrew in 1993.
 Santa Maria Addolorata Catholic Church, founded in 1903 as an Italian parish, is also nearby at 528 North Ada Street. This is the third iteration of this parish. Initially, diocesan priests staffed this parish, but in 1905 the Archdiocese of Chicago handed over the operation of the parish to an Italian order, the Missionaries of St. Charles, the Scalabrinians, also known as the Scalabrini Fathers. With Reverend James Gambera as pastor, the parish built a rectory and gained numerous parish societies, neighborhood feasts, parish visits, a kindergarten, a day nursery and Catechism classes taught by the Italian Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the order founded by St. Frances Cabrini. In 1930, the church underwent extensive renovations, but almost the entire building was destroyed in a fire in January of 1931. The Archdiocese of Chicago acquired a vacant Norwegian Lutheran Church at the northwest corner of Erie Street and May Street was purchased as a replacement for the burned out. On Easter Sunday, April 5, 1931, Santa Maria Addolorata re-opened. In 1939, the parish built and opened its first school, staffed by sisters of the Italian Daughters of St. Mary of Providence. In 1949, the church was redecorated and the steeple was re-built, but in 1952, to make way for the Northwest (later Kennedy) Expressway, the church, school, and rectory were condemned and razed. The expressway cut the parish district in half. Now divided between two parishes, many members of the Italian community it served departed, which opened the way for Hispanic residents. Three years later, ground was broken for a new parish school and in 1958 construction of a new church began at the corner of Ohio Street and Ada Street. The third Santa Maria Addolorata Catholic Church was dedicated in 1960. Santa Maria Addolorata was once of twelve Italian parishes in the city. Today, less than 10% of parishioners at Santa Maria Addolorata are of Italian descent. Most of the parishioners are Latinos.