Saturday, September 24, 2011

The 1901 St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr Church -- 104-106 St. Mark's Place

photo by Alice Lum
A decade before the great influx of Italians, Russians, Poles and Eastern European Jews began in 1881, there were already around 2,000 Polish immigrants living in Manhattan.   The community established itself on the Lower East Side where, according to the WPA’s “New York City Guide” over half a century later, they “despite poverty filth and overcrowding retained their native gaiety and hope.”

What they did not have, however, was a Polish language church.  In 1872 a petition was made to Cardinal McCloskey to bring a Polish priest to the area.  The Rev. Wojciech Mielcuszny answered the call and in 1875 a small, wooden church was erected on Henry Street, The Church of St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr, where the first Polish mass in New York was celebrated.

By the turn of the century the congregation was using the former Stanton Street Dutch Reformed Church, but it would not stay much longer.   In 1900 alone 9,363 Polish immigrants swarmed into New York, many of whom would seek out St. Stanislaus for worship, marriage, funerals and social interaction.

More important to the decision to move, though, was the change in the neighborhood.  It had become a breeding ground of crime and vice.   The church’s pastor, Rev. John H. Strzelecki, repeatedly petitioned the police to rid the area of houses of prostitution.  “I have gone to the police and have told them all about what is going on,” he complained to a New York Times reporter in October 1900, “It seemed only to make them more apathetic, and these houses have been established right here in the shadow of the church.  There is one right next door.

“Day after day these places open and flaunt their red lights in the face of the decent men and women and young girls in this neighborhood.  It is not possible to do the work that is required of us with these surroundings.”

The Times reporter wrote “Finally, unwilling to have his parishioners insulted and their children placed in danger of the base influences surrounding them, he has abandoned his efforts and will move to a neighborhood where the evil will not be flaunted in his face.”

That year a new church building was begun at 104-106 Saint Mark’s Place where evil was apparently not so shamelessly flaunted.   Designed by Arthur Arctander, best known for his apartment and tenement buildings, the brick Gothic Revival structure was completed a year later.  Arctander did not attempt to over-impress.  He produced a straight-forward design with stone and terra cotta trim, attractive Gothic detailing, and a handsome open bell-tower that supported a tall shingled steeple.

Originally a tall shingled steeple rose above the bell tower -- St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr Church
The handsome new building in its well-behaved neighborhood, however, was not totally without drama.   Four months after the dedication of the church on May 19, 1901, the sanctuary was richly decorated with flowers and foliage for the wedding of Sophia Dulapa to a 38-year old cabinetmaker named Kavieskin.

As the organ played the wedding march and the bride and groom-to-be passed under a bower of roses, the doors of the church burst open.  Two policemen shouted “Stop! Stop! Don’t marry them,” while a woman with four children rushed in behind them.

Kavieskin had neglected to inform Sophia that he was married.  The bride screamed as the policemen ushered Kavieskin away, the entire crowd of wedding guests crammed into the Fifth Street Police Station, and the carriage drivers who had been hired by Kavieskin soon stormed in demanding their money.

The intended groom shouted his case to them all.  “You can all condemn me but I left my wife because she was complaining continually.  I love Sophia, and can be happy with her.”  He then added, “and besides, she has $2,000, and I need money very badly.  Her people are wealthy and I cannot get along with little money.  You will do as you will, but I do not care.  Take me away now and lock me up.”

The police complied with his request.

On July 25, 1903 another uproar broke the quiet sanctity of St. Stanislaus when 28-year old Alexander Greschick, a prominent member of the Socialist Labor Party strode up the aisle while  Fr. Strzelecki was celebrating vespers.   Greschick headed a faction of members who were dissatisfied with the way church affairs were managed.

“You, Mr. Priest, tell us now, at once, about that excursion and how you and your crowd managed it.  Tell us immediately,” he shouted.

When Greschick was asked quietly to leave he shot a volley of curses at the priest.  Some men at the back rushed to the Fifth Street Station and returned with three policemen.  The Socialist resisted and all four men ended up in a tangled heap on the sanctuary floor.

“Beat him!  Kick him!  Throw him out a window” some of the congregants cried, according to a New York Times account of the near-riot.  Three more police arrived to find Greschick pounding Detective O’Neill’s head on the floor.

“It took several minutes more to subdue the man, and he was in much worse condition than his adversaries when they got through with him,” reported The Times.  Vespers were canceled that evening.

Here in 1909 was the funeral of Helena Modjeska whom the newspapers called “the last of the great actresses of the ‘golden days’ of the American drama.”    The actress had worshiped at St. Stanislaus for over two decades and the high requiem mass was packed.  Although the mourners were mostly Polish, eminent actors such as Richard Watson Gilder, James O’Neill (father of playwright Eugene O’Neill) and John E. Kellerd attended.  The black draped bier was covered in floral tributes, some of which were sent by the Lamb, the Players Club and the Twelfth Night Club.

photo by Alice Lum
Financial problems arose when pastor Rev. Monsignor John H. Strzclocki died on December 7, 1918 owing the church more than $302,000 according to papers filed in the Surrogate’s Court by the succeeding pastor, Rev. Father Ignatius J. Bialdyga.

The issue was worsened when Strzclocki’s brother, Julian,  immediately after the pastor’s death, entered the rectory and emptied the safe of about $150,000 in cash, bonds and precious religious articles and jewelry.  Rev. Father Crygac of St. Stanislaus also alleged that Julian Strzclocki, who was also the church bookkeeper, “struck false balances.”  Strzclocki was removed from his position.

The neighborhood changed as the Polish population was absorbed into other Manhattan neighborhoods.  By the 1960s marriages, funerals and baptisms had dropped by half.  Yet the staunch little church of St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr pushed on.  In 1989 a one-year restoration was initiated through parish donations that included a new copper roof.

In 1999 and again in 2001 Lech Walesa, President of the Republic of Poland, visited here; one of a list of Polish dignitaries to worship in the church throughout the 20th century.

A bust of Pope John Paul II commemorates his visit here as Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Cracow -- photo by Alice Lum
Today St. Satnislaus Bishop and Martyr Roman Catholic Church is the oldest Polish Roman Catholic parish in Manhattan.  Its dignified fa├žade looks sadly squat with the loss of the tall wooden steeple; but its important to the Polish community in New York is immeasurable.

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