During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of Poles traveled 5,433 miles by land, sea and rail from their homeland in central Europe to Chicago.

They brought with them the Polish Baroque designs that made their newly built parish churches look like the cathedrals and basilicas they loved to worship in back home. Within five decades, “Chicago was the center of American Polonia,” writes Victoria Granacki in her article “The Architecture of Polish Catholic Churches in Chicago.” At the heart of it all was St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, the first parish built by Polish immigrants in the Windy City.

“It was the largest Polish church outside the country and had 40,000 parishioners,” explained Resurrectionist Father Stanislaw Jankowski, the pastor of St. Hyacinth Basilica, to the Register. With so many parishioners, several other Polish churches were erected in fairly short order: Holy Trinity, St. Hedwig, St. John Cantius, St. Mary of the Angels and Holy Innocents.

“They came to this country and wanted to have their own Polish church and to bring some of their culture to the United States,” said Father Marek Smolka, associate pastor and director of liturgy at the city’s Holy Name Cathedral.

They had particular reasons for the preferred styles and highly ornamental interiors. As architectural historian Denis McNamara explained, “The Polish love the Polish Renaissance and Baroque because that’s their Golden Age.” McNamara is academic director of the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, Illinois, and author of Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago.

Generally speaking, McNamara said, this Golden Age occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Baroque style flourished. It was also a time of political independence for the Poles, who had architects come from Rome to design these magnificent churches and other buildings to celebrate both their faith and their culture, which in Poland often means the same thing.

But when invading armies, a loss of peace and occupation by foreign powers tried to stifle or eradicate the Polish national identity, many Poles sought a more promising future in the New World. “If your Golden Age is run down by an invading army and you want to preserve it,” McNamara told the Register, “you come to America and build the architecture it represents here. Catholicism is part of their identity, and enemies can’t stamp it out of them.” McNamara added, “They’re saying, ‘We love God. We’re building this glorious thing to express love for God and show our love for the Polish culture’ because these glorious, grand, highly ornate churches are one of the aspects of Polish Catholic culture.”

“The connection was always with home,” added Father Jankowski. “What they built was part of Europe [and yet] still, a part of their home country. They came with Christ and Mary and believed they would provide for them in the future.”


Glorious Churches

St. Stanislaus Kostka, as the first Polish parish in the Chicago Archdiocese, was considered the “mother church” of Polonia, noted Granacki. The first pastor, Father Vincent Barzynski of the Polish Congregation of the Resurrection, began the building of more than two dozen churches by the Resurrectionists who came to Chicago in 1870, a decade before the Diocese of Chicago was elevated to an archdiocese in 1880. Father Barzynski was appointed superior of all the Polish priests in the diocese by Bishop Thomas Foley, said Father Jankowski. With his leadership, the sacred building work took off.

Prolific architect Patrick Charles Keely, who had just finished Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, was enlisted to design St. Stanislaus in a Renaissance style. Among the church’s decorative highlights are many paintings, such as the sanctuary’s large mural of the Triumph of Christ and the image of the Blessed Mother putting the Child Jesus into the hands of St. Stanislaus, both done by Polish-born artist Thaddeus Zukotynski, who decorated many other Polish cathedral-like churches. St. Stanislaus’ glorious stained-glass windows came from legendary F.X. Zettler of Munich, who also constructed other similar windows in many of the Polonia churches to follow.

The burgeoning congregation signaled the need for another parish. In 1872, this new parish erected its church — Holy Trinity Church. Step-by-step, through the parish’s early history, Holy Trinity Church’s appearance grew increasingly more elaborate in Baroque ornamentation, as decorators added such detail as stenciled and gilded pilasters near the sanctuary. Today Holy Trininty remains intentionally a Polish mission.

Then in 1899 came St. Mary of the Angels. “Think of St. Mary of the Angels as the flagship that can be seen from the highway,” said McNamara. “The Resurrectionists built it as a Polish cathedral.” Its huge dome was modeled after the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome. It embraces the Polish Baroque style with its quintessential towers.

What characterizes St. Mary’s, “like many of the other cathedral-like Polish churches, is the Italian Renaissance approach and the very colorful, richly gilt interiors. Every square inch is covered. It’s exuberant Baroque,” said McNamara. “It’s one of the most lavishly decorated churches in Chicago.” To maintain this cultural and spiritual richness, an extensive restoration of St. Mary’s was completed 10 years ago.

But even before this most recent project, St. Mary’s was continually being upgraded. Czech-born artist John Mallin decorated the edifice in the late 1940s, covering St. Mary’s with a celestial array of figures, colors and gilt work. For example, the mural filling the entire sanctuary apse shows an array of angels on clouds, playing music, offering lilies and surrounding an image of Our Lady, who looks upward in adoration to the Blessed Trinity.

Celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, St. Hyacinth Basilica is another spectacular edifice of Polish origin. Dedicated in 1921 and named a basilica in 2003, St. Hyacinth’s reflects the Baroque churches of Eastern Europe, according to McNamara.

It stands out with its interior paintings, which were completed in 1930, by the artistic duo of Zukotynski and Mallin.

McNamara noted that while working on St. Hyacinth’s, Mallin explained his artistic decisions this way: “There is nothing too good for God, so there is nothing too rich or too precious for God’s earthly homes.” That reflected the belief of the Poles, too. Zukotynski created the magnificent scene over the altar depicting adoration of the Holy Eucharist and, high above the tabernacle in the sumptuous reredos, the image of St. Hyacinth interceding.

McNamara calls the monumental dome the “literal crowning glory,” with all 3,000 square feet filled with Mallin’s celestial scene of the Holy Trinity crowning the Virgin Mary in heaven as more than 145 depicted saints — such as Sts. Hyacinth, Francis, Stanislaus and John the Baptist — and biblical personages, angels and even parishioners and Resurrectionist priests encircle the dome and look on in rapt attention.

When the church was restored in 2000, artistic renderings of Pope St. John Paul II and Poland’s primate, Cardinal Józef Glemp, were added to this heavenly scene.

Referring to this painting as the Gloria, Father Jankowski observed, “We have a beautiful Gloria, and ‘Gloria’ means [the glory of] heaven.” Other beautiful highlights at St. Hyancinth’s include the church’s stained- glass windows, installed in 1921 and created by the renowned studios of Franz Meyer and F.X. Zettler.

More homeland connections to St. Hyacinth’s came in 2008, when people donated gold rings, chains and other jewelry to fashion into two crowns to adorn the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa (accompanied by the Christ Child). Father Jankowski said that Cardinal Glemp blessed them, and Chicago’s late Cardinal Francis George placed the crowns upon the holy Mother and Child.

The powerful beauty in St. Hyacinth’s still has its effect today. According to Father Jankowski, loyalty abounds, as many “of our parishioners are living outside the neighborhood but all come back for the regular Masses” and activities.


Chicago and Elsewhere

St. John Cantius Church is another well-known Polish church in Chicago. According to Granacki, its tower resembles a tower of St. Mary’s Church in St. John Cantius’ home city of Krakow — a church that can be seen in Zukotynski’s painting of the saint located over the altar in St. John’s. In addition, all of St. John’s altars mirror those constructed in Krakow during Poland’s Golden Age. The spectacular Baroque interior includes an icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa adorned with two crowns blessed by St. John Paul II.

The Polish Baroque style was the choice for St. Hedwig Church, too, and it is “lavished with paintings” done by Mallin for the parish’s 50th anniversary in 1938, according to McNamara. In contrast to many of the Polish churches of the Windy City, St. Michael the Archangel Church on the South Shore is Gothic rather than Baroque. But the dazzling ornamental altar and nearly 50-foot reredos with an exceptionally tall statue of St. Michael under a filigreed gothic canopy both reflect Poland’s Golden Age, as well. The F.X. Zettler stained-glass windows are Renaissance-like inspirations, headed by the soaring Christ in Majesty on one of the transepts and Our Lady at Pentecost on the other.

Another Polish church, St. Mary of Perpetual Help, designed in the 19th century in Romanesque-Byzantine style, began an extensive renovation in 1999. Highlights on the ongoing effort include richly ornate side altar shrines and Mallin’s paintings of Poland’s saints circling the sanctuary.

On the city’s south side, Immaculate Conception Church reflects the Renaissance revival style, but is different because, notes McNamara, it’s all brick with stone trim. Granacki points out the church’s interior “was restored in 2002 with new altars based on the original altars of 1899.” Although there is no longer evidence of the murals that filled the Polish churches, the reproduced altars beautifully connect with the parish’s origins. Enshrined high in the main altar’s reredos is a life-size depiction of the Immaculate Conception. Accompanying her on two levels are smaller polychromed statues of saints and angels. Today the parish serves mainly the Hispanic faithful.

Of course, Chicago isn’t the only place where the Poles have brought their heaven-on-earth church-cathedrals. Those Polish immigrants who headed to Milwaukee in the late 19th century built the Basilica of St. Josaphat, the city’s largest church. Shortly after it was founded in 1888, it became the state’s largest Polish parish, and as noted in its history, it “epitomizes the striving of early Polish immigrants to express their ethnic heritage, spiritual devotion and patriotic pride by building impressive houses of worship.”
Its huge central dome reveals it, too, was designed after St. Peter’s in Rome. By 1929 the paintings, ornamentation and decorations were complete. Everything about the massive church was so impressive that in that same year Pope Pius XI named St. Josaphat Church a basilica. It became the third basilica in the United States and the first Polish-American church to be named such.
Poland, Connecticut
The Midwest isn’t the only place where Poles built a blend of heaven and earth in beautiful structures that also recall their cultural roots.
Holy Name of Jesus parish in Stamford, Connecticut, was founded in 1903 to serve many immigrants. By Christmas 1934, the upper church opened for Mass with the lower portion still under construction. The Italian Baroque interior of Holy Name is a resplendent, full of marble, gold gilding, magnificent mosaics, frescoes, painting and stained glass.
Depictions of angels are everywhere, above every arch and appearing in the side shrines, while large sculpted angels in prayer top Holy Name’s Baroque Italian baldachino lavished with magnificent carving. Ornamentation also decorates the sanctuary in the style of European cathedrals. Highlighting the sanctuary, an expansive ceiling fresco shows Jesus and God the Father with the globe between them and the Holy Spirit sending rays from above. The sanctuary is also decked out in Renaissance-like paintings ornately framed in gold, including such Gospel moments as the Nativity, Jesus calming the sea and the Transfiguration.
Holy Name’s Munich stained glass, radiant with color, captures other holy scenes, such as the betrothal of Mary and Joseph, the Resurrection and the Annunciation — as well as a portrait of the Holy Family. And one shrine in Holy Name honors Poland’s patroness, Our Lady of Czestochowa, surrounded with brilliant gold.
These churches, of course, not only preserve Poland’s Golden Age culture here on American shores but also communicate and inspire faith among its people. As McNamara affirms in his book, “The beauty of heaven draws people in, inspires them and they emerge transformed to in turn transform the earthly city. Such is the power of beauty, truth and goodness in well-designed and ornamented liturgical architecture.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.