In the early years of the twentieth century, a number of Americans assumed that eastern and southern European immigrants were so ignorant that they could not be assimilated into the culture of the United States. Indeed, the nation went so far as to drastically change immigration laws in 1921 and again in 1924 to bar the entry of any more than token numbers of eastern and southern immigrants. We may wonder what mechanisms helped to foster the very rapid assimilation of ethnic groups deemed unable to assimilate a century ago.
The first Polish immigrants arrived in Detroit in the 1850s. Most of them were from western Poland, so they spoke German as well as Polish. Indeed, some of them married Germans. They attended German Catholic churches on the east side of Detroit. By the 1880s, Poles from central Poland began arriving in large numbers. They did not speak German, so they strongly insisted upon their own Polish churches. Many of them were staffed by immigrant priests who felt much more allegiance to the bishop in Poland who ordained them than to the bishop in Detroit. Of all the immigrant Catholics arriving in Detroit, Polish Catholics presented the greatest challenge to the established Catholic hierarchy—a hierarchy made up primarily of Germans and Irish.
St. Albertus, the first Polish parish founded in Detroit, served the needs of Polish immigrants living in this general area of Detroit’s East Side. The Polish population grew rapidly in the 1890s because Detroit’s expanding industries offered employment opportunities greatly superior to those available in Poland. In 1898, Bishop Foley established St. Stanislaus to serve the Polish parishioners that could no longer be accommodated at St. Albertus. Some commentaries about Detroit’s Catholic history list St. Stanislaus as the fifth Polish parish established in Detroit. Other commentaries list St. Stanislaus as the city’s fourth Polish parish. St. Albertus (1885), Sweetest Heart of Mary (1886) and St. Josephat’s (1889) were founded on the East Side prior to St. Stanislaus.
Bishop Foley appointed Reverend F. G. Zella to be the first pastor of St. Stanislaus. I believe that he purchased a Protestant church, Bethel Church, for use by St. Stanislaus. The Polish population on the East Side grew rapidly and became more prosperous. While most Polish immigrants had little education and worked at entry-level, blue-collar jobs, this immigration stream included some highly educated persons so, at an early date, Poles filled professional jobs, although they primarily served the Polish immigrant community. By 1911, St. Stanislaus was prosperous enough to commission architect Harry J. Rill of Detroit to design the magnificent Baroque church that you see here. I have not seen the interior, but have read that it is in the opulent Beaux-Arts style found in traditional Polish Catholic church such as nearby St. Albertus and Sweetest Heart of Mary.
As it grew in the Twentieth Century, the parish built a large elementary school—in the Tudor style—at 2228-2238 Medbury, and a large high school at 2246 Medbury. In the late 1940s, the Saint Stanislaus schools were the largest Catholic school complex in Michigan. The Catholic school system undoubtedly played a major role in the assimilation of Polish immigrants. St. Stanislaus’ comprehensive school system was staffed by Felician Sisters, an order of nuns founded in Poland in the mid-Nineteenth century. Seeing a need, they quickly came to the United States where they took on the responsibility of educating the children of Polish immigrants, especially in the large cities of the Midwest. These schools provided training for those second-generation Poles whose parents likely were more fluent in Polish than English. But the schools were basically secular ones, teaching exactly the same subjects as the public schools, but with the addition of one class in religion every day. These schools bridged the gap between the immigrant generation and the third generation, most of whom became completely assimilated non-hyphenated Americans.
Post-World War II demographic trends, however, were not favorable to this parish. The homes in this neighborhood were basically small workingmen’s cottages on small lots, many of them adjoining industrial sites or located on busy streets. Detroit’s immense economic prosperity in the 1940s and 1950s combined with innovative federal housing policies to make migration to the suburbs a very attractive option for working class Detroit. By 1968, the parish had closed it elementary school. Its secondary school survived for another six years. The parish membership continued to decline, fostered in part by the elimination of many homes to build the nearby Poletown Plant for GM and then, less that a decade later, by the erection of the massive Detroit Incinerator just a couple of blocks away. Indeed, this parish closed in 1989, the same year the Detroit Incinerator began burning solid waste to generate energy. Lowell Boileau, in some of his posting on the DetroitYes (www.DetroitYes.com) website, affectionately called this magnificent church, “Our Lady of the Incinerator.”
The church was eventually acquired by the Promise Land Missionary Baptist Church. In 2001, the large St. Stanislaus school complex became one of the two campuses of the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences, a specialized charter school.
In many of America’s Polonia, you will find a large church bearing the name of St. Stanislaus. Stanislaus was born on July 26, 1030 in Szczepanow, Poland near Cracow. His prosperous parents apparently provided him with an extensive religious education that may have included training in Paris. After their deaths, he gave his substantial inheritance to the poor. Stanislaus became a priest in the Cracow diocese and rose through the clerical ranks. He was elected bishop, but turned down the position, apparently because he felt he was not worthy. Pope Alexander II commanded that he accept that appointment, so Stanislaus became Bishop of Cracow—a prominent position in the eleventh-century Polish Catholic Church.
At this time, Boleslaw II served as King of Poland. He successfully carried out wars against the enemies of Poland, but used exceptionally ruthless methods. Stanislaus apparently condemned him for his exceptional use of violence in warfare, as well as for lust. Later Stanislaus got into a controversy with Boleslaw II about whether the church or the crown owned property. The dispute grew and Stanislaus excommunicated King Boleslaw II. The monarch was terribly upset and ordered his guards to kill Stanislaus, but they refused to do so. King Boleslaw took matters into his own hands and killed Stanislaus while he was saying Mass on May 8, 1079. Pope Innocent IV declared Stanislaus a saint in 1253.
St. Stanislaus, Bishop and Martyr, should not be confused
with another Polish St. Stanislaus who name is attached to, perhaps, several
dozen churches in
the nation’s Polonias. This is St. Stanislaus Kostka, a Jesuit who lived
about one-half millennium after St. Stanislaus, Bishop and Martyr. Within the
Detroit diocese, an active parish in Wyandotte bears the name of St. Stanislaus
Note: This complex includes the church, an elementary school
building, a high school building, a rectory, and a boiler house that was,
I believe, converted
into a sexton’s home. There was also once a large convent for the Felician
Sisters who taught at the schools, but that has been razed.
Architects: Harry J. Rill; Kastler and Hunter
Architectural Style for church: Neo Baroque with Beaux Arts interior
Date of construction of church: Completed in 1913
Use in 2007 Church: Promise Land Missionary Baptist Church
Use in 2007: School: Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences, a charter school for 6th to 10th grade students
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Listed December 14, 1990
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites:
State of Michigan Historic Marker: P4535
National Register of Historic Places: Listed July 14, 1989
Photograph: July 23, 2007
Description prepared: August, 2007
Return to Religious Sites
Return to Homepage