He grew up in the Milwaukee area surrounded by them, but it would take a date decades later to open John Smallshaw’s eyes to the glimpse of heaven that most locals take for granted.
Smallshaw, now of Libertyville, Ill., was surprised when his father suggested he take Anna, his girlfriend and a Polish immigrant, to Mass at St. Stanislaus Parish on the South Side during a visit to Milwaukee when he brought her to meet his parents.
“He thought she might like to see the beautiful mosaic of Our Lady of Czestochowa and find it interesting,” said Smallshaw. “She really loved the inside of the church and was surprised that although the parish could seat 1,000 people, there were just a few in the pews.”
Smallshaw’s eyes were opened as he gazed upon the mosaic, the ornate altar and beautifully carved wood. And although he had lived in Europe for a time and visited cathedrals there, he was ill prepared for the overwhelming beauty in his own backyard.
“How did it get there?” he questioned himself, “And who had built it, what was it doing in this neighborhood that had seen better days? I had studied Milwaukee history in school, but didn’t remember a thing about this church being mentioned in class. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention.”
A vice president in sales for Engis Corporation in Wheeling, Ill., Smallshaw has written several articles for beer magazines as a hobby. Anna urged him to put his literary skills to better use, and she suggested he research all the Polish churches in the area and write a book.
Although the two are no longer together, Anna helped Smallshaw compile information, translate documents from Polish to English and learn to appreciate the lives of the scores of Polish immigrants who poured into America and into Milwaukee.
|People of Faith
Name: John Smallshaw
Setting up separate communities based on language and culture, Polish immigrants assimilated slowly into American culture because, unlike others who immigrated around the same time, they expected to one day return to their homeland.
“It was part of their culture when people came, they felt it was absolutely necessary to build a church in their neighborhood with Masses in Polish,” explained Smallshaw. “They wanted to retain their Polish language and culture and a big thing is building a parochial school in Polish to continue the faith.”
In Milwaukee alone, 17 Polish Catholic churches stand in testimony of a dedicated culture that valued faith above individuals’ own comforts. The commitment to building houses of faith astounded Smallshaw, who discovered that many parishes required the equivalent of a year’s salary to build the massive structures.
His book, “Polish Churches of Milwaukee,” chronicles the history of those Polish parishes; he hopes that once published it will generate interest in preserving this history.
“Working on this book really reconnected me to my Milwaukee roots,” he said, adding, “It has given me insight to the tremendous faith that the immigrants had when they came to America. They couldn’t speak English, but had this incredible commitment to provide faith-based education and wanted to have a place to worship in their own language.”
When building these churches, many immigrants put second mortgages on their homes to fund church buildings, such as St. Josaphat Basilica, which nearly collapsed financially.
“When this church was in trouble, the people were literally in danger of losing their homes,” he said. “These immigrants worked in tanneries, foundries and machine shops and earned less than $500 per year. Yet they donated their pennies, nickels and dimes to build houses of worship.”
Struck with their devotion, Smallshaw learned the Poles were barely recognized by the public. Few knew how difficult it was for them to get representation in an archdiocese dominated by Germans. Because the German Catholics looked down on the Polish Catholics, it was a struggle to finally get a Polish auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese.
“The churches were separated along ethnic lines and often there were two Catholic churches within two blocks of each other because the Polish wanted their own church in their own language,” he said. “They were told that if they did not take confession in their native language it would have no meaning, so they wanted to be sure that the sacrament was valid.”
While he has no Polish ancestry, Smallshaw found great respect for the immigrants and found his own faith growing through his extensive research.
“I went through a divorce years ago and found myself becoming disconnected to my faith,” said Smallshaw, who attends St. Edna Catholic Church in Arlington Heights, Ill. “But by the grace of God, this project helped me to connect with my life and get it back in order. It has been a big epiphany to me that came from just seeing a mosaic on the side of a church.”
While “The Polish Churches of Milwaukee” remains unpublished, Smallshaw is hopeful to find a publisher soon. He has found interest, especially from the Milwaukee County Historical Society, who has placed his book on file.
“That is life,” he said. “You have to take risks, but I hope that someone somewhere will hear about it and take an interest.”