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History & Culture

The Polish People of Passaic

Sister M. Gaudentia, Fel.

 

Passaic is an industrial and manufacturing center, located in a densely populated section of northeastern New Jersey having the markets of metropolitan New York at its doors. It lies 13 miles from Newark, 5 miles from Paterson, and 11 miles from Jersey City, and covers an area of 3.26 square miles.1 Because the city has fine highways, railroads, and tunnels, many of its residents commute daily. This also makes Passaic one of New Jersey's important residential communities. Many nations of the world are represented in its population of more than 61,394.2 The Poles rank first (4,430)3 among the foreign born element which totals 17,720 persons.4

 

There is no authentic record of, first Polish settlement in Passaic, which was settled by wealthy Dutch farmers as early as 1679.5 However, one of the earliest Polish land owners in the area was the Zabriskie family, which claims descent from Olbracht Zaborowski who emigrated from Prussia to New Amsterdam in 1662.6 There is no record of the exact time when the family took up residence in Passaic, but deeds recorded in the land office for Passaic County at Paterson, New Jersey, reveal purchases of land in Passaic by Henry J. Zabriskie in 1816,7 by Christian B. Zabriskie in 1824,8 and by Abraham Zabriskie in 1832.9 At the time Passaic was still a predominantly agricultural and commercial village.10

 

Abraham Zabriskie built a dock in Passaic and operated a fleet of boats sailing to New York. He tried to improve the navigation facilities of the Passaic River and spent fifty thousand dollars for this purpose. The project was unsuccessful and brought about his financial ruin.11 Another member of the family, Dr. John B. Zabriskie, was licensed to practice medicine and surgery in New Jersey on November 4, 1826.12 Unable to make a success of his practice, he moved to New York and later settled in Jersey City.13 Still another descendant, Christian B. Zabriskie, took part in the planning of a bridge to be erected at some point between Zabriskie's Landing and the Dundee Dam before the Civil War, but the undertaking proved a failure.14 Christian A. Zabriskie, who was born March 14, 1829, was considered one of the oldest residents of Passaic.15 John C. Zabriskie, also from Passaic, took part in the Civil War.16

 

In the latter part of the 19th century, the Zabriskies maintained close connections with some of Passaic's leading business concerns, particularly the Anderson Lumber Co., with which Simeon T. Zabriskie was closely affiliated.17 The Zabriskie family mingled little with the Polish population of Passaic. Their social contacts were mostly with the Dutch and other nationalities, yet they seemed always to have acknowledged their Polish ancestry. Zabriskie A. Van Houten was a candidate for Freeholder of Passaic County in 1930, and during his campaign he spoke openly of his Polish ancestors. Another member of this family, engaged in real estate business, also emphasized this fact during a personal interview with the author.

 

The census of 1870 shows that at this time there were about 279 Polish persons in the State of New Jersey.18 There is no record indicating how many Poles then lived in Passaic or whether there were Polish residents other than the Zabriskie family. The parish records of St. Joseph's Church reveal the fact that Polish people began to settle in Passaic as early as 1877, but no specific names are given. The oldest Directories for the City of Passaic, beginning with 1872 and going to 1883, do not contain any Polish names.

 

The Bureau of Statistics in Passaic records the birth of a child born to the Waselonsky family on May 11, 1880; also the birth of a child born to the Schmoleski family in 1883. Other births of Polish children are recorded in 1884, 1888 and 1890. From then on, recorded births of the Polish families become more numerous.

 

The matrimonial files at Passaic City Hall contain the marriage record of George Liszynski from Russia and Anna Graboschinska from Austria registered in 1882; another early marriage, between Robert Nowicki and Victoria Kurmierkiewicz, both listed as natives of Poland, is registered under date of January 23, 1890. Polish death notices begin in 1880 with the name of Stanislaus Wadislisky, who died on November 26, 1880 at the age of 24, after residing in New Jersey for two years; his parents were born in Poland. Another notice lists Mary Wadilisky, deceased on February 9, 1881, age 11 months; her mother was born in Poland. Thereafter, up to 1890, only two other apparently Polish names are listed in the death records. A study of the Assessment Register covering the Poll Tax for the year 1885 reveals quite a number of names that seem to be of Polish origin. For example, Bartnick Frank, Batrowski Bois, Gilowski George, Kowicki Michael, Kiloski Peter and Lobski Francis.19

 

The Naturalization records in the Passaic County Court House before 1890 list several naturalized Polish citizens, but since the citizen's place of residence is not specifically designated, there is no way of determining just how many of the individuals listed resided in Passaic. Prior to 1890, therefore, the Polish population of Passaic was very small. This condition can be attributed partly to the fact that Passaic offered little financial security to the old world immigrants who came to the United States to improve their living conditions and partly to the more important fact that large scale Polish immigration to the United States did not begin until after 1890. This date coincided with the growth of the textile industries in Passaic, and brought to the city a sudden influx of people who had economic betterment and financial security as their goal.20 From 1890 on, Passaic progressed rapidly until it became one of the world's leading manufacturers of woolen goods and handkerchiefs. It likewise became the home of two large rubber companies. Other manufactures also followed: cigars, paper boxes, automobile seat covers, biscuits, tin cans, machinery, neckwear, and meat products.

 

These industries proved an important attraction to Polish laborers, both men and women. Most of them came to Passaic directly from Poland, chiefly from Galicia.21 Others came to Passaic from New York, Pennsylvania and other states in which they had failed to find suitable employment and homes. Some of the early Polish settlers traveled to Woodridge, a small suburb of Passaic, where they worked in the manufacture of surgical instruments in a factory owned by Anthony Molinari, a Polish native of Italian descent. Other Poles found employment with Ladislaus Ostrowski who manufactured artificial flowers.

 

The living standard of these early immigrants was low. Most of them came from small farms and villages, and only a few migrated from the big cities. The immigrant women contributed to the family income. Many of them entered the factories and worked side by side with the men. Others, burdened with family cares, opened boarding houses.

 

Prior to 1920, working conditions in some of the factories were deplorable, but this did not deter the women from continuing their employment. The handicaps under which they labored have been graphically described by Eloise Shellabarger, who writes that the women worked ten hours daily, constantly on their feet, under unhealthy conditions.

 

They are of recent immigration from eastern and southern Europe. Looking at their sturdy figures and comely faces, I smiled to think that I used to learn in school that these recent immigrants are of an inferior physical type. Such sturdiness seems out of place in the town, and when I talked to the priest of one of the large Polish churches he said, 'Yes, they were mostly farmers, village people. An anthropologist will tell you that their physical structure is very good. And they are not so ignorant, just because they don't know English.22

It is a fact worth noting that the women were paid higher wages than the men. For example, men were paid $23 weekly while women received $30 to $35. In her article, "The Shawled Women of Passaic", Eloise Shellaburger states that employment left little leisure for the women to pay attention to the fashions of the day, compelling them to maintain their European clothing styles. But this was not the real reason why the immigrant women wore shawls. It was rather to preserve the customs of their villages. Today Passaic offers many opportunities for the working woman. A recent survey of 45 of the city's largest corporations made by the Chamber of Commerce shows that one-third of the employees are women, with those of Polish nationality predominating.

 

As the material needs of the immigrants found solution, the demand for spiritual solace also asserted itself. So great was the immigrants' urge for expression of faith in their own language, that it prompted them to hope for the erection of churches and schools in which the Polish language was spoken. But before this hope was realized, the immigrants fulfilled their religious obligations by attending Saint Stanislaus Church in New York, and later Saint Anthony's Church in Jersey City.23

 

In the meantime, a Polish priest was assigned by the Bishop to minister to the needs of the immigrants at regular intervals. This practice continued until 1892, when the Polish church finally became a reality. This was Saint Joseph's Church, erected under the direction of Reverend Boleslav Kwiatkowski, with the help of contributions gathered at weddings and christenings from the sixty families which comprised the congregation.

 

In 1895 Reverend Valentine Chlebowski was appointed pastor of Saint Joseph's Church by Bishop W. M. Wigger of the Diocese of Newark. His first step was to acquire a rectory, which he did at his own expense. Later, this became parish property. During his pastorate of 11 years, the parish grew considerably, comprising a new church, a school, a sister's convent, and a rectory. When the first school became too small, a new one was erected in 1902.

 

Reverend Valentine Chlebowski did not confine his labors to the Polish people, but extended them also to a large German group. He allowed the Germans to congregate at St. Joseph's for Mass at which he preached in their native language. This continued until 1902, when he was also placed in charge of Holy Trinity Church built by the German people, but he continued to reside at Saint Joseph's Rectory.

 

After 1905, the number of Polish home owners increased not only in Passaic but also in the suburbs. This resulted in the need of more Polish churches, which eventually arose with the help of the people from the mother parish - Saint Joseph's Church, Passaic, N. J. Through their generosity, Polish parishes became a reality to the Polish settlers residing in the suburbs of Garfield, Hackensack and Athenia.

 

Upon the death of Reverend Valentine Chlebowski on January 26, 1912, Reverend Julius Manteuffel was appointed to fill the vacancy. He was born in the province of Posen, Poland, on October 22, 1873. He came to the United States with his father and three sisters at the age of 16. Five years later he decided to prepare for the priesthood and pursued his studies at several institutions - Lawrence College at Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin, the Polish Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, Kenrick Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, and Seton Hall College in South Orange, New Jersey. He was ordained on May 18, 1905. He showed special interest in the youth of the parish, many of whom lived in various boarding houses. Reverend Manteuffel became the director of all their social activities. He was also largely responsible for the rapid growth of the Third Order of St. Francis in the parish. He became a Domestic Prelate in 1929, but died two weeks after his investiture.

 

The thought of organizing a second Polish Catholic parish in Passaic arose in the minds of the people in 1908.24 But it was not until 1913 that this thought began to materialize, when Bishop O'Connor directed Rt. Rev. Msgr. Ignatius Szudrowicz to organize a new parish to be named Holy Rosary. On his resignation, Rev. Julius Manteuffel was appointed administrator. In 1918 the parish received a new pastor, Rev. Stanislaus J. Kruczek, who came to Holy Rosary from St. Michael's Church in Lyndhurst. N. J.

 

Father Kruczek rented a hall for a temporary Chapel, which was blessed by Monsignor James Kieran on Sunday, March 5th. Soon after, Father Kruczek obtained a loan from a local bank and started work on a new combination building which would contain a church with seating capacity for 1,000 people and a parish school with seventeen classrooms. Early in 1920 he acquired four lots adjoining the church and began work on a rectory. The school was opened first, in February 1920, the church in 1921, and the rectory early in 1922.

 

On June 12, 1922, a great calamity befell the new parish. A fire broke out in a nearby house and destroyed both the new church and school buildings. Even in the face of this catastrophe, the courage and faith of the parishioners remained undaunted. A collection was taken up which, together with the money received from the insurance companies, was used to rebuild the church and school the very same year. The new church was dedicated on April 8, 1923. Four years later, the parishioners erected a convent for the teaching Sisters.

 

A third church, St. Peter and Paul's, a Polish National Church, came into existence in 1903,25 but its congregation was not limited to Passaic alone. Since an increasingly large number of parishioners attending churches in Passaic resided in the adjacent town of Wallington, plans were formulated to build a church there. This building is now in the course of construction.

 

Hand in hand with the building of new churches went the construction of schools. The first Polish school was built in 1901 by the parishioners of St. Joseph's Church, and was staffed by the Felician Sisters in 1902. Holy Rosary School, located in the same building as the church, was built in 1921. Here, too, the Felician Sisters were engaged to teach. In addition, the Polish People's Home held classes in Polish for children attending public schools. This "Continuation School" was established in 1924 with an enrollment of about 100 students. Due to difficulties created by World War II, these Polish classes had to be discontinued.

 

A third important unit of parochial organization was the parish society. An outstanding society of this type in Passaic was the Third Order of St. Francis, which in 1942 numbered 750 professed members in St. Joseph's Church alone. The "Shawled Women of Passaic" mentioned previously formed most of the membership. They made simplicity the keynote of their dress - an added reason for wearing a shawl in place of a hat. The first group of Tertiaries, consisting of 21 members, was organized in 1905 by Antonina Antonowicz, Marianna Bednarz and Anna Czuber, with Rev. Valentine Chlebowski as spiritual director.

 

The members lived in groups. After their regular employment, they visited the sick, helped with housework in homes where no one was able to do it, and prepared the dying for Holy Viaticum. They supplied the altar needs of their churches, and were largely instrumental in helping several boys to the priesthood. By their self-sacrificing activity they inspired the generous aid of the Polish people in Passaic, which contributed largely to the erection of the Immaculate Conception Convent of the Felician Sisters in Lodi, and the Don Bosco Institute in Ramsey, New Jersey.

 

Every Catholic parish was the center not only of the religious life but also of the national, social and cultural activities in the community. The Polish parishioners of Passaic held celebrations in their own city and also sent representatives to New York to take part in various patriotic and religious gatherings. In 1890 Dr. M. Grabowski from Passaic was invited to attend the special blessing of the cornerstone of St. Stanislaus Church in New York. On this occasion, he delivered an address in French, because various national groups were represented at the gathering.26 In 1891 a large Polish group from Passaic was present at the New York celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Polish Constitution.27 From then on, New York became the center of Polish patriotic representation in the east. No large celebration was ever held without the participation of a Polish delegation from Passaic.

 

The cultural and social life of the early Polish immigrants after 1890 found abundant expression in parish auditoriums and private halls. At least three times a year the members of the Echo Dramatic Society and the Moniuszko Choral Society presented popular plays. The Chimney Sweep and the Miller28, Star of Siberia29, Grandmother's Parrots30, Catherine's Ambers31, The Street Boy of Paris32, Blaise the Bewitched33, Mystery of the Village Hut34 - these were some of the most frequent played productions. Besides directing the plays, Mr. L. Zaorski, the stage manager, also served as decorator and stage designer.

 

In 1909 all social activities began to center in the newly erected Polish Peoples' Home35, the largest of its kind in the State of New Jersey. From then on, it became the meeting place of various clubs and fraternal organizations: the Polish R. C. Union, the Polish National Union, the Polish Women's Alliance of America, the Polish Union, the Association of the Sons of Poland, the Society of St. Stanislaus, B. M. (the largest independent society with a membership of 1,750), the Society of the Sacred Heart, the Society of Stephen Starzynski, the Society of White Eagle, the Society of St. John Canty, the Society of Archbishop John Cieplak, the Society of New Life, the Society of St. Casimir, the Society of Maria Konopnicka, the Society of Polish Workers, the Society of St. Joseph, the Society of St. Stephen, the Society of Queen Hedwig, the Polish Falcons, the Maritime League, the Polish War Veterans Post, the Knights of St. Martin, the Ladies Club of the Polish Peoples' Home, the Chopin Choir, the Arfa Girls Chorus, and the Tatra Mountaineers.

 

Of the societies listed, the Arfa Girls Chorus, a group of young women, deserves special mention. It was organized in 1935 by Edmund A. Sennert to cultivate interest in American folk music and light classics and to foster appreciation of Polish songs. In ten years of existence, the Arfa Chorus has won acclaim among Poles and Americans as one of the finest women's choral groups in the country. The Arfa Chorus made appearances in Chicago, Utica, Buffalo, Cleveland and New York. It also took part in numerous radio broadcasts. In 1939, at the request of the Victor Recording Studios in New York, the Arfa Chorus made recordings of Polish Christmas Carols and other Polish songs. In May 1940, at the national contest sponsored by the Polish Singers Alliance of America, the Arfa Chorus won first place, taking the national trophy with its rendition of "Deszcz w Sloncu," by Wallek Walewski. On Monday, July 12, 1943, the Arfa Chorus took part in a special program commemorating the 400th anniversary of Nicholas Copernicus at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. This was the first time that a chorus had been heard in the famed planetarium.

 

In May 1945, the Chorus made recordings of Polish songs for the Office of War Information in New York. These records were broadcast by short wave through the RCA Broadcasting stations to the Polish Armed Forces wherever they were fighting. Two years later, the chorus was privileged to sing American and Polish songs at various memorial shrines in Washington, D.C.36 At the choir's Tenth Anniversary celebration a movement was started to introduce the Polish language into the Passaic High School curriculum which bore successful fruit in September 1947.

 

Another active Polish club was the Polish Tatra Mountaineers. This group traveled to suburban and distant cities to give folk dance performances. At the World's Fair, the Polish Tatra Mountaineers received the second prize for folk dances.37 With September 1947, the Mountaineers began to issue "The Tatra Bulletin."

 

Besides social gatherings and patriotic celebrations, other affairs were also held in the Polish Peoples Home of Passaic. One of these was a concert by artists of the Metropolitan Opera Company in February 1925 held under the sponsorship of Holy Rosary Parish. The artists included Aleksander Brachocki, pianist; Adam Didur, basso; Jan Pawel Wolanek, violinist; and Miss Ellen Dalossy, coloratura soprano. Also present at the concert was Guiseppe Bambroschek, conductor of the Metropolitan Opera.38

 

Polish celebrities honored Passaic with their visits at one time or another. Among these were Ignace Paderewski and Mrs. Paderewski, General Joseph Haller, Count Jerzy Potocki, the first Polish Council General W. Buszczynski, Wojciech Kossak, Ladis Kiepura, and the famed Dana Ensemble. One of the earliest visiting celebrities was a child prodigy whose visit created little stir in 1887 but was proudly remarked years later by a local newspaper:

 

Sixty years ago, in 1887, Passaic entertained a celebrity unawares. A Clifton Minstrel Club Show, given in Old Music Hall on East Main Avenue near Jefferson Street, was interrupted so that a seven-year-old Polish prodigy might play. The child was the great Joseph Hoffman, oldest living piano virtuoso. His father, who bent over him, turning the music, was a celebrated capellmeister and composer.39

Reverend Stanislaus Kruszek, pastor of Holy Rosary Parish, was instrumental in bringing many outstanding Polish visitors to Passaic. Perhaps his most famous guest was Poland's Archbishop John F. Cieplak, who visited the United States in 1925 and made Holy Rosary his main residence during the visit.

 

The Polish people of Passaic supported intermittently five Polish newspapers, most of which were short-lived: Kurjer Nowojorski (1903), Przyjaciel Narodu (1922-1928), Nowiny (1927-1934), Rekord (1922-1929), and Przeglad Tygodniowy (1927).

 

While many of the Polish immigrants came to the United States to earn enough money to enable them to return to the land of their birth and live with their families in peace and security, in time the great majority of them recognized America as the land of opportunity and settled permanently in their adopted country. Today a considerable number are engaged in commercial pursuits; such as butcher and grocery stores, restaurants, furniture stores, drug stores, dry goods, electrical appliances, radio, shoe stores, and other small enterprises. Today the Polish community in Passaic can be justly proud of its Polish American priests and religious, doctors, dentists, optometrists, accountants, bankers, lawyers, civil engineers, chemists, druggists, teachers and linguists. Congressman Manfield G. Amlicke, Stanley J. Polak, district court judge, and Thaddeus A. Barszcz, city commissioner, evidence the active political life of the Polish American citizens of Passaic.

 

Lastly, Passaic's Polish Americans contributed their share to World War II: 1,314 boys of Polish descent served in the Armed Forces. As early as 1942 the Service Flag of Holy Rosary Parish alone had 350 stars, for which the parish received recognition before the 77th Congress at Washington.40 They proved in blood their loyalty to the land that gave their fathers shelter and opportunity for a better, richer, and fuller life.


1 New Jersey Industrial Directory For 1946. (Union City, N, J., 1946), 559.
2 Sixteenth Census: 1940. Population, Second Series. (Washington, 1942), 60. 
3 Ibid., 44.

4
Ibid., 44.
5 William W. Scott, History of Passaic and Its Environs. (New York, 1922), I, 59.
6 Mieczyslaw Haiman, Polacy Wsród Pionierów Ameryki. (Chicago, 1930), 22.

7
Essex County Register of Deeds. Deed Record, bk, C, p. 464.
8 Essex County Register of Deeds. Deed Record, bk, F. p. 272. 
9 Essex County Register of Deeds. Deed Record, bk K, p. 474.

10 The author is indebted to Mr. Joseph V. McGuire, an expert title searcher, for approving the above statements.
11 William W. Scott, History of Passaic and Its Environs. (New York, 1922), I, 141-42.
12 Record from the Medical Society of New Jersey, Trenton, N. J.
13 William W. Scott, History of Passaic and Its Environs. (New York, 1922), I, 163. 
14 William J. Pape, The News' History of Passaic from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Day. (1899), 48.
15 Lee, New Jersey as a Colony and as a State. (The Publishing Society of New Jersey, 1902), 173
16 William W. Scott, History of Passaic and Its Environs. (New York, 1922), I, 286. 
17 Ibid., 569.

18
Miecislaus Haiman. Polish Past In America 1608-1865. (Chicago, 1939), 157.
19 City of Passaic. Register of Births, Marriages, Assessments and Deaths. 1874-1896.
  20 New Jersey -A Guide to Its Present and Past compiled and written by the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of New Jersey. (New York: The Viking Press, 1939), 347.
21 Ks. Waclaw Kruszka, Historya Polska w Ameryce. (Milwaukee, 1908), XIII, 79.
22 Eloise Shellabarger, "Shawled Women of Passaic," Survey, XLIV (July 3, 1920) 463-8.
23 Zloty Jubileusz Kosciola Sw. Józefa w Passaic, N, J. 1892-1942. (Passaic, N. J. 1942), 22.
24 Pamietnik Parafii Matki Boskiej Rozancowej w Passaic, N. J. 1918-1928. (Passaic, N. J.). 7.
25 William W. Scott, History of Passaic and Its Environs. (New York, 1922), III, 325.
26 Album Jubileuszowy z okazji 25-letniej Rocznicy Swiecen Kaplanskich oraz Pracy Pasterskiej Jana H. Strzeleckiego, nienaruszonego Proboszcza Parafii Sw. StanisIowa, B. M. w Nowym Yorku. (Nowy York, 1916), 370.
27 Ibid., 138.

28
Kominiarz i Mlynarz
29
Gwiazda Syberii.
30 Papugi Naszej Babuni
31 Bursztyny Kasi.
32 Ulicznik Paryski. 
33 Blazek Opetany.
34 Tajemnica Chaty Wiejskiej
35 Dom Polski.
36 Congressional Record Containing the Proceedings and Debates of the 80th Congress. (Washington, 1947), first session, XCIII, 101.
37 Podholanin w Ameryce. Wydany z okazji 10-cio Lecia Istnienia Stowarzyszenia Tatrzanskich Górali. 1937-1947. (Passaic, N. J.), 5.
38 Pamietnik Parafii Matki Boskiej Rozancowej w Passaic, 1918-1928. (Passaic, N. J. ), 22.
39 "Passaic's Musical Tradition," The Herald News. (Saturday, October 25, 1947), 6.
40 Congressional Record Containing the Proceedings and Debates of the 77th Congress, (Washington, 1942), second session, LXXXVIII, 10.

 

This article is reprinted from Polish American Studies, Vol. V. No. 3-4, July-December 1948, with permission from the Polish-American Historical Association.

  
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