Looking for some peace and quiet just a stone’s throw from Detroit? Orchard Lake Schools, nestled on the shores of Orchard Lake in suburban Oakland County, Mich., are about 30 miles northwest of Detroit and five miles south of Pontiac.
Back in the 1970s, a certain Polish cardinal named Karol Wojtyla visited there, commenting that if the Orchard Lake Schools did not exist, they would have to be created. The future Pope John Paul II was very much aware of how significant Orchard Lake has been to Polish-American Catholics in the United States.
Back in 1885, the first major wave of Polish immigration was flooding into New England, the mid-Atlantic states and the industrial Midwest. Between 1870 and 1920, about 1.5 million Poles settled in America. They fled economic poverty and political repression at home: Russia, Prussia and Austria had wiped Poland off the map in 1793 and would continue to occupy the country until 1918. Paradoxically, Polish farmers became the backbone of America’s Industrial Revolution: Along with contemporary Italian, Hungarian, Greek and Slovak immigrants, they provided the muscle that kept America’s factories running.
Stripped of a country and ground down in poverty, one thing nobody could take from the Poles was their faith. Where Poles settled, they soon built a church. In the years since their mass immigration began, America’s Poles built, by nickels and dimes, a network of almost 800 parishes (about 200 of which still exist, though contemporary trends of consolidation and parish closure are having a significantly adverse impact on that number).
Father Joseph Dabrowski was one of the priests who came during that era, and he saw the need for systematic pastoral care for the immigrants. He brought the Felician Sisters to the United States, an order of nuns that historically played a huge role in staffing Catholic parochial schools in Polish parishes. In addition, Father Dabrowski also founded a seminary to train priests to staff those parishes. Sts. Cyril and Methodius Seminary began in Detroit, chosen for its halfway point between the burgeoning Polish communities of the Eastern seaboard and Chicago.
Father Dabrowski died in 1903 and was succeeded by Father Witold Buhaczkowski. As the seminary grew, it needed more space. When Father Buhaczkowski learned that the Michigan Military Academy was up for sale, he took the risk of relocating to what was then a rural outback of Detroit. This is where the Orchard Lake Schools were born.
At one time, one could go from ninth grade to ordination at Orchard Lake, starting at St. Mary’s Prep, moving to St. Mary’s College, and finishing at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Seminary. The college became extinct about a decade ago; its operations were taken over by Madonna University’s Orchard Lake campus. But the seminary and prep school both remain. The seminary still prepares young men for the priesthood, although today a significant proportion of the students are clerics from Poland, ready to serve both the Polish-American community as well as many other priest-needy dioceses in the United States.
When Father Buhaczkowski moved the “Polish Seminary” to its perch on beautiful Orchard Lake, he really moved into the country. Even when I went to college there in the late 1970s, an encroaching suburbia still hadn’t completely dominated the area.
Driving up Orchard Lake Road, resist the temptation to stay on the main drag. Follow the lake road instead. You’ll quickly feel yourself entering a more peaceful world. As you approach the schools, look left — you’ll come upon a campus jewel: the beautiful Lourdes Grotto, which was established in 1942. Our Lady watches over the schools and the lake as the flames of votive candles flicker on the altar inside the grotto. You’ll likely find some students praying there; in May and October, the Rosary is recited here daily.
The schools occupy a beautiful and spacious campus, at whose center stands the Shrine Chapel of Our Lady of Orchard Lake. Built in 1962, it is dedicated to Mary, Queen of Poland and patroness of Orchard Lake.
The roof, which curves upward and is made of Douglas firs, resembles hands folded in prayer, intended to lift the mind and heart to God. The design is natural but noble: marble, fieldstone, fir and mahogany combine, centering on the altar. Behind the altar are gathered life-size bronze statues of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles, reminding worshippers that the Mass is the Last Supper again made present.
Venture into the sacristy and visit the six exquisite chapels there. Designed to provide more cameral quarters for the once numerous priest faculty to celebrate Mass, they remain in use. One contains a replica of Wit Stwosz’s triptych from the main altar of the Mariacki Church in Krakow. One contains carved images of the saints — like the Jesuit martyrs — who were instrumental in bringing the faith to North America, while another holds the images of figures like Sts. Hedwig and Jan Kanty, the saints of Poland. The chapel was intended to blend modern architecture with various elements of the Polish tradition.
Mass is celebrated every Sunday at the shrine chapel at 11am. There is also daily Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Every first Sunday of the month, there is also a special Polish Sunday Mass at 1pm, which is sometimes followed by cultural programs. A Polish-language radio Mass is broadcast from the schools every Sunday at 9am from the seminary’s chapel.
Stroll the grounds and visit that chapel as well. The campus bookstore (open First Sundays) stocks a fair supply of religious literature, in both English and Polish. There are regular on-campus exhibits about the Polish contribution to Europe, America and the world — prominently featuring Poland’s beloved son, Pope John Paul II.
Stop by Our Lady’s Grotto, enjoy the peace, and thank God for the approximately 3,000 priests these schools have given to the Church in the United States.
It is a lovely setting for such a heaven-focused endeavor.
John M. Grondelski, a 1981 St. Mary’s College alumnus, writes from Perth Amboy, New Jersey.