Three of the six oldest basilicas in New England are in Massachusetts. Two have strong Polish roots. One of them is the Basilica of St. Stanislaus.
Beautiful in itself, the basilica is also a testament to the Polish immigrants who built it.
St. Stanislaus is in Chicopee, a city that with larger next-door neighbor Springfield forms the most populated area of the western part of the state.
In the late 19th century, Chicopee attracted scores of Polish immigrants who came to work in the area’s booming mills, especially in neighboring Holyoke, which was the first planned industrial center in the country. Polish immigrants built the first simple church near downtown Chicopee and celebrated the first Mass there in 1891. They named the parish after their cherished saint: the principal patron of Krakow and the symbol of Polish unity.
By 1908 they built the second church, today’s basilica. On our recent visit, my wife, Mary, and I considered the sacrifices those immigrants made to build this grand brownstone edifice as a testimony to their faith. At 102 years old, it looks as impressive as it surely did back then.
The Baroque Revival church with its lofty twin towers is administered by the Franciscans, the Order of Friars Minor Conventual who have led the parish since 1902.
John Paul II named St. Stanislaus a basilica during the parish centennial in 1991. Today’s 2,700 parish families know quite well this is an inspiring place to pray and worship.
Turning Hearts to God
In the vestibule a life-size crucifix and a wide kneeler surely inspire many to pause in thanks to our Savior. The sets of inner glass doors etched with symbols of the sacraments give a preview of the magnificent interior.
The beauty turns hearts to God. There is abundant liturgical art, decoration and symbols in the bright nave, which seats more than 800. Like a spiritual magnet, the sanctuary draws our attention. The Blessed Sacrament is contained in a central tabernacle within an absolutely beautiful reredos.
Soaring high into the apse’s semidome, this monumental reredos is of wood but decorated in a beautiful marbleized finish that matches the Sienna marble in the church. It also highlights Polish and Franciscan heritage, first in the San Damiano crucifix above the tabernacle, then higher above as our Blessed Mother is reverenced in a painting of Our Lady of Czestochowa, who is the Queen of Poland, a central part of Polish Marian spirituality.
This particular icon was painted in Czestochowa, touched to the original miraculous icon at Jasna Gora, and blessed by John Paul II. This Black Madonna wears a crown made of jewels that were donated by many parishioners. Bishop Joseph Maguire of Springfield crowned Our Lady during the centennial celebration. Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, 77th successor of St. Stanislaus as archbishop of Krakow, also attended the centennial.
Above this icon on this restored original altar is a statue of St. Stanislaus. It is one of the newer hand-carved statues that replace the originals, which now hold places of honor in the basilica’s lower church.
In the dome Mary is presented in a mural again as Our Lady of Czestochowa, attended by tall angels, and as the Immaculate Heart.
Shrines occupy either end of the sanctuary. In one, Mary holds the Child Jesus, who cradles the Earth in one hand and blesses with the other. In the other shrine, there’s a statue of Christ with his hand raised.
The beauty provides much to meditate on.
The large Stations of the Cross sculpted in high relief and painted in detail draw us to walk along with Jesus on his journey to Calvary.
Two added “stations” are surprises: They appear on either side closest to the sanctuary. The first depicts the Last Supper; the other, following the 14th Station, shows us the Presentation of Mary in the Temple. Their position is key: They symmetrically balance the other stations and relate the importance of the Sacrifice of the Mass and the honor given Mary.
Along the nave huge stained-glass windows bring artistic life to parables, Rosary mysteries and saints, while wondrous murals cover the lofty, curved ceiling.
Surrounded by Saints
Two of the murals framed in gold are like “openings” that give us views into celestial skies on either side of the central mural of St. Stanislaus glorified in heaven. Angels and the Evangelists surround this 11th-century martyr, while men and women pay him honor. Stanislaus was born of royal parents near Krakow and became a noted preacher, spiritual advisor and reformer. When he denounced King Boleslaus the Bold’s many injustices and cruelties and excommunicated him, the king killed Stanislaus with his own hands while he was saying Mass.
The stained-glass windows along the clerestory present Our Lady of Sorrows and the Suffering Christ, “Ecce Homo,” and highlight other Polish saints: St. Adelbert, martyr and archbishop of Prague; St. Stanislaus Kostka, patron of youth; St. Casimir; St. John Cantius (Kanty), patron of Poland and Lithuania; St. Hedwig, aristocratic wife and mother and later cloistered nun; and Blessed Bronislawa, cousin of St. Hyacinth.
Human-sized angels and elaborate pastels of swags and urns cascading with flowers decorate the clerestory like a heavenly garden.
Along the first level the superlative Mayer stained-glass windows from Munich draw us into highly detailed biblical scenes and parables: Adoration of the Infant Jesus by the Shepherds, the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.
In each, everyone’s expression looks both human and supernatural. We contemplated the splendor of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the crowning of Mary, then did the same for the spectacular Ascension with a gentle yet mighty Jesus and a radiant Blessed Mother.
The spacious lower basilica chapel is where weekday Masses, confessions and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament take place.
Huge angels originally placed in the upper basilica greeted us as we entered, along with St. Anthony, St. Joseph and St. Anne with Mary.
In the sanctuary, over the tabernacle, the San Damiano crucifix announces this is a Franciscan basilica, and Mary is venerated and honored as Our Lady of Guadalupe in a replica of her wondrous image that was woven in great detail by nuns in Tepeyac.
To either side, the large-than-life-sized original Blessed Mother and Sacred Heart statues from the main church watch over the flock attending services or stopping for a visit.
Like parishioners and other pilgrims, we were awed by more than 60 first-class relics displayed for veneration. Among them are relics of the true cross, several apostles, popes, the basilica’s patron, Sts. Anne, Paul, Stephen, Luke, Martha, Mary Magdalene, Anthony, Francis, Joseph of Cupertino, Philip Neri, Augustine, Maximilian Kolbe and Faustina.
St. Faustina reminds us that in the upstairs nave there is a new mural shrine of Divine Mercy.
But this church is foremost a reminder of Stanislaus’ unwavering love for the Church in carrying out his duties. He had, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1586, notes of all bishops, “the grace to guide and defend his Church with strength and prudence as a father and pastor, with gratuitous love for all and a preferential love for the poor, the sick, and the needy. This grace impels him to proclaim the Gospel to all, to be the model for his flock, to go before it on the way of sanctification by identifying himself in the Eucharist with Christ the priest and victim, not fearing to give his life for his sheep.”
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
Basilica of St. Stanislaus
566 Front St.
The basilica is near major highway junctions in the large metropolitan area of western Massachusetts. Visit the website for times of many daily and Sunday Masses, other events and information.