Our Lady Queen of Poland/St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish is a paradox. Erected as a national parish in 1983 to serve the Archdiocese of Washington’s Polish-American community, it is very young for a Polish ethnic parish. (Most Polish parishes date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the first wave of Polish immigrants arrived on America’s shores between 1880 and 1920.) On the other hand, the roots of the church itself go back to the beginnings of American Catholic history. The building stands in Forest Glen, part of the city of Silver Spring, Md., where Father John Carroll regularly celebrated Mass before becoming the first Catholic bishop in the United States in 1789. Telling this church’s history, then, requires bringing two stories together.
A mission church was established in Forest Glen, which, after Father Carroll’s episcopal consecration, came under Jesuit care. When St. Mary’s Church was established in nearby Rockville in 1813, the Forest Glen church became its mission. A new chapel was built in 1850, when it formally became St. John’s Church.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Father Charles Rosensteel refocused attention on the church’s connection to John Carroll. Father Rosensteel shepherded construction of the current stone church to completion in 1894. He then became pastor of the new church, serving until his retirement in 1936. His mortal remains rest in the adjacent graveyard, but his memory lives on in two ways: The street on which St. John’s stands was named Rosensteel Avenue, and the local Knights of Columbus council is the Father Rosensteel Council.
The church building today hosts two parishes. A new church for St. John the Evangelist parish was built in 1962, about a mile away on Georgia Avenue. While most of the parish’s liturgical activities now occur there, the Sunday vigil Mass at 5:30pm Saturdays is still celebrated at the old St. John’s.
Arrival of the Poles
And then came the Poles.
Unlike other cities in the Northeast and Midwest, Washington never had a large local Polish-American community. Poles settled in places like Chicago, Detroit and New Jersey because they were close to the booming factories of the Industrial Revolution. Washington, however, has always been a government-dominated town, which still gives the local Polish community a specific and distinctive character: There are government employees, people concerned with research and policy-making, and the Polish Embassy that includes practicing Catholics on its staff.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Washington Polonia would assemble in various places ad hoc to celebrate events like Polish Constitution Day (which is also the feast of Mary, Queen of Poland on May 3) and the millennium of Polish Christianity. Father Phil Majka, currently at St. James in Falls Church, Va., and chaplain at Washington Dulles International Airport, was often the driving force uniting Washington’s Polish Catholics. Two visits by a Polish bishop, however, would change the course of that community.
Future Pope Visits
In 1969 and again in 1976, then-Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow visited the United States. His trip included Washington’s Polish community, where discussion of the need for a permanent form of pastoral care took place. Archbishop Wojtyla raised the issue with Washington’s Cardinal William Baum, who started a Polish Mission in 1977, entrusting it to the Society of Christ, a Polish religious order dedicated to pastoral service to the Polish diaspora abroad. Eventually, the mission began seeking a permanent venue where the community could celebrate Mass. Two places were suggested: the university chapel at Trinity College in northeast Washington and old St. John’s in Silver Spring. The Poles chose St. John’s. The mission began regularly celebrating Mass there in 1977, and, in 1983, the mission became a parish.
St. Maximilian Kolbe was chosen as a co-patron of the parish after Pope John Paul II canonized the martyr in 1982. Father Kolbe gave his life for a fellow prisoner in Auschwitz.
He was murdered by lethal injection on Aug. 14, 1941, after spending 15 days without food or water in the camp’s starvation bunker. Mary, Queen of Poland is the other patroness, because Poles in 1983 celebrated the 300th anniversary of King John Sobieski’s victory over the Turks in Vienna. Prior to that pivotal triumph, the king had prayed before the Black Madonna in Czestochowa, who had been declared Queen of Poland in 1656.
Our Lady Queen of Poland is a dynamic parish where Washington Polonia gathers to celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday (at 10am and noon, with a traditional Latin Mass at 8am). The external marks of the Polish community are relatively limited: an icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, a painting of St. Maximilian Kolbe, and a banner depicting Pope John Paul II. Otherwise, the church retains the historical ambience Father Rosensteel gave it in the 19th century.
What makes the parish Polish, however, is its Catholic community. Poles gather on Sundays from across Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Mass is accompanied by traditional Polish devotions (such as singing “Bitter Lamentations” during Lent) and activities (such as the visit of St. Nicholas to school children in Advent). Advent and Lenten retreats are regularly available. And one never knows — especially around Polish national holidays like May 3 (for Mary, Queen of Poland) and Polish Independence Day (Nov. 11) — when you might see Lech Walesa, co-founder of the Polish Solidarity movement, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Polish president, at prayer.
There’s no mad rush from the parking lot on Sundays. The community typically stays around in the rectory basement for coffee and news. It’s not unusual for the kids to be up in the living room of the rectory, watching a good film supplied by the pastor, or climbing one of the trees outside the rectory. “A guest in the house is God in the house,” says a Polish motto, and that’s certainly true of this parish, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2008.
Our Lady Queen of Poland is a church with roots in the American past and one that celebrates the vitality of America’s immigrant heritage in the present.
John M. Grondelski writes
from Bern, Switzerland.
Our Lady Queen of Poland/St. Maximilian Kolbe
9700 Rosensteel Ave.
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Take Exit 31B (Georgia Avenue) off the Washington Beltway towards Wheaton. Turn left at the second light (Forest Glen Road), continue to Rosensteel Avenue, and make a right. Or take the Metro’s Red Line to Forest Glen (station on corner of Georgia Avenue and Forest Glen Road) and walk up Forest Glen one half mile as above.