Building Faith and Freedom

How Immigrants Founded America’s Beautiful Churches


When Catholic immigrants began arriving in America, they found themselves in a predominantly Protestant country, with few Catholic churches to welcome them.

But they worked hard to build up the Catholic faith, one parish at a time, in the United States.

July 4 should be a good reminder of these immigrants’ achievements for the Church in this nation.

"It’s an amazing story of our forbearers, many of whom came over as poor immigrants and blue-collar workers yet were able to build beautiful buildings for the faith," architect and author Duncan Stroik reflected.

"They had a priority on the Church and the sacraments and did the best they could to give to that."


Labor of Love

With literally nickels and dimes, they built many magnificent churches that still stand today.

While "not every nice building was built by the pennies and dimes of steelworkers and widows," Stroik said — citing how Thomas Fortune Ryan, one of the wealthiest men in 19th-century America, built St. Jean Baptiste Church in New York City — "the ethnic churches were paid for more by the mass of humanity" than anyone else.

Take, for example, the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ansonia, Conn. In 1889, hardworking immigrants, mostly Irish, began building their town’s first Catholic church. After laboring 12 hours a day in the town foundries, they would then labor for God. The church was dedicated in 1907.

Similarly, when the first small chapels of the German immigrant families had to be replaced as the population grew in St. Benedict, Kan., the German immigrant families, joined by some Irish, began building the present St. Mary’s Church in 1891.

Examples like this abound across America. Visitors are often awed and overwhelmed by the beauty of these churches, some of which were later named basilicas, like the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier in Dyersville, Iowa, which was built in 1888 and is one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in that part of the nation.

The same was happening in major cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as the Polish, Italians, Irish, Slovaks, Germans and other nationalities built churches to rival their Old World counterparts.


Neighborhood Ties

These were neighborhood churches, pointed out Stroik, a professor at the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture. "It was part of their identity."

"In the sense, they were saying, ‘I’m Polish, and we’re building a Polish church,’ or ‘I’m Italian, and we’re building an Italian church,’ or ‘I’m Irish, and we’re building an Irish church.’"

He added that they all meant: "It is our house of God, and we’re doing the best we can."

He mentioned several examples of such ethnic parishes. St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Chicago was the first Polish parish in that city. Founded in 1867, the parish dedicated its new church edifice in 1881.

The church was not only monumental in size, easily seating 1,500, but enormous in congregation. The Polish Genealogical Society reports that, by 1892, it became the largest Polish parish in the world, with 8,000 families. A year later, St. John Cantius Church was founded to ease the overcrowding.

St. Stanislaus Kostka is built in what’s called the "Polish Cathedral" style, with elaborate architectural and artistic ornamentations, as are several other churches in Chicago and the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions. St. Stanislaus is also home to a Shrine of the Divine Mercy.


Profound Design

Elsewhere, in cases like Our Lady of Pompeii Church in New York City, the style was Italian.

More than 700 churches, including 26 cathedrals — many now landmarks — were designed by Brooklynite Patrick Charles Keely, who emigrated from Tipperary, Ireland, and became the most prolific architect of Catholic churches in America in the last half of the 19th century. Keely was dedicated to his work due to his personal faith — he was a daily communicant.

The Church of the Assumption in Ansonia and St. Mary’s Church, the first Catholic church in New Haven, Conn., are among his designs.

These churches have beautiful ornamentation from some of the best designers in Europe: St. Stanislaus Kostka has windows by F.X. Zettler, and St. Mary’s in St. Benedict, Kan., has windows by Franz Mayer of Munich; St. Mary’s in New Haven’s Rosary windows were done by Tyrolean Glassworks of Innsbruck, Austria.


Saintly Pride

Whether in windows, statuary or paintings, the immigrant churches also brought to mind, and continue to bring to mind, saints venerated by each ethnicity.

One of the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier’s stained-glass windows is dedicated to the parish’s patron saint, but with an unexpected twist. After being told that the 16th-century saint was a missionary preaching to the Indians, the artist showed Francis Xavier not in India, but among the American Indians.

The artistry in this church — which is in the same town as the baseball diamond from Field of Dreams — is majestic, right down to the recently restored early 20th-century decorative painting, walnut crucifix carved by a 19th-century parishioner and a mid-19th-century wood-carved statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Other statues of saints include Frances Xavier Cabrini, who passed through Dyersville at one point in her life, and St. Isidore, the patron of farmers — fitting for a farming community.

St. Mary’s in Kansas honors Sts. Boniface and Patrick on huge reredos, in order to reflect the parish’s German and Irish roots.

Polish saints abound too, such as at St. Stanislaus Kostka, where the painting above the altar shows the Blessed Mother putting the Infant Jesus into the arms of the parish’s patron saint. The painting was done by Tadeusz Zukotynski, who moved to Chicago when he was already known as one of Europe’s chief painters of religious subjects.

His work graces St. John Cantius Church too, including paintings of several Polish saints.

Stroik explained of these ethnic-saint lessons, "If we’re not of that ethnicity, we learn about those saints."

These churches continue to reflect new immigrants. Often, Our Lady of Guadalupe enters when Mexican or Latino immigrants become part of the parish. "That enriches all our lives," Stroik said.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is at the heart of the 225th anniversary this year of the United States’ first Catholic cathedral, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and establishment of the first diocese in Baltimore.

Overall, Stroik affirms, "The church buildings reflect the universality of our faith, but also the more local, regional and ethnic characteristics — all of who we are."

Joseph Pronchen is a

Register staff writer.


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