HISTORY > Polish Community in Canada > Ontario

The sections with * were originally written by William Makowski, but the order of cities was alphabetized to encourage the addition of other regions' histories by other historians.

Ontario: A Century of Courage and Tenacity

History of Ontarian Cities
Niagara Peninsula

History of Kashoubs of Renfrew
History of Kashoubs in Ontario
Their Religion
Retaining the Old Traditions
The Renfrew Area Today

History of Ontarian Cities


Situated at the western corner of Lake Ontario, Hamilton was destined to become a large Canadian city. The mouth of the bay, separating an excellent small harbour from the rest of Lake Ontario, provided near-perfect conditions for the many industries which clustered along its southern shores. Access to the Great Lakes and to land routes, and the proximity of raw materials, prompted a huge steel company to choose it as the capital of the Canadian steel and iron industry.

It expanded rapidly and is still one of eastern Canada’s growing cities. At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, Hamilton was only a small provincial town. Farms extended almost to its heart. Notoriously poor transportation facilities and a capricious climate deterred settlers.

The first Polish settlers probably arrived in the 1890s. These dozen or so immigrants possibly came from the United States but nothing else is known about them. The first known Polish family in Hamilton was that of Frank and Anna Bielakowicz. Other families from more or less the same period are the Mosakowskis and the Brills. The growth of the city’s Polish population dates from the establishment of the International Harvester Company (then Dering's Implements), which employed Polish workers.

A solid, honest, hard-working Pole was an asset to the newly started firms, and the companies endeavoured to hold onto them. Dering’s Implements tried to help the Polish immigrants build their own church, though nothing came of it. Many of these first workers had migrated from Chicago to Hamilton and some made the return trip after a few years.

The second immigration phase in Hamilton began around 1911. These immigrants came mostly from Poland and remained permanently. The growing community did not yet have its own church; masses were celebrated in St. Ann’s Catholic Church by Anglo-Saxon or German priests. The Hamilton diocesan authorities granted permission for the establishment of the first Polish church, St. Stanislaus Church, in December 1911. The first Polish pastor was Rev. Thomas Tarasiuk from Kitchener, and by 1912 the church had been built at a cost of $30,000; when one considers its size and beauty, it is difficult to believe that it was built by such a small, impoverished group. Father Tarasiuk, the mainspring, could in many ways be compared with those early Scottish, English and Irish churchmen who followed the first Canadian settlers. Like them, he understood that the community's survival depended on its spiritual and moral well-being. Like them, he had to build God's house from nothing, often against tremendous odds. Then one focuses on their flocks, uneducated and inexperienced in community life, the difficulties faced by these early pastors loom large. Father Tarasiuk conquered all the troubles associated with such endeavours: criticism, lack of spontaneous support, lack of money.

The beginning of World War I worsened their situation in Canada because, as was the case in Toronto and Montreal, Poles were considered “enemies” of Canada. It became absolutely necessary to form their own organization for mutual aid and to defend themselves against discrimination by Canadian administrators and employers. It also became obvious that more and more Poles would have to establish their own businesses if they were to obtain economic independence.

One of the first Polish commercial establishments in Hamilton was Joseph and Mari, Stemski's general store on Gerrard Street, which later became a confectionery store, and then a butcher shop; it was recently sold by the Stemski family. A Polish cinema, a dairy, a hotel and other businesses also sprang up.

The first welfare organization, the Mutual Benefit Society of St. Stanislaus Kostka, was established in 1912. By 1950 it had three branches in Hamilton and one in Brantford. Its primary aim was to help members during sickness and unemployment, but its first important work was the organization of a library and, in 1915, a night school for new immigrants where English was taught. It showed great interest in spreading and developing culture in Hamilton’s Polish community. The Bialy Orzel Orchestra, the celebration of national holidays, children’s education, a theatre and choirs were only a few of its cultural activities.

In 1917 the Mutual Benefit Society was ready to start building its own centre, financed by its members, who became shareholders and thus enabled the society to collect the capital it needed. The centre became the nucleus of Polish activities in the city. It was here that meetings were held, weddings and national holidays celebrated and artistic performances staged. Several related organizations–the athletic organization, a choir, orchestra, dramatic club, the Polish Businessmen's Association, the Polish Veterans and the Polish Women's Club—used the centre’s facilities.

The Mutual Benefit Society of St. Stanislaus Kostka also actively supported the Polish Council. The Polish Council had been organized in Toronto to prevent the harassment of Canadian residents of Polish origin considered by Canadian authorities as “allies of Austria and Germany in 1914 and thus enemies of the Coalition.” With the support of the Mutual Benefit Society, the Polish Council achieved the release of Poles interned in Canada and was permitted to issue personal documents with which those who wished to leave Canada could receive visas. Thus, until the arrival of the recognized Polish envoys, the Council was authorized to act for them in Canada.

With the arrival of more immigrants, mainly veterans, after World War I, new ideas were brought in and new organizations were formed that further enriched the community’s life.

In 1928 Hamilton’s Polish businessmen formed their own organization, the Association of Polish Businessmen and Manufacturers, its aim to promote trade between Canada and Poland and to aid the development of Polish-owned businesses. It is credited with sparking the formation of businessmen’s groups in other cities, eventually leading to the Poles’ economic betterment in Canada.

In 1932 the Polish-Hamiltonian Citizens Club was established to help members obtain Canadian citizenship and to render any other assistance that might be needed. It was followed by the Polish singing club Hejnal (established in 1936 by S. Dudzic, W. Dubiel, S. Mazur and J.K. Flis), the Association of the Polish Youth Club at the Polish parish and the Polish Youth Club of Juliusz Slowacki, aimed at helping the young and promoting culture and sports. Branch 2 of the Polish Alliance emphasized mutual help for its members.

From its beginnings, St. Stanislaus Parish had seen a succession of pastors from the Congregation of the Resurrection, including Fathers K. Guziel, J. Ratajczak, J. Bednarek and W. Bartylak. It eventually acquired a great preacher and patriot, Father Jozef Capiga, C.R.

The son of Polish immigrants from Chicago, educated in Poland and America, this priest excelled in leadership, which was badly needed by the Polish community in 1949. The older immigrants who belonged to the St. Stanislaus Mutual Benefit Society and the Polish Veterans of America and others greeted with hostility the postwar newcomers arriving in great numbers from a different social and cultural background. Unable to fit into the existing Polish organizations, the newcomers began to organize their own, such as the Polish Combatants Association and Polish ex-Air Force Association, and considerable competition developed between them and the older immigrants.

The pastor’s role, as conceived by Father Capiga, was to unite and reconcile the opposing groups and to harness them to a common cause. In addition to this obviously delicate task, Father Capiga desired to redecorate and improve the church’s interior and exterior.

He achieved both aims. The Polish community in Hamilton is now considered a unified, active whole. And the church is one of the most beautiful of the Polish churches in Canada.


The first Polish settlers in the Berlin (later Kitchener) area arrived as early as 1872-1873. Sailing records found in the Public Archives in Ottawa mention the names of several 1880 settlers: Albert Rakowski, Franz Rajewski, William Pollakowski, Josef and Stanislaw Nowak, Friedrich Manowski, Christian Madalinski, Friedrich Kaminski and many others. They came from Poznan province, at that time occupied by the Prussians. Because they spoke German, Canadian authorities directed them to Berlin, Ontario, at that time a predominantly German settlement. These officials evidently knew little about the antagonism and animosity between the two ethnic groups.

Pushing eastward in Europe, the Germans had annexed Polish territories and had begun to expropriate Polish farms and businesses. Germanization of these territories reached its peak in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the German Drang Hach Osten (Push Eastward) took its ugliest form. The best farmlands were taken away and the Polish farmers had either to move to the cities and become industrial workers, to serve on their own farms as hired hands for their German masters or to emigrate.

Having tasted economic, political and religious persecution, the group of Poles who arrived in Berlin, Ontario, at the end of the nineteenth century were determined to keep their identity and preserve their religion. Finding themselves in a new country, again mostly among Germans, they felt an immediate need to form a Polish organization and to build their own church.

The Mutual Benefit Society of St. Joseph, founded in Berlin in 1886, is the first known Polish organization in Canada. It was established under the leadership of Brother Idzi Tarasiewicz of the Resurrection Order, who was studying theology at Berlin’s St. Heronim School. He became the spiritual adviser to the Polish settlers. At the time the Poles were served by Polish priests but mass was celebrated in a German church and Brother Tarasiewicz would follow up with sermons in Polish. In an effort to shake off German control, the Poles decided to start their own church.

The organized life of the Polish parish actually began in 1904 when Father Paul Sobczak became the pastor. Among other contributions, he recorded events in Berlin’s Polish community. From his notes, it appears that in December 1904, Father Kloepfer, pastor of the German parish, summoned three Poles and verbally agreed:

  1. To assign Father Sobczak as pastor of the Polish community.
  2. To give the Poles the use of a chapel beneath his own church.
  3. To turn his own church over to the Poles providing they would help build him a new one. (This never happened.)

The Poles in turn agreed:

  1. To pay $200 annually for the maintenance of their priest.
  2. To pay $100 annual rent for the right to use the chapel in the German church.
  3. To donate, in envelopes, monthly collections for the purpose of building the German church.

The chapel could hold only 60 persons but it was better than nothing. The parishioners maintained it and managed a small stipend for their pastor. Soon organizations, such as the choir and the Rosary Society, were established in close cooperation with the parish.

So the Polish community managed until 1911 when three lots were purchased on Agnes Street for $725. In 1912 they were sold and a new one purchased at Shanley and Sharon streets. It took four tedious years to build the church but by July 1916 the Poles were able to celebrate their first mass there.

A rapid increase in the number of Poles in this town was seen by 1913, and in June 1913 the much-needed Mutual Benefit Association of St. John Cantius was established. Besides providing mutual aid, this society promoted temperance.

Removed from the traditional rules of society and thrown into a different environment, same immigrants, especially the young ones, failed to maintain a healthy moral code. Drinking and fighting were common and undermined the good name of the Polish group. The booming town enabled many to attain financial independence but also opened many doors to the temptations of an industrial town. The Mutual Benefit Association of St. John Cantius probably did a good job of reducing these problems–its membership grew steadily.

When World War I broke out, some Poles joined either the Canadian army or the Polish army being formed at Niagara-on-the-Lake and in the United States. After the war many of these veterans returned to Canada and settled in Berlin, renamed Kitchener in 1916.

The Polish immigrants formed two other associations: the Citizens Club, aimed at helping the parish financially, and the Drama Club, which helped broaden interests. Both ceased to exist by 1930. After World War II new Polish immigrants, mainly former soldiers of the Polish army and displaced persons, settled in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. In 1961 the total number of Poles in Kitchener reached 3,547 and in Waterloo, 518. Kitchener’s rapidly growing manufacturing industries easily absorbed these newcomers, who soon achieved a certain amount of material security.

As elsewhere they quickly organized themselves into several societies, the most important of which is no doubt the Royal Canadian Legion, Polish Branch 412. This branch, by virtue of its closer contacts with the rest of Canadian society than other Polish associations had, became a spearhead in the Polish group’s integration in Kitchener.


The rapidly developing towns of Fort William and Port Arthur, today Thunder Bay, attracted many Poles. Employed at the grain elevators, in shipping and on the railroads, they steadily grew in number.

“Before the First World War,” writes an old Polish immigrant, Marcell Kasowski, in the Polish Voice, March 27, 1952, “the immigrants from Poland were mostly young single men who were coming to Fort William for a short time. Their objective was to earn $200 or $300 and to go back to Poland as soon as possible. Some, however, stayed longer, two or three years. Those with families tried to establish themselves permanently. Still, even those who decided to stay for good, did not forget their old country, Poland, and often referred to Canada as ‘that Siberia’ . . . After the First World War, some of them returned to Poland, paying (or rather overpaying) for their passage as much as $500 per person.”

Nevertheless Polish immigration to Fort William and Port Arthur, the twin cities, increased considerably after World War I. In 1921 a Polish church was built in Fort William with Father B. Furmanek, a Czech, as its first pastor. In 1931-1932 a new Polish pastor, Father Gurek, almost lost his parish to the Polish National church, a splinter religious group, because he had been overly critical of his parishioners. The situation was eventually put under control and the Roman Catholic parish survived. But the parish alone was insufficient for these Polish settlers and in 1928 they formed a lay organization, the Polish Mutual Benefit Society. By 1930 it had 140 members and was able to buy an old Orthodox church for $1,000. This church, on St. Paul Street, became the Polish community’s centre. After 1930, either by lending it money or by contributing their labour, members renovated it to such a degree that in a few years the building could accommodate all the Poles in the twin cities.

The society organized a Polish language school and successfully repulsed the attempts of subversive elements, mainly Communists, which tried to infiltrate its ranks. Teachers who were Communists were not permitted to teach in these Polish schools. The society also tried to help Poland materially, becoming a link between the old country and Canada.

In 1931 the Club of Polish Veterans was formed from members of the Polish army. In addition to these two organizations, the Polish Alliance Association established Branch 19 in 1942.


The first Polish settlers arrived in London sometime after 1900 and by 1905 numbered five families. Their lack of English forced them to perform menial work with average earnings of $6.00 weekly, which was lower than the London average.

However, their hard work, honesty and reliability overcame the prejudice of their employers and they were soon regarded as assets. Some managed to save enough money to buy their own farms, thus gaining a certain amount of economic independence.

The records show that by 1914 there were at least 40 Poles in London. They were joined by another group who arrived between 1927 and 1930; by 1939 they numbered at least 180.

These immigrants faced the same problems as their counterparts in larger Canadian settlements. Nostalgia for the old country, estrangement from the rest of Canadian society and economic problems prompted them to unite in a national organization. The London group perhaps had an advantage in its organizational efforts, having as models groups in Toronto, Hamilton and Montreal.

London’s first Polish association, the Brotherhood of Mutual Benefit of the Sons of Poland, established in 1920, was not unlike the Polish organizations of Toronto or Montreal. Mutual help, maintaining national characteristics and preserving Catholicism were, as in other cities, its main aims.

In 1925 the association changed its name to the Polish Club, and in 1930 received a charter under a third name, the Polish National Association. By then it had enough members and money to build a hall on Hill Street, which witnesses said was truly a community effort; members donated many days and nights of free labour.

The Polish Women’s Club was established in 1935, and during World War II it collected $750 for the Red Cross, in addition to sending food and clothing parcels to Poland.

More or less following the pattern in other larger cities, the next step was the formation of the community’s own parish. Constant requests to London’s Catholic ecclesiastical authorities for Polish priests began when the first Poles settled there. St. Mary’s Church on York and Lyle streets allotted some space for the Polish parishioners and masses were celebrated by Polish priests from Toronto, Kitchener and the United States. But the services were irregular, separated by frequent long intervals, until 1954 when the Polish church was finally built.

The building and consecration of Our Lady of Czestochowa was closely connected with its first pastor, Rev. Frank F. Pluta, a Polish refugee-priest whom the war had uprooted and buffeted around the world as it did many Polish priests who eventually settled in Canada. Born in 1905 in Kocin, Poland, he had been ordained in 1932 and, after a short period of teaching, moved to France. Returning to Poland in 1936, he was appointed parish pastor in Janowa Gora.

During World War II he was arrested by Soviet police and deported to the Soviet Union -where, like thousands of other Poles, he spent two miserable years in a concentration camp. Cutting trees in the Russian taiga, he was particularly ill treated, both as a Pole and as a priest.

Released in October 1941, as a result of the Polish-Russian Treaty, Father Pluta joined the Polish army in the Soviet Union. He was entrusted with the care of Polish orphans, whom he followed to the city of Jamnagar in India, where he organized schools, clubs, reading rooms and hospitals, and where he remained until 1946; he immigrated to the United States to find a means of transferring his orphan charges there, and eventually succeeded. He worked in several American parishes until his transfer to London, Ontario, in March 1953.

Under the leadership of such an experienced priest, the development of Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish was speedy and highly successful. Father Pluta’s work and dedication to Christian ideas were recognized by the hierarchy, and on the basis of a recommendation by the Very Reverend J. Cody, the Catholic bishop of London, he was appointed domestic prelate of His Holiness Pius XII in April 1956, a recognition, also, of the Polish community in London.


The exact date of the arrival of the first Polish settlers in the Niagara Peninsula is unknown. The first records, dating from 1913, indicate that by that time, a considerable number already lived in the area. They began arriving about 1910 and were employed as labourers in the construction of the Welland Canal. Rough estimates put between 100 and 150 Polish families in this area in 1914-1915.

After the completion of the Welland Canal, they either settled on farms or became industrial workers in St. Catharines or Crowland.

Those who chose the city life of St. Catharines settled in the area of the present Niagara and Garnet streets. The records of the St. Peter and Paul (Polish) Church in Crowland show a long list of Poles in that community.

Until 1914 the Polish settlers attended St. Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral in St. Catharines. In 1914, when their numbers had swelled sufficiently, their own masses were said in the basement of the church. Records of the numerous baptisms and marriages held over the years reflect early friendly contacts between that church and the Polish community. Such contacts continue to the present day, though the Polish community has had its own church since 1914.

In that year the number of Poles in the Niagara and Garnet streets area warranted the establishment of a Polish parish. At the time, a small wooden church known as St. Joseph’s Mission stood on Currie Street. Established as early as 1886, it served first the Irish and later the Italian community. At the turn of the century the number of Italians decreased (they tended to move to more industrialized centres such as Hamilton and Toronto) and the church was sold to the Polish community for $800.
The first Polish pastor of the newly established parish, dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, was Rev. Boleslaw Sperski. This energetic priest not only organized the parish but also built the foundations for the organizational life of the Polish community in the Niagara Peninsula.

After clearing and repairing the building, he was able to say the first holy mass in August 1914. In 1915 an old house behind the church was purchased for a rectory. Unfortunately, because of a considerable migration of Poles from St. Catharines to Toronto, where it was easier to find employment, and because of internal friction among the remaining parishioners, the parish practically disintegrated and became inactive until 1929. However, the arrival of immigrants after World War I once more revitalized the parish. In 1929 Rev. W. Gulczynski reorganized the parish and made a strong bid to keep it active.

Under his direction a modest hall was built beside the church in 1930 for social, cultural and parochial activities.

Because some Italian and English families lived near the Polish church, especially during the pastorate of Father E.J. Olszewicz in the early 1930s, the impression was created that the parish was there to serve all Catholics, regardless of nationality. When Father E. Lacey, an English-speaking pastor who knew no Polish, was named to the parish in 1936 the parishioners were greatly dissatisfied; they wanted a Polish-speaking priest. The situation was amended in 1937 when the Reverend Col. J.J. Dekowski was named pastor. A former officer in the Polish forces during World War I, he was known for his thunderous voice. “He scared ... out of us during his sermons,” recalls one of the old-timers. “In fact, half the church’s front benches were usually unoccupied so as not to be first in the line of attack.”

The beginning of World War II was a time of considerable industrial growth in the Niagara Peninsula in general, and in St. Catharines in particular. The area received a tremendous influx of European immigrants, among whom there were a great many Poles. In the years of Father Dekowski’s pastorate, the parish grew in numbers and wealth. After his death in 1949 and the very short pastorate of the English-speaking Father F.S. Mahoney, the parish was placed under the jurisdiction of the Oblate Fathers of St. Mary’s Province.

The first pastor named was Rev. S. Baderski, O.M.I., who stayed only two months. Rev. W. Golecki, O.M.I., succeeded him.

This period from 1949 until 1954 encompassed the parish’s greatest development. In 1950 missions for Polish- and English-speaking parishioners were organized, and the parish bought six acres of land adjacent to what is now Oblate Street. On January 17, 1951, Cardinal McGuigan of Toronto ruled that the parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was to be a national (Polish) parish and was to serve primarily the Poles in the St. Catharines area.

The Felician Sisters, who had only occasionally sent their members to St. Catharines, now settled permanently in this community.

The influx of post-World War II Poles, especially of former servicemen, required that a larger, more modern church be built. In June 1951, sod was turned at Oblate and Garnet streets. Construction was speedy and the parishioners were able to attend Christmas services in the new church the same year.

By 1953 a new rectory had been built on Oblate Street to serve about 500 Polish families who became members. A Felician convent was built on the same street, and in 1954 the parish grounds were converted into the Shrine of Our Lady and a beautiful grotto was created.

Father Golecki was transferred to western Canada and was replaced by Father Wojciech Golus, who completed the church, both the exterior and the interior, in 1958. Semi-Gothic in style, with the capacity to hold 600 people, it is a source of pride today.

Father Golus, who departed for Vancouver, was succeeded by Father W. Panek in 1961 and Father P.J. Klita in 1965, who arranged for the painting of the church’s stained-glass windows with a beautiful Polish historical motif.


The first, large group of Poles settled in Toronto in 1870. In 1901 there were 2,918 of them in Ontario. By 1911 they had increased to 19,631 and, aside from the community in the Renfrew area, many established themselves in Toronto.

In the publication “Golden Jubilee of the Polish Alliance,” Alfons Jan Staniewski, former editor of the Polish Alliancer, wrote on his arrival in Toronto in 1905, “The Polish community[in Toronto] was small, not exceeding five hundred. The majority of them were single or those who had to leave their wives and families in the old country.”

It should be added that the majority were peasants, the forerunners of many more to come. They left small farms in Poland upon which they could not decently support their families. Some sold their small holdings with the aim of coming to Canada and remaining permanently. Others nursed in their hearts the silent hope that they would one day be able to return to the fatherland with some capital. Some did manage to return, bringing with them not only money but also fantastic stories about Canada and the great opportunities it offered. Such “Canadians” were highly regarded and attended to by the small farmers in Poland.

Canada was often depicted as a country where money was literally lying on the streets. It is hardly surprising that they were envied by their listeners, who as soon as the opportunity presented itself, emigrated themselves.

Where many of those early Poles lived in Toronto is not known as there was not, as yet, a sell-defined ghetto. Some Polish homeowners, however, concentrated along Centre, Dundas and Bathurst streets. Others were located in the area which is today “New Toronto.” This group was probably employed by the railway companies and metalwork factories. A decade later, Queen Street, west of Spading to Dufferin, became a ghetto of Toronto’s Polish community.

The formation of immigrant ghettos is a well-known North American sociological phenomenon and can be understood as a self-defence mechanism employed against the difficulties of a new environment. To begin with there was the problem of accommodation. A Bangle immigrant had no difficulty finding a room, but a family man's situation and needs were different. He often had to adjust to an urban life entirely unlike his village environment. The Anglo-Saxon landlord was unaccustomed to the immigrant’s strange, often peculiar customs. And when a family man had saved enough money to buy a house, he usually could afford one only in a rundown section. The Queen Street area had, and even now has, many homes he could afford.

The ownership of even a small, dilapidated house led to a certain amount of independence and security. Besides the obvious economic advantage, there was also the psychological one of owning a house in an area inhabited by immigrants, which dulled feelings of estrangement and conferred the inner security so necessary to survival.
Over the years the Queen Street area has changed owners. The former Anglo-Saxon inhabitants were slowly replaced by Jewish immigrants. Jewish settlement there dates many years back and by 1900 was gaining numbers. It was easier for the Poles to settle among people whom they knew rather well.

It was soon obvious, however, that the ghetto alone could not meet the needs of these people for whom there was as yet no place in Canadian society. A young immigrant wrote his father in Poland: “My life is to work from early morning until dusk. My co-workers don’t speak Slavic languages, thus I cannot communicate with them. In the evening, there is nobody to talk to either.”

Language and other social problems isolated the immigrants; not for them were English books, newspapers or cinemas. Another wrote: “Today is Sunday. I just came home from a nearby church. The church is so different from ours ... the people ignore me.”

The Polish immigrants realized that to preserve some elements of their identity, they would have to form their own organizations. This need subsequently proved much less strong among later settlers than it was for the earlier ones whose adherence to old-country traditions was greatest.

The first Poles, in the 1870s, organized the Association of Polish Citizens, its aims and membership now beyond recall. It is believed that most of its members immigrated to the United States.

The most important meeting places for these early immigrants were the Labour Temple on Church Street and Victoria Hall on Queen Street, both loaned to the Poles only occasionally. They constantly desired their own meeting place.

But it was only on April 29, 1907, that the Polish immigrants founded the Sons of Poland. Its charter was granted on January 18, 1908, and the organization not only survived but gave birth to the largest and the most controversial Polish association in Canada, the Polish Alliance Association, which had tremendous impact on the attitudes of the Polish group in this country. The beginning and nature of this association reflect the immigrants’ attitudes towards the Poland from which they had departed and their attitudes towards Poland as an independent state after 1918.

The early Polish immigrants, whether they were peasants, workers or professionals, left a Poland divided among their enemies. They knew that their poverty, political persecution and limited social progress were mainly due to Poland’s occupation by foreign powers. Canada offered them a better life, certainly the chance to better themselves economically. But some brooded about returning to their native country and some did indeed return. Some joined a section of the Polish army which was later formed at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Most, however, decided to remain in Canada permanently but without severing ties with Poland and Polish traditions. We can well imagine the dilemma of these immigrants during their attempts to form the first major Slavic organization in Canada. What should be their attitude to Poland? To Canada? To church, traditions, themselves?

The answers to these questions would decide how the organization would be seen by the Canadian community, Poland and the rest of the Polish immigrants in Canada. The first constitution of the Sons of Poland contained elements aimed at satisfying at least some of the above questions.

Thus we read in its first constitution that “the aim of the Association is to strive for ... economic and moral betterment of members,” and that it can be achieved “by spreading friendship, unity and true love among its members.” But besides economic and moral well-being, the founders urged their members to “celebrate important anniversaries of historical events in Poland ... uphold the Catholic religion and establish Polish parishes,” and further, “each member will strive to obtain Canadian citizenship.”

The constitution was changed twice. The current constitution of the Polish Alliance Association, an organization derived from the Sons of Poland, differs, especially in the matter of religion. It now mentions the Christian religion without specifying Catholicism. In fact the Polish Alliance Association made a point of being a lay organization and thus acceptable to anybody of Polish origin, irrespective of religious or political conviction. The organization prided itself on being, first of all, an association of Poles in Canada, subject to no pressure from any group or institution. The principles of tolerance, brotherhood and enlightenment became guideposts.
Emphasis on education of the young was particularly strong, explained, perhaps, by the fact that the immigrants, though largely uneducated themselves, valued education and spared no effort to obtain it for their children. The same was true for the Polish immigrants in the United States.

By emphasizing brotherhood, the association meant to include not only its own members but to encourage contact with and help for brethren in Poland, without necessarily showing loyalty to the successive governments there.

At the second congress of the World Alliance of Poles in Warsaw in 1934, the Polish Alliance Association delegation refused to swear a loyalty oath to Poland and its president on the grounds that the Alliance, an organization of Canadian citizens, could not swear loyalty au another state. Composed as it was of peasants and workers, this organization did not regard favourably the anti-democratic nature of the Polish government of the time. Association members felt that fate had thrown them into Canada and they should adapt themselves as fully as possible to their new country, without, of course, severing their ties with the old.

Religious tolerance brought inevitable conflict. Even though association members were predominantly Catholic and attended church regularly, some Catholic priests didn’t like the idea that the association’s newspaper, Polish Alliancer, made space available to other denominations. Political views differed as well. Some members had strong socialist views. Others were sympathetic to the Peoples’s Party in Poland. Politically, Poles in Canada, especially those in the East, were not a homogeneous group. Their political ideas and beliefs ranged from extreme left to extreme right and they felt strongly that in Canada they had a right to exercise their beliefs freely. Thus the Alliancer was often attacked, not only by the Polish clergy, but also by the Polish Communists in Canada, who in their newspaper, Budzik, mounted a vicious attack on the Polish Alliance.

The Alliance developed its own independent program that took account of its orthodox attitude towards successive Polish governments, its liberal religious views and its refusal to join the Federation of Polish Associations, an umbrella organization of Poles in Canada.

After World War II the influx of new immigrants into its ranks reduced these conflicts considerably. Faithful to its convictions, the Alliance is now strongly opposed to the Communist government in Poland. In order to emphasize its religious tolerance, since 1957 it has allowed the Catholic church to publish reports and articles in the Alliancer.

After 1922 the Polish Alliance Association was powerful enough to spread outside Toronto. The first experiment, Branch 2, was established in 1927 in Hamilton. The central executive officers were chosen at a general meeting of the Alliance in March 1929, and branches were organized in various Ontario towns. In 1929 Branch 4 was founded in Kitchener; in 1937, Branch 3 in St. Catharines; and in 1930, Branch 5 in West Toronto, followed by the establishment of branches in Preston (1930), New Toronto (1930), and Swansea (1932). Brantford, Guelph, Welland and other cities soon had branches too. By its golden jubilee in 1957 the head office of the Alliance in Toronto commanded 40 branches spreading from Toronto to Windsor, from Windsor to Kapuskasing, Atikokan and Wawa. Impressive as that seems, numerical strength is relatively small in branches outside Toronto. Still, when one considers that only about five percent of the Poles in Canada are organized, the Alliance accounts for a large proportion of them.

The association also established the Reymont Foundation to provide scholarships for special study in Poland and certain studies in Canada, sponsored lectures on Polish-Canadian topics and started a printing press. It pioneered the development of the Polish organizational structure in Canada, and, like any pioneer, had its successes and failures. Bitter conflicts, errors, often venomous attacks on opponents are all part of the history of this almost 80-year-old organization which changed, adjusted and corrected its approach to suit the times. Now, like all Polish organizations in Canada, it faces new challenges, especially in retaining the youth and preparing them for meaningful work that would benefit Canada and the Polish community.

Today, there are approximately 40,000 Polish Canadians in Toronto. The dynamic growth and cosmopolitan character of the city make it an attractive home for the highly diverse Polish community. Although Polish Canadians live all over the city, it is in the Parkdale district of Toronto that the community has found its heart, in an area that many refer to as “Little Poland.” Here, along Roncesvalles Street, are a string of Polish businesses that include delicatessens, restaurants, bakeries and offices, as well as St. Casimir’s Credit Union, the largest Polish financial institution in Canada, which is housed in St. Casimir’s Church. In front of this impressive building stands a bronze statue of the present Pope. A few blocks away is Copernicus Lodge where hundreds of Polish-Canadian senior citizens, from Toronto and beyond, have chosen to spend their golden years. The Polish Combatants Hall, which lies east of Parkdale on Beverley Street, is the largest Polish-Canadian cultural centre in the city. Events such as lectures, recitals, variety shows and banquets are frequently held here, and draw large numbers of Polish Canadians from all over the city.

Toronto is considered by some to be the unofficial Polish-Canadian capital of the country. It has become the headquarters of the Canadian-Polish Congress, the Mickiewicz and Millennium Foundations, the Polish Language Press, and the Canadian-Polish Research Institute. The city also boasts Polish language radio programs.
Although new Polish immigrants may settle anywhere in Ontario, they eventually tend to gravitate to Toronto. As one Polish Canadian told this author, “All roads seem to lead to Toronto, the Good.”


The history of Poles in Windsor is closely related to that of the Poles in nearby Detroit, Michigan, where they settled as early as 1850 and where the rapidly growing manufacturing industry offered them well-paid jobs. On the Canadian side of the river, the town of Windsor was a small but vital settlement. Its real growth started at the beginning of the twentieth century, when U.S. factories set up branches in Ontario.

The first Polish family in Windsor was registered in 1908; by 1911 there were 169 families. They were well-off materially but, like Poles elsewhere, desired their own church and organizations. Rev. Ralph Hubert Dignan, an Irish priest, had done his best to serve their spiritual needs in broken Polish, but even with the aid of two faithful translators, his efforts were unsatisfactory. The Polish Church of the Holy Trinity was built in 1916 but was soon destroyed by fire.

Under Father Jan Andrzejewski, a new church was completed in 1918, the land having been donated by a non-Polish Protestant, Walter Doug. As in other Polish parishes, it had a large basement where all Polish organizations met.

The Church of the Holy Trinity, the fifth Catholic church to be built in Windsor and the Polish church in Canada, served not only the Polish community but also many other Catholics, mostly French- and English-speaking, who lived nearby. Two hundred of the 700 parishioners were non-Polish.

In 1948 at least 2,000 Poles, mostly industrial workers, lived in Windsor. The arrival of Rev. Ludwik Kociszewski, D.D., an energetic former chaplain of the Polish forces, intensified the Polish parish's work. A new presbytery, redecoration of the church interior and provision of new altars made the Polish church one of Windsor's most attractive.

By 1961 the parish of the Holy Trinity had become the centre of social, cultural and spiritual activities for Windsor’s 3,772 Poles.


History of Kashoubs of Renfrew *

Renfrew County lies in the Ottawa Valley about 100 kilometres west of Ottawa. The county’s numerous townships are found along the Petawawa, Bonnechere and Madawaska river valleys. Most of the rocks of this area are of the Precambrian era and only small outcrops of Ordovician limestone, rich in a variety of fossil life dating back to the Paleozoic era, are present. More recently the valleys were covered with glacial sediments which in some places provided relatively fertile soils for the future settlers. In more elevated areas a sandy loam prevails, but too extensive leaching robbed the soils of nitrates and phosphates, as in the present village of Wilno in Hagarty Township. Most of the soil is either leached out or too rocky to be of any significance for agricultural development. As one settler wrote: “The land is rugged and there are so many rocks that a hundred walls of China could be constructed.”

Renfrew’s climatic conditions stimulated the growth of mixed forests, almost equally hardwood and softwood.

The region was first inhabited by the Algonquin Indians with whom the French explorers and traders developed an active fur trade. Later the fur trade gave way to the timber industry, which soon became the economic mainstay of the Irish, and later Scottish and Polish settlers. The Irish established several settlements, such as Douglas, Mount St. Patrick, Eganville, Fitzroy and Forbolton. The Irish settlers were soon followed by Scots, who in turn established McNab township, and by Poles, who established Wilno.

Though by 1860 the disposal of crown land to individuals had virtually ceased in the old province of Upper Canada, demand for it continued unabated, forcing the government to open Bone land wherever possible. The upper part of the Ottawa River Valley was one of many regions adjacent to continuous agricultural settlement and was therefore considered as the next among areas which might achieve permanent settlement.

It now seems clear that the area should never have been opened completely for agricultural soils and a relatively short agricultural development. In 1901 Charles MacNamara of the MachLachlin Brothers Lumber Company stated emphatically that “the area is a timber region, not agricultural.”

The government of Upper Canada, however, was determined to attract settlers who would turn the region into an agricultural area, and in 1853 initiated construction of roads and paths to secure access to hitherto vacant lots in the bush. One such road was called Opeongo Road.

By 1850 the more accessible areas of Renfrew County, even though not overcrowded, boasted 14,656 acres under cultivation and 6,584 acres under grazing. Six grist mills and 16 sawmills were in operation, and the population totalled 6,892, mostly forest labourers, who, after clearing the forest, settled there permanently.

The Opeongo Road, construction of which started in 1853, was planned to run westward along the Bonnechere and Madawaska rivers to Great Opeongo Lake. On completion, it extended 100 miles inland from the Ottawa River. Throughout most of its length and particularly west of Mount St. Patrick, following the steep edge of the river valley, the road ran through a forested area under which lay shallow, rocky soil.

The land grants for the newly arrived settlers consisted of 50 free acres, with an option for an additional grant of 50 acres later. The additional land was to be granted only if the settlers complied with the settlement’s regulations.

It was this promise of free land that attracted Polish Kashoubs to Renfrew County and prompted their settlement along the Opeongo Road in the late 1850s.

The Kashoubs are a Slavic people, closely related to the Poles, who lived in the regions of Puck, Wejherowo, Kartuzy, Gdansk, Bytow and Koscierzyna. Kashoubia is part of the Great European Plain, its southern region being part of the Baltic Heights. The area is rolling and in places hilly, with a multitude of lakes, ravines, erratic landforms and short rivers. The whole region is covered by mixed forests interrupted occasionally by coniferous groves.

Sometimes called Pomerania, or in Polish, Pomorze (po = along; morze = see), the region had a stormy history as a result of Polish-German conflicts over the land. The area was occupied by Prussia at the end of the eighteenth century until 1918 when part of it was returned to Poland. Bismarck’s Germany energetically promoted a national policy to exterminate the Polish element in the occupied lands of northern Poland by creating economic conditions so severe that they would be forced to leave the country. A well-planned and ruthlessly executed action of expropriation of Polish farmers left many of them homeless and penniless. As a result, approximately 130,000 Kashoubs, or roughly a third of the population of Kashoubia, emigrated in that period. They were people of extraordinary determination, stubbornness and love for their land; their eviction was not easily achieved by the Prussians and in fact, the resistance they offered became a legend. Those who settled in Barry’s Bay, near Wilno, illustrated, although in a different context, these characteristics.

The Prussians soon realized that the struggle with the Kashoubs would be long and difficult and began to forbid the use of Polish in schools, offices and churches. German teachers were sent to instruct and indoctrinate Polish children. All Kashoubs who refused to accept Prussian citizenship were expropriated and removed. Special edicts were proclaimed, aimed at taking the land away from the Poles.

It was then that the Kashoubs, showing their strong character, determined to hold their ground and fight. They believed the day would come when they would again be free. When the Prussians, hoping to force them to sell, forbade them to build houses on their own land, they lived in barns, gypsy wagons and underground caves. One of them, Frank Peplinski, lived for years in a gypsy wagon, refusing to leave his land. In 1906, 100,000 Polish children went on strike demanding that the Polish language be taught in schools.

Many Kashoubs reached the point of desperation and immigrated, most to the United States. At the end of the nineteenth century, there were 97,000 Kashoubs living in the U.S. and 25,000 in Canada. A number settled in South America. They all had in common the desire to continue living as a group. When information about the free land grants in Renfrew reached them, they moved there en masse. The grants, each of 100 acres, in an area resembling their native soil, the possibility of living together, speaking their own language, worshipping God in their own way and being as far away as possible from Prussian authority were inducements too great to resist.

Thus in 1858, the Opeongo Road witnessed the arrival of the first group of Kashoubs heading towards the forests of the Madawaska River Valley. They embarked at the German port of Bremen, and after 11 weeks at sea, having been severely overcrowded and suffering from hunger, typhus and other diseases, arrived at Quebec. The British Colonial Agency sent them west on the Central Canada Railway to settle newly opened lands. This railway (the present CPR) terminated at Bonnechere Point, just a few miles from Renfrew.

The first group of Kashoubs to reach Renfrew village consisted of 16 families, 77 people in all. They were housed with established residents, mostly Irish.

T.P. French, crown land agent for the Ottawa and Opeongo Road wrote: “In the summer of 1858 [Poles and Germans] were attracted to Canada by the reports of free grants and they came direct to Renfrew. When they arrived there, however, they had yet much to learn before they could venture with but little means upon uncleared lands and consequently, they and their children hired out as servants whenever they could find employers.”

Only a year later the land agent noted that “they were considered a burden on their arrival but in one year they have already elicited honourable mention from the Ottawa Agency.”

Some were employed on the railroad, while others worked on road construction. Eventually many of them chose farm lots along Opeongo Road when they became available.

The lots closest and most accessible to Renfrew village were already occupied by the earlier Irish settlers. Thus they had to look further inland, west of the Irish settlements beyond Hopefield. A sizeable enclave was created there and attracted other arriving Kashoubs. enlarging it considerably. The statistics show that the vast majority of the Kashoubs settled on farms, mostly in the townships of Hagarty and Richards, Sherwood, Jones and Burns, Brudenell and Radcliffe.

In 1864 a second group of Kashoubs arrived in the area. According to old-timers such as Leon Etmanski (Hetmanski), T. Lorbetski (Antoni Lurbecki) and Dominik Bloskie (Zblowski), who had it from their fathers, there were at least 500.

The sailing records of the period contain all the names of the later Wilno settlers. The boat lists of 1865 show the names of E Schimanski, aged 18, “to Quebec from Germany”; T.H. Talowski, aged 33, with wife, Constantin, and children, Johann, David, Emilia, Agatha, Anton, “arrived in Quebec on May 25, 1865”; H. Kowalsky, a Prussian farmer with his wife, Maria, and children, Ferdinand, Wilhelm, Therese, Albert, Heinrich and Alvina, “arrived in Quebec on June 24, 1865”; Jackob Michalski, aged 38, a German farmer with his wife, Marianne, and children, Magdalena, Johann, Agnes, Michael, also arrived in Quebec on June 24, 1865, but on a different boat.

The old-timers also recall tales told them by their fathers of the horror of ocean travel. According to Etmanski’s father, a number never reached Canadian shores. They died and their bodies, sewn in weighted canvas, were eased overboard.

The voyage up the St. Lawrence River was not easy either. Its bleak, barren shores severely depressed them but arrival in Quebec, a greener surroundings, gave them new life and hope.

According to the census of 1871, 18 Polish families totalling 77 persons lived in the village of Renfrew, all the adults listed as labourers. Polish names were often grossly mutilated, or even changed completely, by government agents or other officials. Thus Raca was changed to Recu, Kulas to Coulas, Glowczewski to Glofchewskie. Many times the officials confused nationality as well. Because Kashoubia was in Prussian-occupied Poland, the Poles were often erroneously listed as Prussians. Their descendants, many of whom are still living in the area, affirm their Polish origin.

The Kashoubian settlers had to cope with three major difficulties: a high degree of illiteracy, a lack of forest-clearing equipment and knowledge and an inability to communicate with their Irish and Scottish neighbours. It is debatable whether a higher degree of literacy would necessarily have been decisive in the struggle to clear the land, but literacy would have helped them to acquire the English language more quickly, speeding the establishment of a modus vivendi with the older settlers. They had been farmers, not foresters, for generations and lack of money made it difficult to buy equipment and cultivate proper crops. The area was isolated; few roads connected it with the rest of Ontario, and considerable distances between them and their neighbours worsened the situation by preventing more communal effort.
It is in this context that the Kashoubs’ “togetherness” became a permanent factor in the struggle for survival. “My father,” said T. Lorbetski, “in order to buy necessities, had to walk from Hagarty Township to Brudenell, a distance of eight miles. He carried goods on his back and slept overnight in the forest.”

Difficulties were aggravated by the antagonism between Polish and Irish settlers. The reason is now hard to understand but several hypotheses have been suggested, among them the jealousy of the predominantly non-Catholic Irish, who resented the arrival of the Poles and their ability to acquire property and other material goods. The Irish, in fact, protested to their priest, Father Fougier, asking him to do something about getting rid of these “foreigners.” The Irish did not consider themselves foreigners, even though some of them had come to the area at the same time as the Kashoubs.

Perhaps there was a certain amount of resentment among the Irish, as demonstrated elsewhere in Canada especially against the Hutterite and Mennonite communities. But the closely knit Polish community, which did not wish, or was linguistically unable, to mingle and socialize was also to blame.

In the early days, for example, a marriage outside the Polish community was inconceivable. Such a person automatically became an outcast as far as the rest of the Polish community was concerned. Even now the Polish parish records of Barry’s Bay and Wilno show that only a small percentage of the marriages are mixed. Even today it is considered a great breach of tradition among the Poles in that area to marry an outsider, especially a non-Catholic. A person breaking this unwritten law is often labelled “German,” the worst epithet that can be hurled at a Pole. Marriages between different nationalities were eventually tolerated, although grudgingly, but between different religions, seldom.

During the election of 1901 there was a regular “war” between the Polish and Irish elements. A relative of a recently deceased settler, who as a young boy participated in the “war,” told this author: “The Irish were planning to come to Barry’s Bay to beat ... out of Pollacks who refused to vote for an English-speaking candidate. The Poles decided to prevent their coming by blocking the Brenan Creek Bridge. The Poles, armed with pitchforks, flails and clubs, were led by a belligerent priest from Wilno, Father Jankowski.” The outcome of this battle is somewhat in doubt because the above-mentioned participant was knocked unconscious by a club-swinging Irish settler. “When I came to,” he reported, “the battle was over and the Brenan Creek Bridge was destroyed.”

In spite of these initial difficulties, attributable mainly to temperamental characteristics of these two nationalities, there was significant cooperation between Irish and Poles on other grounds. “Quick-tempered Irish, in fact, were more than once helpful to my father and mother in their difficult days,” Etmanski told the author.

As time passed, economic conditions greatly improved and stabilized, bringing these settlers, if not prosperity, at least basic security. The CPR line was built through the Polish village of Wilno as early as 1894 and the main road was completed in 1905, providing a link with other Canadian centres. It was gradually supplemented by a string of local roads connecting various settlements, farms and forest posts. The social relationship among all residents improved, regardless of their nationality and religion. The Polish settlers lived in amity with their neighbours, the years of common toil, problems and difficulties having overcome jealousy and prejudice. Life became a little better for everyone.

Roughly between 1890 and 1896 yet another group of settlers, about 250 families, arrived in the Renfrew area. They were recruited in Galicia, southern Poland, by the Wilno parish priest. These Galician Poles settled in the Siberia district of Barry's Bay, in Barry’s Bay proper and in the townships of Sherwood, Jones and Burns. Another 40 families came from the United States. They had originally settled in Webster, Massachusetts, but dissatisfied with conditions there, decided to join the Ontario Kashoubs. They settled in the Paugh Lake district north of Barry’s Bay. The last influx of Poles into the area occurred just after World War II when a few Polish war veterans and displaced persons settled south of Barry’s Bay in and around a resort settlement called Kaszuby.

The infusion of Galician Poles brought cultural changes in the Polish settlements. These newcomers brought with them aspects of Polish culture prevalent among the peasants of southern Poland. With the passing of time, the cultural differences between the Kashoubs and Galicians eventually disappeared. Unquestionably common to both Kashoubian and Galician immigrants was the search for freedom, peace and bread. In most cases they found all three.

Their Religion *

When the first Poles settled in Hagarty Township in 1858, they had no Polish priest to serve them. But Father Patrick Cody, curate at Eganville, visited Hagarty quite frequently. After 1886 the Polish families walked about 10 miles to Brudenell where Father James McCormack was pastor. Unable to speak Polish at first, Father McCormack learned a bit of the language, but it was soon evident that a Polish parish and priest were necessary. Polish Kashoubs were and are deeply religious people; the Catholic church is the focal point of their culture. It was not only the 10-mile walk to Brudenell and its incomprehensible services that made the Kashoubs unhappy; they wanted their own parish and a priest who would be both their spiritual and their secular leader. So letters were written to Polish bishops, requesting that priests be sent.

One arrived around 1872 and established a Polish parish in Wilno, but like a few others after him, he lasted only a short time, finding conditions too difficult. A second Polish priest arrived in 1875, and within a year under his leadership the first Polish chapel in Canada was built. He was Father Francis Ksawery Specht; he lived in Brudenell until a log chapel in Hagarty, named after the Polish saint Stanislaus Kostka, became serviceable in March 1876. Father Specht was soon replaced by Father Alexander Michnowski, whose stay, however, was also brief. The chapel was completed by Father Thomas Korbutowicz, a Lithuanian who arrived in Hagarty at the end of 1876 and remained until 1880. He should be considered the first official pastor of the St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish. During his pastorship the chapel land was enlarged to 50 acres. Ill health and the difficulties of his post prompted his return to the old country.

It was during Father Ludwik Dembski’s pastorate that a large rectory was built. A suspicion was entertained that he departed for Brazil in 1892 because of a difference of opinion with the bishop of Pembroke about the parish records.

After he left, the half-finished church and the parishioners were without a pastor. The parish of Wilno was by then very large, including the present parishes of Round Lake Centre, Barry’s Bay, Madawaska, Whitney and Combermere. For about a year, until a new priest arrived, the parish was served intermittently by Fathers P.S. Dowdall and A. Borremans from the Eganville district.

In 1892 Father Bronislaw J. Jankowski arrived in Wilno. Born in Warsaw, he had escaped the tyranny of czarist Russia by immigrating to the United States where he attended the Polish seminary at Orchard Lake in Detroit. His arrival gave new life to the Polish community. The church was finally finished and consecrated by Bishop N.Z. Lorrain in 1895. The log presbytery was removed and a new one of brick was built. A mission was established in Barry’s Bay and five years later, in Round Lake Centre.

Encouraged by the improved conditions in the community after 1894, Father Jankowski undertook the recruiting of more destitute Poles. To escape detection by Russian authorities he journeyed through Poland incognito and succeeded in bringing out a large number of families.

The new immigrants swelled the number of Poles in the area to about 2,500, compelling Father Jankowski to request an assistant. In 1911 he received Father Peter B. Biernacki, who had been born in Barry’s Bay and ordained at Wilno in 1910. The help was timely; long years of toil had impaired the aging priest's health. Recognizing his work and dedication, Pope Pius XI named him a domestic prelate in 1924. He died on June 24, 1928, aged 61, and was buried in the old cemetery at Wilno. His replacement, Father Edward Wilowski, had arrived in Canada with his parents in 1907 and studied in Kitchener, in St. Louis, Illinois, and later in Rome where he had been ordained in 1926.

In 1936 the parishioners’ beloved wooden church in Wilno, built with so much effort and sacrifice, burned to the ground. Masses had to be conducted in the nearby school, but the parishioners started to build a new church at once and by Christmas, 1937, it was ready. Named Our Lady, Queen of Poland, it crowned a knoll overlooking Highway 62 and is the most impressive building in the valley. Its interior, both functional and beautiful, served for many years as an example of good design for other Polish-Canadian churches, a great tribute to Father Wilowski and his parishioners. The work was done without pay by some 60 parishioners.

In 1939 the Polish Consul in Canada presented a copy of the painting of Our Lady of Czestochowa to the church on behalf of President Ignacy Moscicki of Poland. A presbytery was built in 1946, which, among other things, houses a large library.

On October 4, 1950, the Wilno parish celebrated its 75th anniversary with the diocesan clergy assisting at the mass and the Most Reverend W.J. Smith, bishop of the diocese, presiding. Father Jastalski and Father Kadziolka, refugee priests from Poland, were present. Father Kadziolka became the pastor of Wilno in 1961, a position he held until 1985.

This parish’s work produced tangible results. Several young men and women entered religious orders. Father Isidore Shalla (Szola) entered the Redemptionist Order and was ordained in 1920; the Reverend Father Baderski became an Oblate, serving later as pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Toronto; Father Cashubec entered the Basilian Order and was a mission for a few years in Guatemala; Father Shulist and Father Prince were ordained and worked in the Pembroke diocese.
Meanwhile, the missions in the Barry’s Bay and Round Lake Centre districts had grown in number and became separate parishes. In 1914, when 48 Polish families lived in Barry’s Bay, the decision was made to establish a parish. Under the management and farsighted plan of Father Biernacki, a large tract of land was purchased on the north shore of the lake. At Christmas, 1914, Midnight Mass was celebrated in St. Hedwig’s Church. The building, completed in 1915, was consecrated by Bishop Ryan. The year 1916 was spent clearing land for a new cemetery nearby. A two-storey, cement-block rectory was built in 1922 and six years later a convent for teaching sisters was completed.

The first pastor in Barry’s Bay, Peter B. Biernacki, was born there in 1867 and attended the nearby public school for four years; then he went to the Wilno separate school where he learned Polish. Still later he studied at Orchard Lake Seminary in Detroit and was ordained at Wilno in 1910, the first Canadian-born Pole to become a priest. He was first appointed to the cathedral in Pembroke and then became assistant at Wilno for three years.

In 1896 the Church of the Blessed Virgin was built two miles outside of Barry’s Bay on the Siberia Road. Father Jankowski’s purpose in building this church was to serve the Polish pioneer families who lived far up the Opeongo Road from the parent church at Wilno. The Wilno church had for some time been sufficient to serve these families, but when in 1898 a group of Kashoubs arrived from Webster, Massachusetts, the number of families doubled and a new church was needed.
The task of getting it built was entrusted to Father Biernacki. This athletic, tough energetic priest not only pushed others to work on construction but also laboured beside them. Father Majka writes about him:

There was a time that a smile disappeared for a moment or two from his face. It happened during the decoration of the interior of the church. The painters were high up in the dome and Father Biernacki, in overalls, was on the floor sending up supplies. There was scaffolding everywhere. Suddenly, echoing through the church was a prolonged scream, then crashing and tumbling, that started at the top and grimly descended to the floor near Father's feet. The helpless victim of the accident had fallen 30 feet, hitting every support on the way down, turning over and over and landing in the most unimaginable position. Billie Labelle of Rockland finally rose to his feet, paint brush in one hand and a full pail of paint in the other saying, “Parbleu, Father, I did not lose one drop of paint!”

Father Biernacki, later Monsignor Biernacki, was an ardent movie fan and as far back as 1920 brought silent films to the community. As captain and pitcher of the famous Barry’s Bay Baseball Nine, he captured the championship for his hometown. Highly honoured and respected, he died in 1928 and was buried in the parish cemetery.

This short review of the development of the Polish churches in the Renfrew area indicates the great devotion of the Polish Kashoubs to their religion and shows the importance of the church in their life. The parishes became the centres of the community’s religious, social and evangelical life. In St. Hedwig’s Parish, for example, life was not limited to religious activities but embraced such institutions as schools, hospitals and parish associations.

The work of the Barry’s Bay parish has been recognized by both religious and civic authorities and papal honours have been conferred on the pastor, Father Majka. In 1963 he was invested as a domestic prelate with the title of monsignor; of the parishioners, Joseph Omanique was received into the knighthood of St. Gregory, Bronas Glofchefskie was enrolled in the Order of St. Sylvester, and Henry Chapeskie was decorated with the Bene-merenti Medal.

St. Hedwig’s parishioners, wishing to honour the Polish Pope, John Paul II, designated a street on parish property Karol Wojtyla Street. A monument was erected and blessed on May 4, 1980, by the Most Reverend J.R. Windle, bishop of Pembroke. Set on a tiered curvilinear base, it is six feet high and twelve feet wide and is built on red and white brick in equal bands, the colours and their proportions representing those of the Polish flag. Atop the concrete slab forming the top of the monument, free-standing cast aluminum letters proclaim: ULICA KAROL WOJTYLA Street.

A cast-bronze plaque adorns its centre with the following citation in Polish and English:


The parishioners of St. Hedwig’s
Honour the first
Pope from Poland—John Paul II
Dedicating this street in his name
Karol Wojtyla Street

The Polish community in the Renfrew area differs somewhat from the rest of the Polish communities in Canada in that its organizations are predominantly of a religious rather than a secular nature. Because the life of the Renfrew County settlers, difficult though it was, was nevertheless fairly secure economically, there was no burning need for secular organizations such as mutual aid societies.

As well as offering the necessary spiritual support, the church generally also satisfied social needs. Thus the community had and still has such associations as the church choir (since 1890), the Holy Rosary Society (1901), the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre (1901), Holy Name Society, Marian Solidarity Eucharistic Crusaders and the Altar Boys Society.

Retaining the Old Traditions *

As has been mentioned, Kashoubian traditions are closely intertwined with strong religious belief; even the poorest Kashoub is generous to his church. A Kashoub greeting which is still customary is, “Praised be the Lord, Jesus Christ,” to which the response is, “For ever and ever.”

After holy mass, parishioners gather in front of the church, exchanging greetings and chatting, sometimes for a long time before going home. Christmas Eve and Easter celebrations are particularly important in the area. On Christmas Eve, the moment the first star makes its appearance, the family sits down to a well-decorated, food-laden table to share the Christmas bread in remembrance of family unity and Christian love and forgiveness.

In the event of a death, family and community members assemble at the deathbed to bold a wake called pusta noc, or empty night. These vigils often last the entire night before the burial.

Weddings are also interesting. While they do not last three days as they used to, some colourful ceremonies have been retained such as the removal of the bridal veil and special wedding dances.

In the early days these traditions were practised with great determination. Father O’Dwyer, in his book Highways of Destiny, mentions swaty, a custom which requires the prospective groom’s father and a neighbour to make a special visit to the prospective bride’s parents to intercede on behalf of the male partner or simply to arrange the marriage. The wedding celebration entailed much drinking, dancing and singing, and often included exchanges of punches. Father O’Dwyer notes: “As the years sped on, as everywhere, abuses of many kinds, not only at weddings but in gatherings, cropped up amongst the Polish people. Too much strong drink was nearly always the cause, as it is today.”

Jan Perkowski, in Vampires, Dwarves and Witches among the Ontario Kashoubs, suggests that an observer attending a Kashoubian wedding would have an opportunity to see “a unique system of wedding invitation, in which the best man, decked out in a Sunday suit, with a flower in one shoe, a pistol in one hand and a parasol in the other, recites a long poem of invitation to the residents of the neighbouring farms.” This sort of advertisement, more of symbolic nature, is hardly practised now.

During the long winter nights, community members often spent their time at the parish hall where social activities were held. In spite of their strong religious feelings, the Kashoubs were, and to a certain degree still are, very superstitious. Some of their superstitions, if not all, can be traced to pagan times. The practice of so-called folk medicine belongs in this category. It’s possible to cast a spell on someone but it's also possible to fend it off with special medicine, be it a herb, such as dried camomile or nettle, or merely magic words and incantations. There is a herb cure for virtually every malady, both physiological and spiritual. Of course, only a few know which kind of herb, how prepared and when taken.

An old Kashoub, if in good humour, and if he or she has good listeners, is capable of telling stories that raise gooseflesh. Most, if not all, will include a dead person, a penitent ghost, a haunted house or a cemetery. And of course there are demons, vampires, naiads, dwarfs, succubi and witches.

“Foremost among the daemons of the Canadian Kashoubs,” writes Jan Perkowski in Vampires, Dwarves and Witches among the Ontario Kashoubs, “are the vampire, the witch, the dwarf and the succubus. The daemons, neither fully human nor fully supernatural, are of two types: those whose basic nature is human (the vampire and the witch), and those whose n6ature is basically supernatural (the dwarf and the succubus). There are yet other daemons, but their appearance is sporadic ... For the most part they are ghosts and devils of various sorts.” One of Perkowski’s informants remembered seeing a “phantom white horse with black spots which suddenly appeared in her yard and just as suddenly disappeared!” Other Perkowski informants have seen “a ghost-without a head ... at night, I got up to go to the bathroom. I went out. It was pitch black. You couldn't see anything but pitch black. I saw a small devil. He jumped back.”

These and other similar stories involving vampires, dwarfs and ghosts are still told by Kashoubs, for amusement or because they think the perpetuation of these stories will create greater interest in their area and group. “Look,” they say, “Scots know damned well there is no such thing as the Loch Ness monster and yet ... Or take Transylvania and Frankenstein. Sure there are some among us who actually believe in these horrible things but they are old now, dying out, you know.” Dying out or not, it is still possible to sit in a Kashoub’s house, close to the fireplace, and listen to stories often told with such gusto, persuasion and colour that they scare the most courageous man and woman, to say nothing of the children.

Naturally these stories are related in the Kashoubian dialect, which is not only different from literary Polish but was cut off from its home base and exposed to an English influence for about 120 years. Even more difficult for those who wish to preserve it, there is little written literature to back up the living language.

Basically Slavic, the dialect is the surviving remnant of the Pomeranian subgroup, which did not manage to develop a significant literature, despite several attempts throughout history to do so. The most important occurred during the Prussian occupation of Kashoubia between 1795 and 1918. Several writers, including Krzysztof Celestyn Mrongovius (1764-1855), Florian Ceynova (1817-1881), Rev. Stanislaw Kujot (1874-1915), Heronim Derdowski (1852-1902), Pawel Gunter (1857-1947), Stefan Ramult (1859-1913) and Tomasz Rogala (1860-1951) wrote in Kashoubian and elevated it to a certain literary level. They aimed to free it from the German influence and to manifest their deep patriotism for the Polish fatherland. The Kashoubs felt, ethnically, Polish. The writers’ efforts were not spontaneously accepted by the Kashoubs, who used the dialect for everyday conversation but literary Polish for “outside” or formal holiday speech.

The Kashoubian dialect changed considerably in Canada. It was influenced by the English language and by the literary Polish taught in the Saturday schools and used in church sermons, as well as by contacts with non-Kashoub Poles. As we have learned, the group was composed also of Poles from both eastern and southern Poland whose language had incorporated certain Russian or Ukrainian influences.

Among the 2,500 settlers of Polish origin in the Renfrew area today at least 60 percent have retained their ancestral language according to the late Father Majka of St. Hedwig’s in Barry’s Bay.

For practical purposes, the Polish Kashoubs are truly bilingual and bicultural. In spite of being strongly nationalistic and deeply tied to the Catholic religion, they have nevertheless integrated well into the life of their new country. Though conscious of their roots, new generations are evolving from the hitherto closely knit communities of yesterday and are taking an active part in life far beyond their native towns and villages. The descendants of early settlers participate today in all phases of civic, cultural and social activities and are found in almost every area of national life.

Some of their attitudes have changed too. Until recently, the Polish parishes’ records showed that mixed marriages were taboo as far as Poles were concerned. According to Father Majka only 15 years ago about three percent of marriages were mixed. Today, mixed marriages, especially between Irish and Polish settlers, occur more often. Take the case of Mr. Bonnah (originally Bonin) who is partly Scots, Irish and French, but whose relatives are married now to Poles and Germans. As he puts it, “I guess I am a Canadian, who can deny it, eh?”

Mr. Bonnah was born in Eganville in 1912 and lived a long time in the Renfrew area, sharing the struggle for survival with the people there of all nationalities. He remembers the athletic Polish priest, Father Biernacki, who, with Father Ryan, a skinny, sickly looking Irish priest, visited his lumber camps often. “Not once and not twice,” he recalls, “the powerful Father Biernacki had to carry an ailing Father Ryan home on his back.”

“We fought against each other, swore like hell in all languages,” he remembers, “but also we were drinking together, and what was most important, we were helping each other.” The common aim of survival transcended petty antagonisms among the settlers and forged a community with a spirit of its own, rough, perhaps, but friendly, poor but generous, simple but colourful. Cultural symbiosis occurred not only in the Renfrew area but in the whole Ottawa Valley.

“I remember Sundays at Wilno,” Mr. Bonnah recalls. “The hills suddenly became alive with Polish people, women in their colourful dresses, men in Sunday suits heading from everywhere to the church. They sure were religious—and generous to the church too.”

The Renfrew Area Today *

Only a year or so ago a traveller on Highway 60 might have been surprised by the sign UWAGA, SZELL, Polish for Attention! Shell.

The sign was located just west of the village of Wilno, “the heart of the first Polish settlement in Canada.” On that sign, memorialized by Brenda Lee-Whiting in 1976, was a small but clear election poster, Shulist for Reeve, Dec. 6, urging voters to vote for Martin Shulist, then the 51-year-old owner of Wilno’s general store.

Martin Shulist is a descendant of Theodore Shulist, one of the 34 Polish farmers who were the first to settle along the Opeongo Colonization Road. The sign was visible evidence of the continued existence of the Polish-Canadian community in the Renfrew area. Polish names adorn shop signs in Barry’s Bay and Wilno and Polish is heard everywhere at mass in the Polish churches. Among many cultural relics are 15 wooden crosses placed throughout the area in the pioneer days and used as points of worship. One was dedicated in 1966 by Rev. W.J. Smith, D.D., bishop of Pembroke, in memory of Polish pioneers. Memorial wreaths were placed in front of it by Paul Yakabuski, M.P.P.; Martin Shulist, president of the Polish-Canadian Pioneer Centre at Wilno; Rose Cybulskie, chairperson of the Wilno Rosary Club; Bronas Glofchefskie; S. Haidasz, MY (later Senator Haidasz); and other prominent community leaders. There are signs that a distinct subculture still exists but there are also indisputable indications that it differs from the pioneer settlements of the 1860s.

Most of the first settlers were unskilled, had little, if any, education and were handicapped by their inability to speak English. Their cultural and social life centred around the Polish churches at Barry’s Bay, Wilno and later, Round Lake. Until recently there were more Poles than all other groups. Today, even though most are third-generation Canadians, they still maintain traditional values, participate in church functions which incorporate traditional customs or holidays and celebrate Polish national holidays.

In contrast, political and economic activities cannot be contained within this subculture sphere because they derive from persons and organizations outside it. These activities tend to weaken ties to the subculture and are contributing factors in weakening the community as a distinct social unit. Previously the settlers had to be Polish because survival depended upon it. They were reluctant to integrate into the host society because the society did not want them to integrate, or rather, wanted to see them integrated on its own terms, wanted them to become instant Canadians, completely assimilated.

Today the descendants of these early Kashoubs want to retain their Polishness and at the same time feel that they are also Canadians. They see no contradiction in these contradictory labels. To them Polish Canadian means rich traditions, stability, the continuum of their existence. Being a Polish Canadian increases their pride and self-respect.

“I am Canadian,” a fourth-generation, young man of Polish origin told this author, “but I am proud of my origin because it gives me extra security that I am a descendant of brave people who, by their hard work and sacrifice, together with others, were co-builders of this country.”

The other parishes in Wilno and Round Lake also remained centres of life for Polish settlers. But the area is undergoing a significant change, mostly prompted by the economy. The forests, formerly an economic mainstay, are almost gone, their commercial value greatly diminished. Demand for forest products is also down. Small patches of agricultural land were never good for successful farming and certainly are not today. There are no secondary industries to speak of and small probability of attracting them in the near future, which has prompted many young people to disperse all over Canada in search of employment. According to both Rev. A.J. Majka, the late pastor of St. Hedwig’s in Barry’s Bay, and Mrs. Brenda B. Lee-Whiting, in an article “First Polish Settlers in Canada,” there were about 2,500 descendants of Kashoubs living in the Renfrew area in 1967. Their number is slowly decreasing because limited economic and sociocultural opportunities cause the younger people to move out, especially to Toronto.

“Our young people haven’t got much to do here-most of them end up in Toronto or other large centres,” observed Father Pick. His concern was echoed by Martin Shulist, reeve of Sherwood, Jones and Burns townships, and by other civic and religious leaders. But they all agree that some departed young people do return to settle permanently in their hometowns. A few are participating in civic affairs, for example, Paul Yakabuski, for 13 years a member of Parliament, and Victor Shulist, treasurer of the village of Barry’s Bay.

Some, such as Dr. J. Cybulskie, Dr. Andrew Chapeskie and Dr. P. Burchart, after gaining their education elsewhere, returned home to establish their practices. The only bank in Barry’s Bay (the Bank of Montreal) has Larry Serran as its first Polish-Canadian manager. His father, Willy, serves as the village’s deputy reeve. Others have established such businesses as restaurants and general stores.

Some leaders, such as Martin Shulist, a civic figure for more than 20 years and a participant in virtually every important community event, are trying hard to develop the region both economically and culturally. Shulist is a charter member of Mount Madawaska Valley Manor, the home for the aged, and of the Knights of Columbus. He initiated the Polish-Canadian Pioneer Centre and is mainly responsible for the erection of a plaque at Shrine Hill, near Wilno, commemorating the first major Polish settlement in Canada.

Shulist believes that economic and, indirectly, cultural survival, resides in the development of tourism and the services associated with it. The area is ideal, with its rolling hills, numerous lakes and still relatively well-treed scenery. It is easily accessible from Toronto and Ottawa, and with some capital generated locally and the rest attracted from outside, it could become an important tourist centre. It has already attracted many Canadians of Polish origin, including Polish scouts and guides, and some cottagers. If used properly, its assets could guarantee the region's survival.

Shulist thinks that the Renfrew area as a whole with its rich Irish, Scottish, German and Polish heritage should be developed in such a way that it would have some impact on Canadian culture. “There is a great folklore treasure here,” he says, “which Canadian composers, choreographers, writers and sociologists could seek out, absorbing, adapting and transforming it into works of art that would be uniquely Canadian in nature.”

Schulist and other civic and religious leaders fully realized the difficulties the region faces but, like their predecessors, they have a tremendous amount of stamina and determination, and fully believe they will survive.


Source: Makowski, William. The Polish People in Canada: A Visual History. “V: Ontario: A Century of Courage and Tenacity.” Montreal: Tundra Books, 1987. 53-109.