The two groups appeared before the dais to argue over a permit that had been issued for one group to hold a street fair in front of the church next weekend.
The Committee for the Defense of Our Lady of Czestochowa Church [CDOLC] had last month received a permit to close Sussex Street between Washington and Warren streets for a festival honoring the feast day of Our Lady of Czestochowa, Poland's patron saint and the namesake of the 98 year-old parish. The church is located near the middle of the block at 120 Sussex St.
The church's ministry, however, came before the City Council Monday at its caucus meeting and asked for the permit to be revoked. Our Lady of Czestochowa Church [OLC] Pastor Father Tom Iwanowski said the street fair was not a church function and that it would interfere with Sunday's worship services.
The street fair is just the latest issue of contention to erupt between the parish and the group, which has been protesting weekly outside the church for the past two years.
Reciting the rosary in both English and Polish, the group walks back and forth on Sussex Street every Sunday morning for about 45 minutes. They have done it ever since the church cancelled its Polish language masses in June 2001.
Expressing a clear desire to not get involved in the debacle, council members pleaded Wednesday for the two groups to come to a compromise on the issue. If not, the permit would be revoked on the basis that it was not a church function.
"We don't want to be embroiled in an ongoing feud," Council President L. Harvey Smith said. "This situation needs to be handled with cool heads between you and your pastor."
After discussing the issue in the museum lobby for an hour, the two parties came back into the auditorium and said they had reached an agreement. Approval for the festival was based on two conditions: That it be held around the corner from the church on Washington Street, between Grand and Sussex streets, and that organizers stage no protests against the church.
CDOLC members grudgingly accepted the compromise, saying they had no other alternative.
"We're not happy," said CDOLC member Dorota Miesak Wednesday. "We were hoping to be able to proceed with the festival on Sussex Street. They think we wanted to protest, but we just want to celebrate the feast day. [Protesting] wasn't the idea. The options available to us were unacceptable."
"It really seems Iwanowski rules the whole city," Miesak added.
Entitled "Polish is Beautiful" and described by the group as an old-style Polish street festival, the party coincides with the international feast day of Our Lady of Czestochowa, organizers said. Rescheduled to take place between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., the party will feature Polish food and music, family entertainment and other attractions. A Catholic benediction will also be given.
Although Iwanowski said at the meeting that he would prefer the permit to be completely rescinded, he said he would be willing to accept the compromise.
"If that particular group had chosen to have the street fair on Washington, we would never have been in that particular situation," Iwanowski said. "My contention is that they were using the name of the church in such a way that it misled the council in thinking it was a church function. It was a misrepresentation. If they had represented themselves as to who they were, it wouldn't have been a problem."
Iwanowski said the decision to cancel the Polish masses came because the neighborhood's changing makeup created a lesser demand for services in Polish.
"These folks insist there must be a Polish mass, but these people don't understand that OLC was started as an offshoot of St. Anthony's," Iwanowski said, referring to the fact that St. Anthony's, the first Polish church in the city, still holds Polish masses. "They believe this is a Polish neighborhood and that this church must cater to the Polish-speaking community and must have a Polish mass."
The true issue at hand, Iwanowski said, is more than just displeasure with the lack of Polish language masses. Fueled by a deeply embedded sense of nationalism, the imbroglio revolves around the group's unwillingness to acknowledge that their neighborhood has changed and that the church's ministry must reflect it to survive, he said.
"When I was sent to OLC in 1995, I was told to change the direction of the parish because the parish needed to change in respond to the area's changing demographics," Iwanowski said. "The church was still operating as if the area was exclusively a Polish community. We have made efforts to reach out, and when Bishop Myers became archbishop he reaffirmed the mission to change the parish. He asked the group to end the protests because he has reaffirmed the need of a Polish ministry at St. Anthony's, where he has put a priest from Poland."
But the CDOLC is refusing to accept the church's decision to transfer OLC's Polish communicants back to St. Anthony's. CDOLC members say the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa is an intrinsic part of the Polish religious community.
"[Our Lady of Czestochowa] is the icon of Poland," Miesak said. "Everybody knows her in Poland. She's called the Queen of Poland. She's also the mother of all immigrants. This is another designation, especially for people that are here and who immigrated to America. She's the closest mother, in the religious sense, for people to go to for prayer."
When the Polish congregation at Downtown's St. Anthony's parish began to outgrow the church at the turn of the last century, Polish residents began saving money to buy a Protestant church on Sussex Street traditionally used by the area's German population. The church was purchased in 1905 and renamed Our Lady of Czestochowa Church to explicitly reflect its place as a sanctuary for Polish people living in the area.
After its inception, the church took on a role that overshadowed its function as a place of worship. To the Polish-American families in the area, the physical church and the type of Catholicism enshrined therein began to serve as an organic link to residents' national identity as Poles. It was an identity inextricably linked to the image of the revered black Madonna herself.
Whereas other titles ascribed to the Virgin Mary are a result of apparitions, the story of Our Lady of Czestochowa revolves around a work of art supposedly painted on top of a cypress wood table by St. Luke. The legend says that upon seeing it, the Virgin Mary was pleased and said, "Her grace shall accompany [the painting]."
After being worshipped for 300 years in Jerusalem, it was brought to Constantinople, a city now known as Istanbul, by St. Helen, the mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome. It remained housed in a chapel for 500 years and was believed to have saved the city from numerous sieges and hordes of invading attackers.
The painting received its designation as the black Madonna from an episode of its history that took place while the painting was still in Constantinople. During a siege, the chapel housing the painting caught fire. The entire structure was destroyed except for the piece of the wall where the painting was hung, leaving soot on the painting and darkening the features of the already olive-skinned Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.
Today, thousands of Poles across the globe look to her for intercession.
"She's part of everyone's life," Miesak said. "She's like Mother Guadalupe for Mexican people. She's the center - an icon - for Polish people. We have images of her in our home. The Pope even has a special devotion to her. It's ingrained in our lives and it's very difficult for us to give up that parish."
The new Paulus Hook is decidedly different from the old one. Known in the first half of the 20th century as Gammontown - from "gameen," the Dutch word for "vile" - the area was an enclave for Polish and German immigrants who worked at the factories on the waterfront.
The neighborhood nowadays, however, is filled with young professionals who work in Manhattan. It is with this demographic segment that the OLC ministry is attempting to connect.
"We've tried to reach out in various ways," Iwanowksi said. "We started some events to let the parish be known in the neighborhood. We do the 'Spring on Sussex Street' festival and the outdoor festival of music. We've been working on reforming Victory Hall to reach out to the creative and artistic community in the neighborhood. We've put out a newsletter called "Good News on the Waterfront" that has a circulation of 5,500. We're putting our name out there."
"We invited [the CDOLC] to be a part of the wider parish community, but what they did was absented themselves from the wider parish community and said no," Iwanowksi added.
Feeling pushed out
CDOLC members said their reasons for not going along with the church's new vision is because it sends a clear message to the Polish community that they - along with their traditions and devotional symbols - are no longer welcome at the parish.
"We always wanted to be a part of the church," Miesak said. "Even before, the church existed with English-speaking parishioners and Polish-speaking parishioners. Father Iwanowski created an artificial division. We want to be part of this parish. We want newcomers, but creating a situation where one group is excluded is really unheard of. It's not that we want the church to ourselves. We want it to be a Catholic Church. [Father Iwanowski] has eliminated many Catholic traditions, like the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. He wants to make it more modern. There are other services in the Catholic canon that need to be observed."
Miesak said Iwanowski has also removed traditionally Polish statues and objects amassed by the congregation across the church's 95 year existence from both the church and the parish's elementary school. One such object, she said, was an antique Polish "reconciliation room" used for confessionals.
Iwanowksi said that after consulting with other parishioners, he came to the conclusion that those objects were of no significant historical or cultural value. The statues, he said, were mass-produced plaster casts that could be purchased anywhere.
Iwanowski said the church's new vision has resulted in many positive changes.
"The place was not in the best of condition [when I came on board,]" Iwanowski said. "And they forget in the past eight years the work that has been put into the various buildings. We reconditioned the pews, which were painted white. We have them back to their original color. We put a restroom on the first floor. We upgraded the sound system. We did a study that came out with the result that the building needs $1 to $2 million of restorative work. We completely redid the church hall."
He added, "There are plenty of Polish-Americans and people from Poland who are part of the parish. They didn't leave."
"If it was an issue of religion, they would have listened to their religious leaders," Iwanowski said. "I've been investigated by Rome and they've found that I've acted in a pastoral way."
But the CDOLC will not stop fighting for what they say is the integrity of the church and its Polish congregation.
"We're not giving up," Miesak said. "Even if we have to go to court and sue the archdiocese, we'll do it. The parish is designated by the Vatican as an ethnic parish, not a territorial parish. What that means is that it serves an ethnic community instead of a community in a specific area. Legally, it's still an ethnic parish. Only the Vatican can change those designations."
"And it doesn't mean we don't want new members who don't speak Polish," Miesak added. "We just want to remain there as an ethnic community."