Polish parishioners at Our Lady of Czestochowa on Sussex Street are upset because Rev. Thomas Iwanowski, the church's pastor, has canceled Sunday's 9 a.m. mass which was said in Polish. Now the church offers no services in Polish. The church, which has catered to the Polish community more than half a century ago, has a new direction, led by Iwanowski.
When he took over the parish in the mid-1990s, he said, he was faced with a decline in the number of families that belonged to the church. To his credit, he has more than doubled the church's membership, with a few changes along the way, according to statistics issued by the church.
Iwanowski stopped offering the Polish mass because the neighborhood has changed, he said. Despite his reforms, Iwanowski has caused some adversity from Polish residents from the neighborhood, most of them lifelong members of the church who are over 65 years old.
According to some parishioners, Iwanowski has done more than cancel a mass. He has stopped traditional Polish services and has given the church an alternative name: "Our Lady on the Waterfront."
"The neighborhood which once was, is not the neighborhood that presently exists or will exist," Iwanowski said in a statement issued to the press. "Today the parish is very diverse. Like the neighborhood it serves, it is international. In changing our mass schedule, we are responding to what is happening, and also recognizing that we are being called by the Lord to reach out to the hundreds of new people who have came."
Theresa Sienkiewicz does not agree with what Iwanowski is doing. A resident of the Heights section of Jersey City, Sienkiewicz fits in the category of parish members who are Polish and over 65 years old - the group that feels alienated by Iwanowski.
"We had traditional services and he took them away," Sienkiewicz said about Iwanowski. "He doesn't care. He is discriminatory to Polish people."
Sienkiewicz has seen an increase in attendance at the church, but still Polish people are the majority, according to her.
"I know he's the boss, but he should cater to everybody, rich or poor," she said.
Sienkiewicz used to go to the Polish Mass on Sunday when it was held at 10:30 a.m., but when it was moved to 9 a.m. she could not attend because her asthma would bother her, she said.
Sienkiewicz' friend Josephine Sielski, 74, is the daughter of Polish immigrants who moved to the area and made the church their own. She said that at one time all the masses were said in Polish. She blames Iwanowski for trying to push the Polish citizens away from the parish. She recalls the priest telling her and a few of her friends that if they wanted to hear a mass in Polish they should go to St. Anthony's Church on Sixth Street.
"I've gone to English masses, but I don't like it," Sielski said. "When I go to church, I want to listen to my language. I've lived in Jersey City all my life."
Rev. Michael Gubernat from St. Anthony's said his church offers Polish services every day, and everybody is welcome to attend. It is too early to determine if the attendance at the Polish masses at 7:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. on Sunday have increased at his church, but eventually he will have a better idea, Gubernat said.
"It is not uncommon for a parish to refuse services due to changes," Gubernat said. "Adjustments are made from time to time."
According to Iwanowski, he does not want to exclude any parishioners. The door is always open to the people at his church and he understands that change may be difficult to some, he said.
"The church belongs to the whole community," Iwanowski said during a phone interview last week. "If we are Christians, we are supposed to love each other."
Signs, signs, everywhere a sign
One thing that is frustrating to Iwanowski is the signs some residents are displaying in front of their homes, accusing the parish of trying to eliminate Polish parishioners. One sign reads: "Discrimination and ethnic cleansing at Our Lady of Czestochowa church are an abomination to all decent people."
Regarding the signs, Iwanowski said: "People aren't careful of what they're saying. We need to be respectful of each other."
Warren Street resident Barbara Bromirski, who lives up the block from the church and runs a funeral parlor, made the signs. Bromirski explained the signs express the message many Polish residents have.
"I was upset when they took the Polish mass away," she said. "The priest came six years ago and has created turmoil during his time."
The Polish residents have claimed they tried to speak with Iwanowski about the possibility of bringing a priest to say mass in Polish, but he would not listen.
"He is a radical with tunnel vision. Liturgy is all he sees," Bromirski said. "We even offered to pay for a priest." The Archdiocese of Newark supports Iwanowski's actions, according to archdiocese spokesman James Goodness.
"The Father [Iwanowski] is not trying to eliminate a group. He wants the group to continue to come to church," Goodness said. "Change has always been a part of the church."
A new wave of people has arrived to the community where the church is located, Goodness said. The archdiocese does not have enough priests to meet every need the parishioners may have, so certain adjustments were in order, according to Goodness.
"It was a necessary choice. If you change the system it will have a reaction," Goodness said. "Iwanowski wants to help bridge people from the past and the future."
Sielski is not giving up. She is determined to see the church she loves to be kinder to the people that supported it for so long, the Polish.
"We are going to fight this. I'm not going to let him push me out," Sielski said. "This is my church."