Fr. Joseph Dabrowski:
Jan. 27, 1842 – Feb. 15, 1903
By Sr. Genowefa Potaczała
He was born in 1842 in the village of Żółtańce (Chełm poviat), where his father leased a farm. He graduated from a gymnasium in Lublin. In 1862 he began studies at the Main School in Warsaw, where he immediately became involved in the underground movement of students preparing to participate in the planned uprising against the Russian invader.
He took part in the fights at the beginning of the uprising when Ludwik Mierosławski was the dictator of the uprising. He commanded a group of ten insurgents and miraculously escaped death. After the defeat of the uprising, he was hiding because he was facing imprisonment or deportation to Siberia, and perhaps the death penalty. At the beginning of 1864, he managed to get to Germany, then to Switzerland, where he wandered around and earned his living by undertaking various physical work. In March 1866, he was already a first-year student of the newly opened Polish College in Rome, so a theological seminary led by resurrectionist priests. He ordained a priest on August 1, 1869, and soon left for the United States at the invitation of the bishop of Green Bay in Wisconsin, where he asked to be assigned to the Polish ministry. In the spring of 1879, he received a very neglected, spiritually and materially, Polish parish in Polonia, in the State of Wisconsin. For over twelve years, this place has become an area for positivist “work from scratch”.
According to Fr. Dąbrowski, the condition of Polish settlements in Wisconsin was as follows: “There are enough of our settlements, and there is not one school. Children grow, but only on the body, in size, and their minds sleeps … nationality fades (…). Our Poles live without Mass, without a sermon, without learning… “ . First, he had to deal with the local business community and moved the church building to a new location, from old one, where church was surrounded by three taverns (two German and one Polish).
Then, in 1874, he invited Felician Sisters from Kraków to run the school. Thus, the town of Polonia became the cradle of Felician Sisters in the United States. Soon the sisters founded their novitiate there and were sending sisters to run schools in other Polish parishes in distant states. In the village of Polonia, apart from school, the sisters also ran the first Polish orphanage.
Father Dąbrowski was not only the chaplain of his parish, but also cared for Poles living among forests in towns located even 80 miles from the parish. In his parish, Polonia, he was not only a chaplain but also a builder – in the literal sense of parish buildings such as: a church, a school, a sisters’ house and presbytery. He also shared his knowledge by teaching novice sisters not only religion, but also general history, church history, geography, arithmetic, Latin, physics, chemistry, and drawings. He had a special love for science. While still in Switzerland, he attended lectures on mathematics and technology in Bern. He was interested in electro mechanics and technical inventions. He himself built a sundial in the garden and installed a telephone between the parish buildings. For the purposes of educating children and for parishioners, he was developing books, then printing them on a manual printing press, and finishing with binding. He taught the sisters of how to make ink, dry and gray soap, yeast and vinegar, repair shoes, and make cloth from wool. He also knew about gardening.
Father Dąbrowski did not stop at the pastoral care of Polish emigrants. He also dealt with the indigenous peoples of America, so Indians lived in the surrounding forests. He learned their language and even published an Indian-Polish dictionary for the Felician sisters. The Indians invited him to feasts and weddings, calling him a “black dress”. He converted to Christianity one tribe of about 200 people. There are records of Indian baptisms in parish registers. He taught them the art of farming and encouraged them to settle down. However, this mission was unsuccessful. The Indians returned to a nomadic lifestyle.
From 1882 Fr. Dąbrowski settled down in Detroit, where Felician sisters moved their headquarters. Here also Fr. Dąbrowski worked as a construction worker at the construction of the nuns’ convent, and later at the construction of the seminary. He also continued his hobby by arranging physical and chemical workshops as well as a mechanical workshop in his small house. He developed a printing house in the convent of the sisters where he continued to publish the textbooks he had developed. He also taught sisters the art of printing and book binding. The first book he published, while still in Polonia, was Calendar (Kalendarz). Then he published: Polish Readings (Czytanki Polskie), Arithmetic (Arytmetyka), Polish Geography (Geografia Polska), Gardening (Ogrodnictwo), and others. In 1891 he started publishing the illustrated weekly newspaper Sunday (Niedziela), which continued to publish until 1907.
Striving for the best education for Polish youth, Fr. Dąbrowski took care of providing qualified teaching staff. He brought to the seminary teachers both clergy after studies in Rome and lay teachers who had diplomas from American universities. He was particularly concerned with the education of the sisters who were a main pillar of his teaching staff. Initially, only in primary schools, but over time the sisters established their own universities.
Their success is supported by the fact that all the sisters/teachers passed the diocesan school commissions exams established by the Third Baltimore Synod in 1887. The sisters repeated their success in 1892 by passing the teachers’ examination before the state commission in Lansing, Michigan state capital . Although he was not an expert in literature, Fr. Dąbrowski was developing his pupils’ literary passion by organizing the Literary Society. He was also famous for organizing patriotic ceremonies, especially in 1883, on the 200th anniversary of the Relief of Vienna, when he “moved the entire Detroit Polonia at that time”. He reacted similarly to the events of the school strikes in Września in 1902, issuing a proclamation in the weekly newspaper Sunday (Niedziela) and organizing a protest rally in Detroit together with other priests.
There were dramatic situations in Father Józef’s priestly life. While still in Polonia, he survived three fires in buildings that destroyed the presbytery, the sisters’ house, and the church. Probably twice, they were set on by the priest’s enemies . The experience in Detroit was also dramatic, when he was appointed administrator of St. Albertus Church during the famous scandal of Fr. Dominik Kolasiński. Supporters of Fr. Kolasiński attacked him several times, even during the service, and they threatened to take his life. An aggressive crowd broke windows in the convent of the Felician Sisters and in the seminary . Another problem that probably caused the death of Fr. Dąbrowski is a revolt of 29 seminarians who, among many different demands, under the threat of leaving the seminary, demanded that the vicerector be dismissed. Father Dąbrowski did not give in, so the seminarians left. The petition was presented on January 23, 1903, on February 2, Fr. Dąbrowski survived a heart attack and died two weeks later, on February 1528.
For several reasons, Fr. Józef Dąbrowski deserves to be called the father of Polish diaspora education in the United States. He edited and published the first textbooks for Polish schools, he brought the first Polish sisters to run parish schools, and finally, he is the founder of the first and only one Polish theological seminary in the United States.
Syski, Ks. Józef Dąbrowski