Fr. Joseph Dabrowski and 137 Years of Service to God, Country, and Polonia
Your Excellency, Bishop Thomas Paprocki, my brother priests, religious sisters, Regents, Seminary Trustees, Friends of Orchard Lake Schools, people of God, all one in the Lord, Jesus Christ:
“You are not alive by chance; you were born for this!” That’s a quote from Fr. John Ricardo, who together with his Team from Acts XXIX recently led our presbyteral retreat in the Diocese of Saginaw. Earlier in history St. Joan of Arc is quoted as saying, “I am not afraid. God is with me. I was born for this.” For each one of us here this afternoon God already has a plan which rarely comes all at once, it usually comes through prayerful discernment with others.
The first exhaustive account of the origins and early development of the “Polish Seminary” written in 1966 by Fr. Joseph Swastek, former dean of Polish American Catholic history, alumnus, and faculty member, appeared in Sacrum Poloniae Millenium. He notes, “The phrase “Polish Seminary” is a popular term sanctioned in Polish American circles by over 70 years of usage… it has been preferred to the formal title of the institution, which is SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary.” Furthermore, he underscores that it is the first seminary founded in the United States for the specific purpose of providing Polish-speaking priests for the Polish Catholic immigrants settling in America in ever increasing numbers during the second half of the 19th c.
In 1884, when the Third Plenary Council convened in Baltimore immigration of Polish Catholics assumed noteworthy proportions. In the 1850’s Polish family groups began arriving and settling in together in sufficient numbers to warrant organization of parishes. On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, “at least 30,000 Poles” lived in America, scattered throughout thirty-four states and seven territories. They organized the first Polish societies, wrote, and published books and periodicals, and founded parishes to the enrichment of American Catholicism. The bulk of Polish Catholics, about 2,000,000, immigrated after the war between the States, with perhaps, 1,400,000 settling before the close of the mission era in 1908. They encountered a predominantly Protestant Anglo-Saxon atmosphere in which the Catholic Church was a minority in the process of growth and organization. They found no Polish parishes and hardly any priests. They began to build new churches in which Polish was the habitual language. In the sixties, with increasing immigration, the number of parishes rose to 16; in the seventies it increased to 74; in the eighties it climbed to 170; in the nineties, it soared to 330; and in 1905, it reached 500.
The lack of priests to serve the growing number of parishes was a concern among the immigrants and hierarchy alike. The growing Polish immigrant population and the need for priests, who could minister in their language and appreciate their culture and customs, set the stage for the rise of the “Polish Seminary.” As noted by Fr. Swastek, Fr. Dabrowski offered two different versions of the Seminary’s origins. In his letter to Bishop Casper Borgess of Detroit regarding the possibility of founding the institution in the city, he stated that “… the Bishops of different parts of Poland… suggested the idea of erecting the college.” About five years later in a 500-word sketch of the school, Fr. Dabrowski wrote in English saying: “To Cardinal Ledochowski belongs the honor of originating the project…He conceived the idea …” He repeated the latter version in 1901, that appeared in Fr. Kruszka’s Historya Polska w Ameryce subtitiled The Idea of Founding the Polish Seminary in America, it began as follows: “About 1870 when the Poles began emigrating to America in large numbers, American bishops wrote frequently to Cardinal Ledochowski, asking him for Polish priests from Rome. Unable to satisfy their request he proposed the project of founding a Polish Seminary in America. He made known his idea to Reverend Leopold Moczygemba”.
I began by saying, “You are not alive by chance, you were born for this.” Fr. Dabrowski, compelled to leave his country, entered the Papal Polish College in Rome, completed studies for the priesthood at the Gregorian University, and was ordained for mission work on August 8, 1869. At the suggestion of a former Conventual Franciscan missionary in Texas, Fr. Leopold Moczygemba, Fr, Dabrowski accepted Bishop Joseph Melcher’s invitation to labor among Polish immigrants in the newly erected diocese of Green Bay, WI. In a letter written on January 22, 1870, to his former rector, Fr. Semenenko, Fr. Dabrowski complained about the “lamentable state” of the Polish communities in America, owing to the lack of schools and priests. In a second letter dated March 16, 1870, he estimated the population of Polish settlements at 15,000 expressing grave concern for the faith of Polish Catholics and suggesting a remedy. The remedy proposed by Fr. Dabrowski contained the germinal idea of the Polish Seminary.
In 1878 or 1879, Fr. Moczygemba submitted two petitions, one in Latin the other in Italian, to Pope Leo XIII. On January 14, 1879, the pope approved both petitions with a personal inscription on each: Annuimus in omnibus juxta petita. Leo P. P. XIII. The Latin copy was notarized by the secretary of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith on February 6, 1879. The petitions stated that there were over 200,000 Polish Catholics in the United States who lacked priests of their nationality, that he desired to build a college or seminary for Polish boys desiring to study for the priesthood, that for this purpose he had already gathered alms, and finally that he desired papal authorization to allocate all his present and future funds for the building of the institution. Later in 1901, Fr, Dabrowski wrote to Fr. Kruszka in Polish, stating: “Reverend Moczygemba…being advanced in age, did not feel strong for this task and entrusted the realization of the matter to Reverend Joseph Dabrowski.” Father Dabrowski took charge of the project which, conceived originally by him and promoted subsequently by Father Moczygemba for the most part, was after thirteen years of discussion hardly out of the planning stage, due in part to lack of support and in part to poor planning. Nevertheless, by 1884, one phase of the seminary’s formative period ended and another, much shorter, began, leading to the erection and opening of the institution on December 16, 1886. The rest is history!
In 1890 the Polish Seminary produced its first sacerdotal fruits. Two priests were ordained on March 9, 1890, at St. Albertus Church by Bishop John Foley, successor to Bishop Borgess. One of the neopresbyters, Father John Gulcz, was destined for the diocese of Harrisburg, while the other, Father Casimir Walajtys, was for the diocese of Detroit. After his ordination, though destined for another diocese, Father Gulcz labored temporarily (1891-92) in the diocese of Detroit at St. Michael Parish in Port Austin, MI.
I often wondered why I am here at Orchard Lake. I came in 1960 as a student for seven years, and after studies for the priesthood in Baltimore and 3 years as a priest in the diocese of Wilmington, spent 44 years on the Seminary’s faculty.
Fr. John Gulcz was honored in 1951 with the Fidelitas Medal of the OLS; on May 24, 1953, I received my first Holy Communion from him. In the 65 years of his pastorate, St. Hedwig Parish, Wilmington, DE, grew to nearly 2,000 families with more than 8,000 members. At the time of his death on February 15, 1962, he was 96 years of age, 72 years a priest, and the oldest alumnus of SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary. “You are not alive by chance, you were born for this.”
Perhaps, the most joyful event at the Polish Seminary was the commemoration of Father Dabrowski’s twenty-fifth anniversary of priesthood in August 1894. Students from Detroit, the Felician Sisters, and clergy from various parts of the country congratulated the rector. Pope Leo XIII sent his personal blessing on this occasion.
A year later, the entire institution received the papal benediction, when Bishop J. Foley of Detroit made his episcopal visit to Rome. Upon his return, Bishop Foley informed Fr. Dabrowski that both Leo XIII and Cardinal Ledochowski sent their special blessing to the faculty and students of the Polish Seminary in Detroit. This was a heartwarming and reassuring message that not only assuaged the heartaches of the past but also brought new courage for the future. The seminary had survived numerous criticisms and difficulties, produced at least eight priests, and published as many publications, largely owing to the generosity of its friends and the unshaken faith of its rector.
In 1896, Fr. Dabrowski, while retaining the presidency, discontinued teaching and supervision, limiting himself to spiritual direction at the seminary and devoting much of his attention to the rapidly expanding Felician Sisterhood. The actual management of the seminary passed into the hands of Fr. Witold Buchaczkowski, vice-rector and professor of dogma, canon law, logic, and Christian doctrine. Younger than the rector by twenty-two years, he was dubbed “Youngfellow” by students who respected not only his energy but also his learning. In 1909, Fr. Buchaczkowski, a man of faith, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and filled with courage led the Polish Seminary to the shores of Orchard Lake.
“You are not alive by chance; you were born for this.” On February 15, 1903, shortly after six o’clock, Fr. Dabrowski was called home to be with the Father. His funeral took place at St. Albertus Church where Bishop J. Foley sang the solemn pontifical High Mass, while four bishops knelt in the sanctuary, with nearly one hundred priests from various cities, assisted by nuns, students, and parishioners. Burial took place in the priests’ plot at Mount Elliot Cemetery. The Polish Seminary came into existence by his faith and maintained in spite of numerous hardships by his unswerving devotion was now his gift to the Church and the Polish American community as well as a monument to his own laborious life. By the example of his life, this apostle of Catholicism in America during the formative missionary period of the Seminary embodied Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “light to the world.” Together let us say, “Te Deum Laudamus” (God, we praise you!). Rest in peace, good and faithful servant of God!
The Seminary’s existence as a national institution was questioned from its very beginning by many including, Church leaders who hoped ethnic identities would disappear into a common American nationality, supported by the so-called “melting pot theory” of cultural assimilation. Orchard Lake provided a way to transition from immigrant family and neighborhood life into professional and business careers which required dealing with a larger world than that into which one had been born. With a few modifications, the Orchard Lake way of daily life that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s persisted until the 1970s. Perhaps the single most significant deviation from Roman-American seminary discipline was the practice of admitting students before they had been sponsored by a diocese.
In the post-conciliar era, the Seminary responded within the framework of “experimentation” encouraged by the Council. A Center for Pastoral Studies, established in 1968 and staffed by Seminary faculty, offered formation of permanent deacons, pastoral formation of seminarians, and continuing education for adults. Lay ministry and graduate programs made the Seminary a pioneer in religious education. The Seminary obtained initial accreditation by the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada in 1995, gaining reaffirmation in subsequent years. The Seminary has stood the test of time. By its 120-year anniversary in 2005, the Seminary continued to recruit seminarians from Poland for priestly service in American dioceses as well as students for lay ecclesial ministry in the Church.
I believe the Seminary has fulfilled its mission of priestly formation and lay ecclesial ministry formation. The Church in the United States and in Poland has significantly changed since 1885 and continues to evolve. The Fathers of Vatican Council II encouraged us in the ‘60s “… to read the signs of the times.” It is time for the Orchard Lake Schools to move on into an uncharted future and to continue serving the Church of Detroit by providing needed formation and education of young men and women in the Catholic tradition animated by the Spirit for service to others at St. Mary’s Preparatory.
The Catholic and Polish identity of the Orchard Lake Schools is essential to preserving the vision and mission of Father Joseph Dabrowski. The Polish Institute of Culture and Research, formerly the Polish Mission of the OLS, is needed to preserve the invaluable art and rich archival collection to narrate the story of Polish and Polish American Catholicism in the United States.
Reflecting upon our past achievements, we love the people who formed us and taught us. We love the institution that challenged us and stretched our imaginations. Both people and institutions are changing, and the story of one seminary closing, even if it is our seminary’s closing, will not be unique. Across our nation, churches are closing every week. I am listening for the questions in this final lesson from Orchard Lake, a place that taught me to ask really great questions. In listening, I wonder how my love for the people and the place that formed me, even as I served others, might be teaching me to bless what existed for a season, leave a legacy gift for the future, and say goodbye to what no longer serves. The final lessons SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary is teaching all of us are in it’s closing.
In the prologue to our Centennial Commemorative Book, July 1985, Fr. Cliff Ruskowski, former alumnus, College instructor of Communication Arts, Seminary professor of homiletics, and Vice-Chancellor wrote, “And you, Orchard Lake, upon the souls of your young men and women sealed this adopted birth right in fire, that same fire of the Holy Spirit that scorched the souls of: Adalbert, Stanislaus and Casimir, Hedwig Kanty and Kostka, Kolbe, Popieluszko and Wyszynski…I celebrate your past, that gallant array of mentors who fashioned intellects and inspired hearts…I celebrate your present, the new pathfinders, students and teachers, searching for a new destiny in an undefined world but armed with the sword of purpose and protected by the mail of tradition…And thus, I consecrate in oiled hands the bread of your table and the wine of your cup and whisper Eucharist for the you in me and the me in you…”
|Msgr. Francis Koper
Msgr. Francis Koper was appointed rector of SSCMS in 1977 and served for 25 years. In 2002, he was granted a one-year sabbatical, and in 2002 continued teaching until 2018, when he retired from teaching and took up residence in Gladwin, MI. On September 3, 2020, Bishop Robert Gruss of the diocese of Saginaw appointed him as pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Clare, MI.