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Michigan Catholics, Polish Americans Gather Sunday in Fight to Save Orchard Lake Seminary: Tired of Deception

By October 2, 2021November 12th, 2022One Comment7 min read

St. John Paul the Great and Father Walter Ziemba at Orchard Lake in 1976.Polish Seminary Archives

Joseph Serwach

Orchard Lake Regent claimed Polish students couldn’t come to Orchard Lake anymore, the Polish bishops said that claim was false

The Polish American Congress is urging Catholics to fill Orchard Lake’s Shrine of St. John Paul the Great Sunday to show support for Michigan’s oldest seminary. School regents want to shutter it.

“Strength in Unity,” a congress invitation reads urging people to attend the 1 p.m. Mass on October 3 at the Orchard Lake Schools campus. “From all of us, who care about Polonia’s precious institution of Orchard Lake and are concerned about preserving its true mission to Polonia and the Church, we send our sincerest and urgent appeal to join us at Orchard Lake in prayerful solidarity.”

“Together let us beseech His intercession for the protection and future of the Seminary, and for the fulfillment of Fr. Dabrowski’s mission, thus safeguarding Polonia’s treasured heritage at Orchard Lake. Let us fill the Shrine Chapel on October 3, 2021,” they wrote.

Orchard Lake is divided, The Polish immigrants founded Orchard Lake Schools with one mission: Catholic education/faith formation. Others see it as a “sports high school.” 

Athletics coaches took over starting in late 2016, pushing aside priests and practicing Catholics. Past and current school leaders and faculty filed lawsuits with charges and counter-charges flying in every direction:

The local high school students and non-Polish regents bring in the big student numbers and most tuition dollars. Moreover, they are in control, spending years of accumulated estate gifts on a new lakefront building for the high school.
The “other” sibling is Polonia: The Catholics who fill Orchard Lake chapels, the prayer Grotto — the faithful who provide more than 80 percent of the millions donated to Orchard Lake annually. For years, naysayers claimed “Polonia is dead,” but Poles keep resurfacing.
In July, Regents announced plans to close the Polish Seminary in 2022 with Steve Gross, the former coach who has run the Regents since 2016, telling the Detroit Free Press, “Its mission has been fulfilled.”

Poles and Catholic bishops disagreed. Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish Bishops Conference, and Wieslaw Lechowicz, delegate of the Polish Bishops Conference for the Pastoral Care of Polish Immigrants wrote, “contrary to spreading opinions, there is no prohibition to apply to Orchard Lake Seminary.”

The bishops continued: “We are convinced that the present time in which the trial of Fr, Chancellor Miroslaw Krol is taking place is not the most appropriate moment to make binding decisions concerning the Seminary because it suggests a connection with accusations whose truth remains to be verified by the court.”

The Catholic mission to “go out and make disciples” continues. But, the Polish Americans who support the institution ask: if any part of a mission is fulfilled, who is taking the millions? The vast inheritance? And future gifts?

The Polish donors who have paid most of the organization’s bills (multi-million-dollar gifts from estates and donations have balanced the Orchard Lake budgets for years) are changing their wills and life insurance policies until the decision is reversed, demanding Polonia take back control

Polish Americans in Defense of the Seminary at Orchard Lake began organizing this summer, warning Regents, “As Polish-Americans, we consider this decision scandalous and disrespectful to our community since our Polish ancestors bought the Orchard Lake estate.”
Polish Americans see rising real estate values and a classic land grab of an organization their families made possible: “Is this decision about a hostile takeover of the center of Polish heritage by people not related to the Polish diaspora and Polish Catholic roots?”

Poles watching the situation closely know Orchard Lake’s largest gift still subsidizes the entire organization: the more than $18 million in assets controlled by the Edward and Josephine Wikeria Foundation were given under the condition that Orchard Lake remains true to its mission.

If Regents abandon the mission, those millions (according to the Wikeria will) can pass on to another nonprofit educational institution dedicated to Polish studies like the nearby University of Michigan.

“Orchard Lake Schools is situated between two large lakes and is one of the most attractive pieces of real estate in Oakland County,” the new Polish group stresses. “The land itself is worth over $100 million. The Polish diaspora is seriously concerned that the seminary’s closure is a first step towards the seizure of assets worth millions historically under Polish-American control. We are concerned and will not allow it!”

The Vatican only chartered Orchard Lake to be a seminary
Pope Leo XXIII authorized the organization’s charter in 1885 as SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary, a Polish Seminary fed by a subsidiary college and high school named in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It soon became a very Polish global hub of Roman Catholicism.

After the growing seminary moved to its current 100-acre campus in Orchard Lake, Michigan, in 1909, many of the local neighbors became more fixated on its high school sports, its annual Polish country fair, and other famous parties.

Meanwhile, its global prominence grew: Orchard Lake sponsored the first North America trips of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyła in 1969 and 1976.

Many saw early on that he had all the qualities of a great saint and future pope. He rose to the papacy in 1978, the first and only Polish pope and one of the most influential saints in the history of the Church.

The night he arrived, St. John Paul was declared ‘the Father of Orchard Lake’

At St. Florian Catholic Church in nearby Hamtramck, Michigan, Monsignor Walter Ziemba declared the young cardinal (then 49) an honorary alumnus of Orchard Lake.

That September 1969 night, Karol Wojtyła and two priests (both future cardinals) were driven to Orchard Lake, where the students met him with torches symbolizing the light he was bringing to campus.

Ziemba then declared before all the students that the young cardinal was now “the father of Orchard Lake.”

That relationship only grew over the following decades, with John Paul calling on school leaders to “Fill Orchard Lake to capacity,” adding that if the institution didn’t already exist, it would need to be invented for the future of the Church. He also likened the campus to a smaller version of his beloved Krakow, Poland.

But like Europe, the campus has long been home to battling fiefdoms constantly at war with each other — or glaring at each other through a kind of Cold War.

However, John Paul’s spirit remains powerful from the Shrine Chapel where he preached to the Castle where he slept to the Grotto where he is honored, the lake where he kayaked, and the bookstore where his words are still circulated.

From Poland to the massive Polonia communities around the world, Poles are used to fighting. Polish Americans in Defense of the Seminary at Orchard Lake warns:

“We categorically oppose the closing of the Seminary! We believe that the closure of the Seminary is another step towards the eradication of the Polish heritage in Orchard Lake, and perhaps it is a hostile takeover of property funded by generations of the Polish community.”

They have several demands for the Regents (the full board only meets twice a year while a small inner circle makes most decisions):

Calling on the Regents, to cooperate ”with the Polish Diaspora and leading Polish-American organizations, to employ an administrator (Chancellor) from the Polish Diaspora, with appropriate experience and education, who by his commitment will lead the re-development of the Seminary in the direction consistent with the mission of the founders of the Orchard Lake Schools.”

“We demand proportionate membership in the Council of Regents for representatives of the Polish-Americans, the community who understands our heritage and interests and care for the preservation of Polish heritage.

“We propose considering accepting new seminarians from American parishes and more proactive promotion of the school.”

“We demand transparency in the activities conducted by the management board!”
“We think it’s easy to tear down something and much harder to rebuild, but it’s best to fix rather than destroy.”
As St. John Paul said during his last visit to Hamtramck in 1987:

“Dear brothers and sisters: the more you are aware of your identity, your spirituality, your history, and the Christian culture out of which your ancestors and parents grew, and you yourselves have grown, the more you will be able to serve your country, the more capable will you be of contributing to the common good of the United States.”

“Today, there is talk of the ethnic principle, of ‘roots,’ since from these roots the full personality of the individual, the community and the nation arise,” he said. “Today, it rolls like a wide wave over the face of the world, which realizes that we cannot live according to the principle of ‘all against all,’ but only according to another principle, ‘all with all,’ ‘all for all.’ Solidarity must take precedence over conflict. Only then can humanity survive, can each nation survive and develop within the great human family.”

One Comment

  • Karen M Majewski says:

    The Wikera money was given for the Polish Mission, on the condition that it NOT be used for religious purposes.