Orchard Lake – can it be saved?
By Robert Strybel, Polish/Polonian Affairs Writer
Fresh out of the University of Wisconsin with an MA in Polish Language and Literature, I landed my first college teaching job at the beautiful, lakeside campus of the Orchard Lake Schools (OLS). They had started out as the Polish Seminary, set up in Detroit in 1885 by Father Józef Dąbrowski to train priests for America’s rapidly expanding Polonia. In 1910. it was moved to its present location some 30 miles north of Detroit. It eventually expanded to include St Mary’s College and St Mary’s Preparatory.
Years later, when I began teaching Polish-related subjects there, SS Cyril and Methodius Seminary was still training Polish-speaking priests for Polonia. The college was a minor seminary with upperclassmen coming to class in black, floor-length cassocks, and PolAm boys dominated the enrollment of the highly sports-minded St Mary’s Preparatory. Much has changed over the years.
In 2003, the last time I taught there, the Seminary was training Polish-born seminarians to minister in English to priest-short American dioceses. St Mary’s College had become a four-year, co-educational liberal arts college, but at the end of that academic years was taken over by Madonna University of Livonia. MI. Many said Polonia was to blame for failing to send its kids to a Polish-American college.
Then in July 2021, the closure of SS Cyril and Methodius Seminary was announced with “declining enrollment caused by changing US demographics” among the reasons given. But the Seminary and remaining OLS were far more than just educational institutions. This was a unique Polonian cultural hub that had hosted PolAm retreats and conventions as well as cultural and patriotic events. Cardinal Karol Wojtyła had referred to the OLS as “serce Polonii” (“the heart of Polonia”), when he visited before becoming pope. One Sunday a month has been Polish Day, when visitors can attend a Polish mass, tour campus, visit the bookstore, the Galeria (art gallery), Central Polonian Archives and a number of mini-museums dedicated to Poland’s World War II veterans. hen things could be topped off with home-style Polish dinner. At present, the Galeria is undergoing renovation and is closed to the public, The Polish Mission which was to have been in charge of the archives and museums has been without a director for some time, But our Polonia is desperately fighting to save this Polish-American Catholic stronghold. In the forefront of this campaign is the Honorable Ryszard Walawender, Poland’s Honorary Consul in Detroit, as well as an advocacy group known as Polskie Lobby (the Polish Lobby) and many other PolAm activists, intellectuals and professionals. Following months of spirited lobbying, in November 2021 the Seminary got at least a temporary reprieve. At a meeting, the Orchard Lake Regents voted to suspend the closure decision and give Father Bernard Witek, the new rector, until June 1st, 2022 to submit a rescue plan that the Regents can approve. But many questions still remain.
Will the next five months be enough time to draw up a comprehensive rescue plan that will be approved by the Regents? Can Polonia’s unique cultural treasure, sustained for generations by our PolAm ancestors, still experience a renaissance? If so, when, in what form and who could bankroll such a project? These and similar questions continue to absorb and trouble PolAms deeply concerned over our Polonia’s future.
There still are fears that St Mary’s Preparatory might be turned into a private, de-Polonized and de-Catholicized sports high school. After all, the 100-acre Orchard Lake campus is a temptingly prime piece of real estate worth millions of dollars. Let’s hope no-one decides to sell off piecemeal much or most of the property to finance the disputable sports high school project or some other non-Polonian venture!
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