The Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC) is a Catholic Church founded and based in the United States by Polish-Americans. The stirring story of the Polish National Catholic Church is one of irrepressible freedom. It is a story of belated Reformation, with all the conflict and struggle that marked that phase of church history, taking place in the 20th century on American shores.
An increasing stream of immigrants poured into the United States until nearly a million Poles resided there in the decade preceding World War I. They brought with them their religious fervor, their dream of freedom, and sought to recreate the community life they had known in the homeland. There the parish was the center of everything, where they had not only prayed with family, relatives, and neighbors, but where they had participated in community activities and festivals and sung music half-popular, half-liturgical, the peculiarly Polish Christmas carols, the Kolęda, and tragic Gorzkie Żale Lamentations in memory of Christ’s passion. In the United States, as in Poland, the church was an integral part of daily life. They could not establish a church of their own without securing the bishop’s approval, and they had to accept the pastor he appointed. When the houses of worship they had erected in the new country, through toil and sacrifice, were declared to be the sole possession of the bishops of the various dioceses, they were outraged. They particularly resented orders to give up teaching the Polish language and culture in their parish schools.
Discontent blazed into open revolt and mass upheavals took place in numerous Polish communities. Dissident Polish Catholics began separating as early as 1873 in Polonia, Wisconsin, 1877 in Chicago, 1886 in Detroit, 1895 in Buffalo, 1897 in Cleveland and in Scranton, as well as smaller communities in New England and New Jersey. These movements started spontaneously and independently of each other, often involving church blockades, pushing, shoving and fist fights.
The independents complained that church authorities were not ministering to the needs of Polish Americans. They perceived themselves as being manipulated by Irish and German bishops appointed by Italian popes. Not one bishop of Polish descent existed in the United States, and the churches the members built with their hard-earned money became the property of the diocesan bishops.
Bitter recriminations were traded by both sides. The independents were called heretics and worse. They responded with charges that Polish Roman Catholics were enslaving themselves to non-Poles, just as they had in Poland.
In Scranton, Pennsylvania, a parish delegation of Polish anthracite miners and factory workers, who made up the congregation of the large and imposing Sacred Heart Church to which they had contributed hard-earned funds, requested lay representation in parish affairs. They were refused. A group then tried to block the entrance of the priest into the church. The diocesan bishop called the police and a riot developed. Fifty-two persons were arrested. Within weeks, the alienated groups organized a new parish, and a few months later purchased land for a new church. They invited a young Polish-born priest, Father Francis Hodur, who had already endeared himself by participating in social work, publishing one of the first parish newspapers, and otherwise showing his concern for their welfare, to accept leadership of their flock. It was a fateful decision for him, and he knew it, but on March 21, 1897, he celebrated Mass for them in the basement of the unfinished structure that was to become St. Stanislaus, mother church of the new movement. Two hundred and fifty families formally united with the new parish.
Scarcely five months later, the movement leaped beyond Scranton and began its march through the Pennsylvania anthracite fields. Other disaffected groups turned to Scranton for guidance. In April, 1897 Father Hodur, a believer in the power of the press, started; weekly paper the “ Straż” or “The Guard,” and in it poured out advice and encouragement. In February, 1898, he traveled to Rome to present the National Church program, created by the St. Stanislaus Parish Committee and co-signed by the neighboring churches of Nanticoke, Wilkes-Barre, Plymouth, Duryea, and Priceburg (now Dickson City), and sought a recognition of American-Polish problems which he could not get from the American hierarchy.
The program called for:
1. Legal ownership of church property by the local parish;
2. Parish governance by parish committees elected by parishioners;
3. Appointment of pastorates of priest approved by the parishioners;
4. Appointment of Polish bishops by priests and parishioners, subject to confirmation by the Pope.
Father Hodur and his community did not intend to break away from the Roman-Catholic Church. He himself was hopeful that the demands of immigrants would be granted within the framework of the Roman–Catholic Church. While in Rome, Father Hodur met first with Cardinal Mieczysław Halka Ledóchowski, and then with Father Cormier. He was told that his efforts were fruitless, and that he must submit to the authorities of the Church and face the consequences.
Unfortunately, Father Hodur’s mission was unsuccessful, and the result was complete severance between Scranton and Rome. In a short time, he and the Scranton Parish were excommunicated. Father Hodur read the document of excommunication to his congregation, then burned it and threw the ashes into the brook below the hill on which St. Stanislaus Cathedral stands. To the tolling of bells, people sang, prayed aloud, embraced each other and started their „new, free and dangerously expendable life.”
The formal break with the Roman Catholic Church took place on Sunday, December 16, 1900, during a parish meeting. The Assembly decided to ask Father Hodur and the priest who supported him not to look to the Vatican any longer, but to teach the people in the spirit of the Polish Church, and that they would stay loyally at their sides and help organize the National Church, the Polish Catholic Church in America.
On Christmas Eve 1901, the walls of the now completed St. Stanislaus Church resounded for the first time to Mass sung in the Polish language. At that time, other disgruntled Catholics following Scranton’s lead were forming independent parishes elsewhere and aligning themselves with Father Hodur. Within a few years, the Buffalo and Chicago groups also joined with Scranton. The movement had spread to most cities with a substantial Polish ethnic population.
In September 1904, the first Synod of the new Polish National Catholic Church was held in Scranton with 147 clerical and lay delegates representing two dozen parishes and 20,000 adherents in five states. Father Hodur was chosen Bishop-elect and administrator of the new church.
The first Synod defined the purpose of the new church as follows:
1. To sanctify people by introducing them to the living Christ;
2. To preach the pure Gospel of Jesus, interpreting it with sound knowledge;
3. To help mankind create a church which, in living practice, would meet the standards of Jesus Christ.
The new constitution had a decidedly American flavor. The source of sovereignty was declared to rest in each democratically organized parish, which owned, controlled, and administered all parish property. The parish selected its own pastor, it paid pastoral and other salaries, and it had the right to elect to the General Synod one delegate for every 50 active members of the congregation. Ultimate and virtually complete authority was handed to the church’s legislative body, the General Synod.
This First General Synod gave unquestioned support to the ancient Christian concept of Apostolic Succession, according to which no man could legitimately exercise episcopal authority without receiving that authority from a bishop, who himself was in direct line of descent from the Apostles. Father Hodur was consecrated September 29, 1907 in St. Gertrude’s Cathedral, Utrecht, Holland. The consecrators were Most Rev. Gerard Gull Archbishop of Utrecht and head of the Old Catholic Churches of Europe; Rt. Rev. John Van Thiel, Bishop of Haarlem; and Rt. Rev. Michael Bartholomew Spit, Bishop of Deventer.
The Utrecht rite symbolized the establishment of Old Catholic intercommunion-a form of spiritual alliance between the American and European churches, and the passing on of Apostolic Succession. Thereafter, the American denomination followed its own way without further recourse to Europe for assistance.
During the following synods the PNCC rejected the authority of the Pope, allowed clergy to marry, used Polish and English in masses, and gave the laity control of church property. Within the early years, the membership of the new church had grown beyond all expectation. Seceding groups of Roman Catholic Slovaks and Lithuanians in New Jersey and Pennsylvania sought affiliation. New parishes appeared in New England, Minnesota, and Missouri. To meet his problems of far-flung administration, Prime Bishop Hodur consecrated four additional bishops.
After World War I, in sending relief aid to the new republic of Poland, the American Polish National Catholic Church sent missionaries as well. The work took root despite opposition by the established churches, police, and civil authorities. Before the German-Nazi invasion blighted all growth, the church claimed a membership in Poland of 50,000 people, organized in a diocese of 56 parishes.
After the eclipse of the war and loss of one-third of its priests, the church achieved a remarkably swift revival and by early 1950, and as had been said, 122 parishes in the homeland, staffed however by only 70 priests. In May 10, 1951 the Bishop in Poland, Józef Padewski, became a victim of communism and died in a communist prison at Warsaw. The outward symbol of the oneness of all churches within the Christian Catholic family, which had been demonstrated at Utrecht in 1907, was demonstrated again in 1956 when the Polish National Catholic Church entered into intercommunion with the Anglican Church of England and the Episcopal Church of the United States and Canada.
The doctrine of the Polish National Catholic Church is founded on the Holy Scripture, Holy Traditions, and four Ecumenical Synods of the undivided Church. This doctrine is expanded in the Credo as adopted by the General Synods and in the Eleven Great Principles.
„To bear the light of Jesus Christ before men, to bring constantly to our minds that our purpose is a life in the spirit of God, in the spirit of truth, love and righteousness, to help us grow like Christ Himself through fulfillment of our duties to God, family, nation and humanity-that is the appeal, the mandate and the purpose of the Polish National Catholic Church.”
Today, the PNCC is a viable church of about 25,000 members organized into five dioceses: Buffalo-Pittsburgh, Central, Eastern, Western and one in Canada. The Polish National Catholic Church welcomes people of all ethnic, racial, and social backgrounds.