Historic Congregation’s History Bookended by Lightning Strikes

St. Josephat’s Church photographed August 30, 20201. [Image: Zenith City Press]

This past August 28 lightning stuck the western steeple of Duluth’s historic St. Josephat’s Polish National Church, built in 1908 at 417 N. Third Ave. E. The building was recently purchased by Hope City Church, which has been using it for the past few years. St. Josephat’s congregation still survives, having merged with Minneapolis’s Sacred Heart Polish National church earlier this year; Father John Kutek visits Duluth monthly for services at the church for the handful of parishioners who remain. It’s been a tough year for Kutek, as his Minneapolis church was also heavily damaged in an April fire. But he is hardly the first priest at St. Josephat’s to face adversity—and it’s not the first time its congregation has dealt with lightning striking a steeple.

St. Josephat’s got off to a stormy start, formed by families that broke away from St. Mary’s Star of the Sea, organized by Duluth’s Catholic Poles in 1881 because Duluth’s only Catholic church did not have a Polish-speaking priest. When the city’s Roman Catholic diocese was created in 1889, it included St. Mary’s.

By the mid 1890s, Catholic Poles in America felt increasingly oppressed by the American Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy, then dominated by Irish, and to a lesser extant German, bishops. In 1897 a group of Catholic Poles in Scranton, Pennsylvania, revolted after their request for a Polish bishop was denied, and riots ensued. The uprising created the Polish National Catholic Church.

In 1906 St. Mary’s congregation built a new church at 325 E. Third St. In his dedication speech, Diocese Bishop James McGolrick reminded parishioners of the importance of learning English, part of the church’s effort to “Americanize” the Poles. At the time, the American Roman Catholic Church demanded that parishes hand over ownership of their church buildings to the local bishop.

St. Mary’s parishioners already mistrusted McGolrick, viewing his policy regarding burials in Calvary Cemetery as discriminatory against Poles. When McGolrick claimed the deed to St. Mary’s, Reverend Kamil Sierzputowski rebelled—along with about eighty of the parish’s families who wanted to hold services in Polish and be free from the Roman Catholic Church. McGolrick excommunicated them and locked the doors of St. Mary’s until he installed a loyal priest. On Sunday, August 18, priests in every Duluth Roman Catholic church read aloud a letter from McGolrick condemning the group and instructing other Catholics not to speak to the rebel Poles.

St. Josephat’s Catholic Church, photographed ca. 1920 by Hugh McKenzie. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

That same day Sierzputowski’s followers gathered at the former First Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church at 131 W. Second St. for Mass. As Sierzputowski delivered his sermon a bolt of lightning struck the building’s sixty-foot steeple. The next day, newspapers speculated whether this “miracle” would frighten the parishioners back to the Diocese. It did not. The group formed St. Josephat’s Polish National Catholic Parish and set out to build themselves a church. Sierzputowski led its dedication mass in May 1908—in Polish.

But within months the priest abandoned his flock without explanation, fleeing town and leaving parishioners heavily in debt for their new building. He begged McGolrick to return to the Roman Catholic Church, and the bishop instructed his priests to read aloud a letter Sierzputowski wrote denouncing his actions and the parish of St. Josephat’s as “wicked.” Meanwhile, the building’s architects and builders tried to sue the congregation for unpaid contracts, and the county sheriff announced he planned to auction off the building. (Fortunately the congregation was able to arrange a mortgage, which was fully paid in 1941—the same year the congregation held its first service in English.)

Father Andrew Ryczek replaced Sierzputowski. In 1909, Reverend Leo Laskowski of Duluth’s Sts. Peter & Paul, the West End’s Polish Catholic Church, found his congregation embroiled in controversy. The previous year Bishop McGolrick took ownership of his congregation’s 1902 building. The Sts. Peter & Paul Society, which formed the congregation and paid for the building, objected and took the matter to court—and won. Its parishioners remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church—most of them, anyway.

Later that year about 20 percent of the congregation decided they wanted to join the Polish National Catholic Church. When the Nationalist group invited Ryczek to speak at Stes. Peter and Paul’s, things got ugly. Parishioners loyal to the Roman Catholic Church sent women and children to greet the priest with volleys of gravel, rocks, and eggs—with one egg striking Ryczek square in the face. The matter again ended up in court, but this time the ruling favored the Diocese, which took possession of the church. The West End congregation remained part of the Diocese until it closed in the 1970s, when its merged with two others to form Holy Family Catholic Church.

Whether the damaged steeple of the 1908 church will be restored is now up to the congregation of Hope City Church. While the fate of St. Josephat’s congregation remains to be seen, its history suggests it will take more than a lightning strike to frighten off its parishioners.

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