St. Josephat Polish National Catholic

St. Josephat Catholic Church, photographed ca. 1920 by Hugh McKenzie. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

417 N. Third Ave. E. | Architects: Bray & Nystrom | Built: 1908 | Extant

By the mid-1890s Catholic Poles in America felt just as oppressed by the American Catholic Church’s Irish-German hierarchy as they did by the Prussians many of them had fled from. A group of Catholic Poles in Scranton, Pennsylvania, revolted in 1897 after their request for a Polish bishop was denied, and riots ensued. Led by Reverend Franciszek Hodur, they formed an independent church, St. Stanislaus, which evolved into the Polish National Catholic Church.

When Reverend Kamil Sierzputowski and his followers at St. Mary Star of the Sea rebelled against Roman Catholicism in 1907, Bishop James McGolrick excommunicated them. On Sunday, August 18, they gathered at the former First Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church at 131 West Second Street for Mass led by Sierzputowski. Meanwhile, in every Roman Catholic Diocese church in the city, priests read aloud a letter from McGolrick condemning the rebels and instructing other Catholics not to speak to them: excommunication. At eleven a.m., as Sierzputowski was delivering 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 the St. Josephat’s Polish National Catholic Parish and hired architects William Bray and Carl Nystrom to design them a church of their own. Their Romanesque Revival building sits on a foundation of pressed brick and is faced with red brick from Menomonie, Wisconsin, trimmed with contrasting Bedford limestone. Two square towers with hexagonal steeples topped with crosses rise from the corners along it Fifth Street central façade. Between them, over the recessed arch entryway, sits a large stained-glass rose window. Bishop Hudor himself came from Scranton to help lay the cornerstone. When the church was completed in May 1908, Sierzputowski led its dedication Mass—in Polish.

But within months Sierzputowski abandoned his flock without explanation, fleeing to Cleveland and leaving parishioners heavily in debt for their new building. He begged McGolrick to return to the Roman Catholic Church, and a letter he wrote in September 1908 denouncing his actions and the parish of St. Josephat’s as “wicked” was read in every Duluth Catholic Diocese Church. Meanwhile, the architects and contractors tried to sue the congregation for unpaid contracts, and the building was nearly sold off by the county sheriff. Fortunately the congregation was able to arrange a mortgage, which was paid off about the same time the first service in English took place in 1941.

While its congregation had dwindled to less than twenty by 2006, St. Josephat held masses until the spring of 2021, when finances forced them to sell the building to Hope City Church, which had been using the facility for several years. St. Josephat’s congregation remains together, merging in 2021 with Minneapolis’s Sacred Heart church. Father John Kutek visits Duluth monthly for services in rented facilities. Unfortunately for St. Josephat’s new owners, on August 28, 2021, lightning struck the western steeple, setting it aflame. At this time there is no word if the new congregation will have it rebuilt.

For a better understanding of the history of Polish Catholics in Duluth, see also St. Mary Star of the Sea and Sts. Peter & Paul.