St. Mary Star of the Sea Polish Catholic

St. Mary Star of the Sea photographed ca. 1922 by Hugh McKenzie.. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

325 E. Third St. | Architect: William Bray | Built: 1906 | Extant

Duluth’s Poles attended Mass at either Sacred Heart or St. Joseph’s north of Duluth in Gnesen Township, originally a community of Polish farmers. But the commute to Gnesen could be a day-long affair, and the Poles didn’t feel welcomed by Sacred Heart’s predominantly Irish and German congregants. By 1881, Duluth’s population included about one hundred Polish families, and they wanted their own church and a priest who spoke Polish. The Polish Roman Catholic Society of Duluth organized that year, and two years later built St. Mary Star of the Sea, a modest wooden church with a squat tower and Gothic windows. Its pastor also led Mass once a month at St. Joseph’s.

The church was later remodeled, with the addition of more windows, tower buttresses, a rose window with wooden tracery, and an octagonal tower topped with a conical spire itself crowned with a cross. It served until 1905, when it was consumed by fire caused by faulty electric wiring, leaving three hundred families without a place to worship. The congregation immediately set out to rebuild, hiring William Bray to design a Gothic Revival edifice faced with red pressed brick and trimmed in stone. Lancet windows and entryways abound—even in decorative brick along the two-sided stairway leading to the central, Third Street entrance. The building’s dominant feature is an elaborate square tower capped with an octagonal spire reaching one hundred feet into the air. Tower buttresses and Palladian windows add more Gothic touches to Bray’s design. Inside, the sanctuary originally sat nine hundred parishioners. A new priest, Kamil Sierzputowski, oversaw its construction.

Bishop McGolrick dedicated the building in 1906. During his speech he 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 hierarchy—dominated by Irish, and to a lesser extant German, bishops—demanded that its parishes hand over ownership of their churches to the local bishop. St. Mary already had a shaky relationship with McGolrick, viewing his policy regarding burials in Calvary Cemetery as discriminatory against Poles. When McGolrick claimed the deed to the church, Reverend Sierzputowski rebelled—along with about eighty of the parish’s families who wanted to hold services in Polish and be free from the American Roman Catholic Church. The entire congregation was soon without a church, as McGolrick had its doors locked. It stood shuttered for months until McGolrick installed a new pastor.

As the decades passed and other nearby Catholic churches eventually closed due to declining attendance, St. Mary’s welcomed their congregations, including that of Sacred Heart, where its founding parishioners had not felt welcomed themselves. Although its membership has declined and its parishioners are no longer exclusively Polish, St. Mary Star of the Sea continues to provide Duluth Catholics with a place to worship.

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