St. Casimir's Church

St. Casimir's Church is a repository of the hopes and memories of Newark's Polish American community. It is a testament to Poland's trials, triumphs, rise, fall, and rebirth. It was the center of what was one of the largest ethnic communities in Newark and remains the center of a community that is still going strong, despite the Ironbound's ethnic transformation.

St. Casimir's - "The Basilica of the Ironbound" - stands out in a city of many architecturally beautiful churches for its ornamentation and proud ethnic identification. Its richly decorated interior is a "catechism on walls." St. Casimir's is also one of Newark's most nationalistic churches. Although other churches are palpably Italian, Portuguese, or German, none testifies to the same degree to its home country's holiness and pride. In sum, St. Casimir's church is a brilliant interpretation of Renaissance architecture in the industrial Ironbound and a unique blend of religious and secular motifs.

St. Casimir's is located at 164 Nichols Street

St. Casimir's Official Site

The Poles in Newark and America

The great Polish wave of immigration to New Jersey began in the 1880s. In 1890 the Census claimed 3,600 Poles in NJ, 14,300 in 1890, and a huge 69,000 in 1910. Nearly all of the Poles who came to the United States were rural in origin, but settled primarily in cities like Newark.

Poland at this time was divided between Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia, but the Poles were keenly aware of their nationhood. Polish nationhood that was primarily channeled through the Catholic Church and political efforts to resurrect the lost state of Poland.

The first Poles to come to Newark settled around Belmont and Springfield Avenues. Their numbers were large enough that by 1882 they founded their first fraternal organization, the Jan III Sobieski Society, named for the heroic Polish king who saved Vienna from the Turks. Just seven years later, in 1889, the Poles founded their first parish, St. Stanilaus.

However, the Ironbound Polish community eventually eclipsed the Central Ward Polish community. The Ironbound was the factory center of Newark and most of the Poles who came to Newark came here to be factory workers. Like with St. Stanilaus, fraternal organizations came before the founding of the parish. Indeed, the White Eagles (bielago orla) were extremely important in getting St. Casimir's founded.

Incidentally, the Diocese initially had a difficult time finding Polish speaking priests. At first Polish parishes were staffed by German speaking priests, taking advantage of the fact that most Poles could also speak German.

By the early 1900s the Archdiocese of Newark recognized that the Ironbound Polish population was large enough for a parish, and duly blessed the establishment of one. Thus, in 1908 the archdiocese appointed Rev. Julius Manteuffel to attend to the spiritual needs of the Ironbound Poles. Finally, after several years of lobbying and fund raising, the first mass in Polish in the Ironbound was held in St. Benedict's Hall on Sunday, September 6th, 1908.

Notice the stained glass in this photograph. The stained glass was made in Munich, Germany and is considered to be one of St. casimir's greatest treasures.

St. Casimir
At that first mass Reverend Manteuffel proposed St. Casimir as the patron saint of the parish. The name Casimir spoke of holiness to the Polish Ironbounders and of Poland's former greatness.

Prince Casimir was born in 1458, the third son of King Casimir IV and the grandson of Wladyslaw II Jagiello, the founder of the Jagiellonian Dynasty. Poland, which had a unified crown with Lithuania, at this time was at its peak, the largest state in Europe.

Prince Casimir was educated under Poland's greatest scholars and grew into an austere and intensely devout young man. Not one for royal luxury, Casimir wore a hair shirt under his robes, fasted frequently, would spend entire nights kneeling in prayer, and refused marriage to a daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor.

At age 23 (1481) when Casimir's father attended to the Lithuanian half of his realm, Casimir ruled Poland personally. His brief two year reign was known for its justice.

Sadly, Casimir's body was not as great as his spirit and he died of tuberculosis at age 26 in 1484. Over the next few decades Casimir was credited with many miracles and was canonized in 1521.

St. Casimir's was a spin-off of St. Stanilaus. Indeed, the land on which St. Casimir's was built was owned by St. Stanilaus Church. St. Stanislaus had bought the land with the understanding that one day a new Polish parish would be established there and gave St. Casimir's a $7,694 lot for only $5,000.

St. Casimir's grew tremendously over the next few years under the leadership of Rev. Paul Knappek. Knappek, a visionary and successful fundraiser, built many of the parish residences for St. Casimir's church. Knappek, several generations gone, is still remembered fondly at St. Casimir's as the church's longest serving pastor.

The 1910s was a decade of great growth for the Ironbound Polish community as more Poles came from Galicia. By 1917 it was recognized that the time had come to build a handsome, proper church.

Seeking to remind Newark that Poland had been a Renaissance kingdom, the parishioners and leadership of St. Casimir's elected a Renaissance design for their church by Joseph A. Jackson. The exterior of the church was to cost $115,000, the interior an additional $75,000. The parishioners wanted a grand church that they could be proud of and voluntarily agreed to a $25 per member assessment and a $70,000 loan.

This was WWI though and fundraising and finding a mortgage were difficult. Even though employment was high in Newark at the time, the Poles were raising money for their wartorn homeland (over $125,000 was raised).

On October 8th 1917 after a vespers mass, a cornerstone was laid. The basic structure of the church was finished by June 1920. The opening mass was a huge celebration, with Catholic officials and leading Poles coming from all over northern New Jersey.

The beautiful craftsmanship that one appreciates at St. Casimir's was not completed until 1925. Some would say that the decoration of the church is still not complete, as several murals like the Polish martyrdom scenes inside the sanctuary are only from the 1990s.

St. Casimir's is one of the most lavishly decorated churches in Newark. What is most unique about St. Casimir's decoration is how it reflects Polish Catholic history and life.

The Black Madonna of Czestochowa

One of the most significant symbols in St. Casimir's is a copy of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, the holiest icon in Poland and one of Poland's national symbols.

According to tradition, the Black Madonna was painted by St. Luke himself, on the cypress table top of the Holy Family. Art historians say that the icon is from at least the 1300s, but could be even older. Although there is no icon more holy in all of Eastern Europe, the posture of the Virgin in the painting is a common image of her pointing to Jesus, as the "one who shows the way."

Polish Catholics believe that the Black Madonna has performed many miracles over the centuries. The icon itself survived an attack by Hussite Raiders in 1430. When a Hussite soldier slashed the Madonna the icon bled, leaving two scars on her cheeks.

In 1655-6 during a Swedish invasion where the Swedes were able to conquer nearly all of Poland, the monastery holding the Black Madonna, Jasna Gora, miraculously held out against a superior military force. After this miracle King John II Casimir crowned the Black Madonna "Queen of Poland."

For centuries Poles have made pilgrimages to Czestochowa to pray for help from the Virgin. Sometimes the prayers are personal, sometimes for the nation.

For instance, in 1920 thousands of Poles from Warsaw walked to Czestochowa to pray for relief from the Soviet siege of their city. When the Soviets were beaten back, Poles called the victory the "Miracle on the Vistula."

During the German occupation Poles made pilgrimages to Czestochowa as show of defiance. During the communist period Lech Walesa wore a pin with the Virgin on it.

In this scene worshippers are shown approaching the monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa, which houses the Black Madonna.

Another unique symbol of Polish pride are the seals of Poland's major cities. Virtually every Polish city is represented. This city, Lwow, also known as Lemberg, Lvov, and Lviv, is now in the Ukraine. The seal of a lost city like this is a reminder of old Poland's enormous territorial size.
There are also images of Polish saints, and, of course, Pope John Paul II.
Two of the most notable scenes at St. Casimir's are two mural on the sides of the raredos, in the front of the sanctuary. These paintings, which were done in the 1990s, show the history of the oppression of Poland's neighbors, Germany and Russia.

Thirteen Martyrs of Pratulin

In 1874 Tsar Alexander II declared Uniate Catholicism to be illegal and seized church property throughout the Empire, in order to give it to the Russian Orthodox Church.

When the villagers of Pratulin heard of the Tsar's order they went to their humble church and surrounded it, kneeling and singing hymns. When they refused to move or break off their allegiance to the Pope, the fanatical Cossack soldiers sent a hail of bullets into them, killing thirteen and maiming many more.

This was not the only massacre of Catholics by the Russian Empire, but it is the best known. In 1996 the Thirteen Martyrs of Pratulin were beatified by Pope John Paul II. TD>

This is a painting of a notorious massacre of nuns by German troops in 1943.

The Massacre of Nowogrodek

Poland suffered more under German occupation than nearly any other country. In addition to the 3.1 million Polish Jews who were murdered, 2.5 non-Jewish Poles were killed. The Polish clergy was not targeted with the same ferocious focus that Jewish Poles were, but the Germans hated the Polish clergy for being symbols of national resistance. Over the course of the war, over 20% being killed, often as martyrs.

Even by the standards of WWII, the Germans were incredibly brutal in the northern city of Nowogrodek (now in Belarus). The Germans killed 9,500 Jewish Nowogrodekers and then targeted the Catholic population. In the winter of 1943 the Germans made repeated roundups of Poles, including several of priests.

When the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth learned that the Germans planned to execute dozens of Poles they offered themselves as sacrifices, saying ""My God, if sacrifice of life is needed, accept it from us and spare those who have families. We are even praying for this intention."

The Germans decided then to enslave the Polish prisoners, but still kill the nuns. They drove the nuns to an isolated spot in the woods and then murder eleven, burying the bodies in a shallow grave.

Most of St. Casimir's decoration is typical of what you would find in other Catholic churches. There are stations of the cross around the walls of the sanctuary, scenes from the life of Jesus, and images of the lives of the saints.

The stained glass was produced in Munich, Bavaria by designs by Ludwig Von Gerichten, a German-American who worked in Ohio. The castle in the background is based on Neuschwanstein and is a symbol of the Gerichten firm.

The windows were installed in 1919 and cost $12,000. They are now valued at more than $2.3 million.

St. Francis receives the stigmata.

The carpe diem, memento mori - "seize the day, remember you will die" - means to the Catholic faithful that they must remember that life ends with death and that death can occur at any time. Therefore we must always be in a state of readiness, spiritual and ethical, to die.

Notice how the kneeling woman at left is being passed by. The symbolic meaning is that it is not her time to die.

"Let Us Instruct All Nations"

In 1919 the Polish Educational Club of Newark was founded to prepare new immigrants for US citizenship. In 1928 the Polish University Club was founded by mostly Newarkers, to give scholarships to Polish students. Constant formation of new "falcons' nests" and Polish cultural groups took place throughout St. Casimir's early decades.

Education of the children was always a priority with the Polish community. In 1920 the school took over the former church building and in 1924 the spacious school building that still exists today was completed. The inscription over the doorway is Polish for "Let Us Instruct All Nations."

St. Casimir's school flourished for many decades. Peak student enrollement came in 1925, when 1,512 students were enrolled. Peak instructional contribution from the Felician Sisters came in 1930, when there were 18 nuns serving at the school.

This part of the Ironbound remained predominantly Polish through the 1960s. When Elisa Naveiras, who would later compile St. Casimir's Church's history, came to the Ironbound in 1969 the neighborhood was so Polish that she learned the language, even though she was Hispanic.

In the 1970s the Poles began to move to move to the suburbs (and Kearney), but neighborhood transition was glacially slow than other white neighborhoods in Newark due to the cordial relations Poles and Portuguese had with each other.

In the early 1990s there was some friction between the old guard Poles and newcomer Portuguese. In 1992 the archbishop of Newark, Theodore A. McCarrick, set up a parallel Portuguese parish called "Epiphany Parish" that was to use St. Casimir's for masses. A minority of Polish parishioners were concerned that the new parish would change the interior or even the name "St. Casimir's," even though archbishop swore that nothing like that would happen. Eventually the issue died down and the Portuguese found a new home.

Nonetheless, by the 1990s only 1% of the students in St. Casimir's School were Polish-speaking. In 2005 the name of the school was changed to the Ironbound Catholic Academy (this was part of a general reorganization of the schools in the Archdiocese).

Although St. Casimir's no longer has its own full-time Polish parochial school, it still offers Polish Saturday School, where Polish children can learn their language and culture.

This photo is from Byk's Pharmacy, across the street from St. Casimir's.

The Miracle of Pulaski Street

On the night of December 3rd 1997 there was a massive explosion in St. Casimir's basement bowling alley. No cause was ever precisely determined, but people speculate that the cause was a buildup of methane gas or the oily rags that were used to polish the bowling alley's floor.

By the time firefighters arrived minutes later smoke was billowing out from the belfries and flames were appearing from the basement stairs.

Nonetheless, Newark Fire Department and parishioners themselves were able to save St. Casimir's. The explosion took place beneath the church in the basement bowling alley, but the force of the explosion went through tunnels and came out in the school. The school was badly damaged and a few stained glass windows in the church itself were destroyed, but the damage was slight considering power of the explosion. In September 1999 the church reopened, looking as brilliant as ever.

St. Casimir's has undergone a Renaissance in the last several years under the charismatic, capable, and visionary leadership of Father Andrew Ostaszewski. Father Andrew has retired the church's $500,000 debt and attracted hundreds of new families. Under Father Andrew St. Casimir's future has seldom looked brighter.

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Text and photos by Jeffrey Bennett.  
September 2010

Special Thanks to Rev. Andrew Ostaszewski for all his help.

Selected Bibliography

Juri, Carmen. "Newark church celebrates 100th anniversary today." Star-Ledger, September 14th, 2008.

Kedra, Christina (ed). "100th Anniversary Journal of St. Casimir's Roman Catholic Church."

Peterson, Iver. "IRONBOUND JOURNAL; New Portuguese Flavor Irks Church's Old Guard. "New York Times, January 27th, 1992.

Roberts, Reginald. "Hustle and bustle on Pulaski St . - St . Casimir school and church are hubs for Polish community." Star-Ledger, September 4th, 1997.