In the 1840s, Polish immigrants began trickling into the Milwaukee area, looking for freedom of religion, an improved economic outlook and a better life. The most significant number arrived between 1865 and 1910. These devout Catholics sought the freedom to practice the faith, which led to their making sacrifices in order to build several Catholic churches; most are still here today.
Milwaukee native John Smallshaw did extensive research on the Polish-built churches in Milwaukee and hopes to find a publisher for his manuscript. He got the idea for the project from his wife, Anna, a Polish immigrant.
“When my wife Anna and I first started dating in 2005, my parents were still alive and living out in Waukesha County,” he said. “We came up from Chicago for a visit, and because Anna had grown up in Poland, my father took us over to St. Stanislaus to see the beautiful mosaic of Our Lady of Czestochowa on the south side of the church. I had been actively writing articles for a specialized historical journal. Anna suggested that it might be interesting to apply my writing experience to capture the Polish immigrants’ story and their churches in my hometown.”
Because there was little data available, Smallshaw worked on his research for three years, hoping to find a publisher for his work. Unsuccessful, he donated his materials to the Polonia Library at UW-Milwaukee and thought his project would not come to fruition. He currently contributes articles on Polish Catholic-constructed churches for Milwaukee’s Kuryer Polski Journal.
“There were still some posts regarding the project out on the Internet, so from time to time, I would get inquiries on the project,” he said. “Two women from Milwaukee encouraged me to start again, so I spent the last two years looking for additional information. All told, I worked on this for about five years over (the course of) 15 years.”
Smallshaw was astonished that Polish immigrants had constructed so many churches within the Milwaukee city limits in his research. Identifying 19 of them, he learned that immigrants from the Prussian partition of Poland were encouraged to come to Milwaukee to do the heavy lifting for German factory owners because many of them spoke rudimentary German.
“Despite a lack of education, limited English language skills and working for the barest minimum of wages, they constructed some of the most beautiful churches in the city, including the majestic Basilica of St. Josaphat,” Smallshaw said. “The story of the Basilica of St. Josaphat was pretty incredible. A priest who had formerly been a blacksmith believed they could build a church rivaling St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in a working-class section of Milwaukee.”
The Polish immigrants building the majestic churches of Milwaukee worked 10-hour days, six days a week, for a mere $1.30 per day. Smallshaw explained that Poland was partitioned between Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary during this time. Both Prussia and Russia had worked to eliminate not only the Polish language but also the Catholic faith. They pushed Lutheranism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
“The Poles saw the construction of their churches as essential to retaining their Catholic faith, Polish traditions and education of their children in the faith,” he said. “The immigrants not only contributed their labor to the construction of the churches in their limited time off but took out second mortgages on their homes to finance the buildings.”
For Smallshaw’s wife, Anna, the sacrifices of the early immigrants to Milwaukee hit home because she escaped Communism in Poland in 1981.
“I think the biggest impact for her was recognizing the incredible commitment to faith that earlier generations of Polish immigrants had despite strong efforts to eradicate it,” he said. “I was also quite surprised by the sheer number of churches and the sacrifices involved in their construction. I was also unaware of the struggle Polish immigrants had to be accepted as equals in Milwaukee and their fight against discrimination around the turn of the 20th century.”
Smallshaw hopes his book will reach Milwaukee’s Catholic community and Polonia, which he described as the descendants of Polish immigrants. He added that there is great interest in Poland itself.
“Anna and I were recognized by John Paul II Catholic University at Lublin this year for our efforts. John Paul II University is attempting to identify and document every single church constructed by Poles in America,” he said.
Smallshaw and his wife recently retired to Savannah, Georgia, and are members of Sacred Heart Parish. John plays bass and his 12-string guitar in a folk choir. Anna hosts a Bible study in their home and is a busy iconographer in the Russian Byzantine Tradition.
The Smallshaws are looking for help to get their Polish Churches of Milwaukee manuscript published. Those interested in helping can reach them through their website, https://polishchurchesofmilwaukee.org.