Right Reverend Monsignor Lucyan Bojnowski

Exegi monumentum aere perennius – I have created a monument more enduring than bronze, a monument which neither rain nor wind can destroy.” [1] These lines opened the tribute and obituary to Right Reverend Monsignor Lucyan Bojnowski in the newspaper he operated for over fifty years on 12 August 1960.  The Catholic Transcript at his retirement called Monsignor Bojnowski, “a tireless builder, extraordinary administrator, and distinguished churchman and patriot.” [2] At the age of 92, Monsignor Bojnowski, or “Father B” as he was affectionately called, passed to his Eternal Reward.  “Father B’s” accomplishments could fill several life-times.  His energy, zeal, and ambitions were enormous.  Although he never achieved all of his grand designs for the Polish Catholic immigrants he shepherded in New Britain, CT, his legacies endure in the parish he built and the institutions he established, and the lives he touched.

Born in Swierzbutowo (Russian Poland) in 1860 to a middling szlachta (noble) family, young Lucyan Bojnowski received a classical education at a lyceum in Suwalki, not far from the family home. Subject to his strict father’s discipline and facing induction into Tsarist Russian army, Lucyan Bojnowski made the fateful and uneasy decision to leave his homeland.   Subject to increased Russian persecution and suppression following the failure of the 1863 Uprising, many Poles faced the question of continuing the struggle to endure or to stake out a new life in a new land.  Both actions had consequences.[3]

Bojnowski made the decision to leave.  In September, 1888, he boarded a ship bound from Hamburg, Germany to New York City and America.  Processed at Ellis Island and allowed entry into the United States, Bojnowski ventured his way to Glastonbury, CT where he worked at a farm in a peach orchard. After working hard for nearly a year and having raised some money, young Bojnowski then wrote his father and appealed for $600.00 so he could pursue a life as a priest.  His father agreed and young Lucyan Bojnowski entered the Seminary of Sts. Cyril & Methodius in Detroit in October, 1889.[4]

When Lucyan Bojnowski experienced his calling is unclear.  Whether it was as a youth in Russian Poland or in the United States is not important.  What is certain is that Lucyan Bojnowski strongly identified with his Roman Catholic faith and equated that with his Polish identity.  This was something Bojnowski espoused with great pride throughout his life.  But his experiences at the seminary taught him how to deal with the stresses of life and compassion.  Toward the end of 1891, seminarian Lucyan Bojnowski became gravely ill following Christmas services at Detroit’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. Bojnowski did not recover over the course of 1892.  In desperation and running short of funds, he wrote to Father Joseph Joch, head of a hospital in Marshfield, Wisconsin.  Father Joch, out of compassion, sent the train fare that transported Bojnowski to the hospital where he was nursed back to health.  Probably because of this experience, one of Father B’s life goals became to establish a hospital.[5]

Following his recovery, Lucyan Bojnowski continued his studies until receiving minor orders in 1894.  He had to complete his religious studies at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, MA and was ordained in January 1895 by Bishop Michael Tierney of the Hartford Diocese.  After briefly serving in Meriden and Bridgeport, Bishop Tierney assigned the young priest to a nascent Polish parish in New Britain, the Sacred Heart of Jesus.[6]

Upon arriving in New Britain, Father Bojnowski faced extraordinary challenges in organizing the Polish Catholic immigrants and uniting them under his leadership.  Early on, facing criticism about the site of the church that would become Sacred Heart, he made the decision to buy a plot of land on Orange Street where construction of a church building began.  The cornerstone was blessed in July of 1896 and the wooden church structure was completed and blessed by Bishop Tierney on 4 October later that year. [7] As the numbers of parishioners increased with the pace of Polish immigration, the small Sacred Heart Church on Orange Street soon outgrew its usefulness and Father Bojnowski began raising funds and planning a new, larger church building to be built around the corner on Broad Street.  The cornerstone was laid and blessed by Bishop Tierney on 28 September 1902. While construction of the church went on, “Father B” was often seen assisting the workers or conversing with them on the progress of the building.  While construction on the Gothic designed structure was delayed in 1903, it was completed and subsequently consecrated by Bishop Tierney on 28 February 1904.[8]

Father Bojnowski saw the Church as playing an active role in providing moral guidance directing the lives and providing for his parishioners from the cradle to the grave, acquiring properties through the northwest area of New Britain to realize his vision. He shared the moral positions of Catholic Church wanted to prevent his parishioners from being swayed by vices, especially alcoholism.  In the wake of building Sacred Heart Church, Father Bojnowski created a host of religious organizations keep his parishioners engaged and inculcated with Christian teachings:  The Apostleship of Prayer; Carmelite Scapular Society; Scapular Society of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (all 1896).  Additional groups included the Third Order of St. Francis and Fraternity of the Holy Rosary (1897) Along with numerous daily and weekly masses to tend to the burgeoning numbers of parishioners, Father Bojnowski held regular Sunday Vesper services, weekly Sunday morning Little Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary,  evening devotions to the Virgin Mary in May, the Sacred Heart of Jesus in June, and the Rosary in October, Forty Hours Devotions during Advent, along with the annual Gorzkie zale  (bitter lamentations) observations during Lent.[9]

The “Polish identity” of many of Sacred Heart’s parishioners was inchoate at best.  Many of the Polish immigrants came from rural peasant backgrounds scattered across the three partitioned Polish territories. Most were uneducated and illiterate. Those who were educated received a limited and partial ability in reading and writing.  Their “Polishness” was drawn on their Roman Catholic faith and the ritual observances in the towns and villages before coming to the U.S.  In Russian Poland, the teaching of the Polish language and traditions was prohibited under the Tsars to prevent another Polish uprising. Few learned Polish only in secret in the villages and the “flying universities” in the urban areas. The history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; the politics and high culture of the szlachta (nobility); the poetry of Mikolaj Rej and Jan Kochanowski; the Sarmation Epics; the memorable lines of Mickiewicz and the literature of Slowacki, Krasynski, and Norwid were as alien to the peasants as calculus and trigonometry were.  Instead many of these peasant immigrants identified themselves with their local origins and provinces along with religion.  As Msgr. Alphonse Fiedorczyk noted his memoirs:

I remember hearing as a boy such expressions, ‘Here’s a Grodzieniak (Pole from Russian Poland). How could he marry a Galicianka (Pole from Austrian Poland)?’ Father B. was Grodzieniak, but…To his people he was a Catholic priest of Polish heritage.  Like St. Paul – there was no Greek or Jew-there was no Grodzieniak, Suwalak, Lomzieniak, Pursak, Poznaniak, Galicijak. They were all his children.  He was their father. [10]

Msgr. Fiedorczyk’s observations of the fragmented “Polishness” of the many newly arrived immigrants in his parish pointed to the challenges Father B faced in leading and educating his parishioners.  To that end he led commemorative events memorializing various events in Polish history at the parish and the parochial school he established.   In 1911, Father Bojnowski led the 120th anniversary celebration of the Polish Constitution at the newly built Sacred Heart School where a major celebration of the 3 May Constitution was held.  Speeches from Father B and local dignitaries praised the Polish immigrants in New Britain for their civic engagement and patriotism, reflecting the aid of Kosciuszko and Pulaski for their support in the American Revolution. [11] Other similar events were designed not only to educate the American public in the Polish contributions to American society, but educating his parishioners and having them take pride in their Polish heritage.

Along with educating the youth of his parish in a parochial school and the adults in their Polish heritage, Father Bojnowski had a deep concern for the welfare of orphans.  On a visit to Poles residing in Moodus in 1904, he was met a widower with five children who tearfully asked for his help.  Moved by the family’s condition, Father Bojnowski sought out funds and donations and began an orphanage on Orange Street later that year.  By 1906, a new home on Orange Street was built to house 55 orphans.[12]  As the Great War broke out 1914, fighting on the Eastern Front over the partitioned Polish territories had generated many orphans.  Father Bojnowski arranged to have a number of these orphans brought to the U.S. and many were housed in his orphanage until the end of the war.  With the rebirth of an independent Poland, the orphans were returned to Poland.  Yet the need for a new orphanage building grew and Father Bojnowski raised the necessary funds after the war. Raising $300,000 the cornerstone for the orphanage on Burritt Street was laid in April 1922[13] and completed the following year.  Consecrated by Bishop Nilan in August 1923, the ceremony drew dignitaries from all over the U.S, to New Britain and was named the Orphanage of Our Lady of Rozanystok.[14]

As part of Father Bojnowski’s vision of cradle to the grave care for his parishioners, he sought to create a home for the aged. After the end of the Great War and completion of the Orphanage, he began to raise funds for this next project.  While he welcomed gifts, Father Bojnowski embraced the novel notion of selling bonds of $1,000 at 5% interest. Instead of hiring a professional contractor, he called for volunteers led by foreman Piotr Swider, that broke ground on Burritt Street in the summer of 1924.  The cornerstone was laid and blessed by Bishop Nilan on 5 October and with an all volunteer crew, the St. Lucian’s Home for the Aged was completed and dedicated on 13 September 1925.[15]

To tend to the teaching and caring needs of the Sacred Heart of Jesus parochial school, St. Lucian’s Home, and the Rozanystok Orphanage Father Bojnowski founded a religious order of sisters, the Daughters of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1904.  As Father Bojnowski’s projects and accomplishments expanded, so did the duties of the Daughters of Mary.  The nuns served as teachers at Sacred Heart School, caregivers at the Orphanage and St. Lucian’s Home, educating young women at Mary Immaculate Academy established in 1945, and tended to the needs of newly arrived immigrants to the St. Joseph’s Home in New York City.  Father Bojnowski had assumed control over the home in 1907, and by 1913, the Daughters of Mary were serving there as well.  The Order had provided opportunities for religious life and service to young women and grew considerably in the decades after its founding.  Under the direction of Father Bojnowski, funds had been raised to construct a Mother House on Osgood Avenue in 1935.  Bishop McAuliffe blessed the cornerstone in July 1936 and the final consecration of the completed building in 1937. [16]

At the point of no return, Father Bojnowski planned for his parishioners to be buried in consecrated ground.  Using the properties he purchased along Burritt Street, he organized the effort to have his parishioners buried there instead of at St. Mary’s Cemetery. The consecration ceremonies took place in September, 1912 in a well-orchestrated and well-attended ceremony.  Bishop Nilan was unable to attend, so Father Bojnowski, joined by fellow Polish priests from parishes in Connecticut.[17]

Father Bojnowski also served as a close friend and mentor to many young Polish men who entered the priesthood.  Many of the young men started as altar boys at Sacred Heart Church.  Others were priests born in one of the partitioned Polish territories and arrived in the U.S. receiving welcome and support from Father B, sometimes to his detriment. [18] Yet, as Msgr. Fiedorczyk notes, “Father B was not to be outdone by any rectory as far as having the welcome mat out for a brother priest at the door.”[19]

Father B fostered the creation of secular societies and organizations to encourage the involvement of his Polish parishioners into American society:  from mutual self-help groups, a bakery, the Polish American Business and Professional Association, and People’s Savings Bank (1907) among others. He promoted U.S. citizenship classes for his parishioners, English-language classes, encouraged to work hard and to pray hard, and to retain their “Polishness” while becoming Polish-Americans.  His hard work earned him the respect of many non-Catholics and non-Poles in the City of New Britain.  One particular incident occurred in 1907 in the midst of the economic depression that is often recounted.  On 7 February, word had spread that the Treasurer of the New Britain Savings Bank had embezzled a huge sum of money, causing a panic and a run on the bank.  Father Bojnowski had heard of the panic and dramatically walked into the bank past the lines of customers carrying two bags of cash from the previous Sunday’s collection to deposit.  That act saved the bank from failure and earned the gratitude of New Britain’s financial and industrial leaders.[20]

With the advent of the Great War in 1914, Father Bojnowski took on the additional effort to raise funds to aid Poles suffering from the conflict.  Prohibited initially from raising an army or any militant action in the war by President Wilson’s Declaration of Neutrality, Polish efforts were limited to War Relief.  It was not until the U.S. entered the conflict in 1917 did more open campaigning for an independent Poland take place.  Father Bojnowski was in the thick of fundraising and encouraging young Polish immigrant men to join General Haller’s Blue Army.  By the end of the conflict Father Bojnowski and the Polish community in New Britain were credited with raising $44,711.04 and encouraged nearly 300 men to join.[21]

Along with these numerous, demanding activities, Father Bojnowski also took on the responsibility of editing a weekly newspaper, Przewodnik katolicki (Catholic Leader).  After gaining permission from the diocese, Father B launched his newspaper in 1907 as part of his mission to educate his parishioners and defend the Roman Catholic faith.  He also launched broadsides in his editorial column against a host of “enemies” to his views. He maintained direct control over his paper until 1941 when he named Charles Marut editor, and transferred ownership to Marut in 1958. [22]

Father Bojnowski saw his mission as navigating the challenges of the pressures of assimilation coming from American society, culture, and the American Roman Catholic hierarchy.  He negotiated a position with the Diocese of Hartford that allowed for his parish to serve as a path of assimilation for the Polish immigrants of New Britain, but also as an institution that preserved their Catholic faith and Polish identity.  This did not win him favors with the leadership of the Hartford Diocese, and he often faced criticism and opposition from the largely Irish and German led Roman Catholic hierarchy in the U.S.  He also faced a revolt from his own parishioners who then went on to form Holy Cross Church in 1927.[23]

Father Bojnowski was, at times, a controversial figure, given his personality and strong views on a variety of issues and topics.  He had his supporters and his detractors.  Yet, many respected him, despite their disagreements.  Even the Hartford Diocese came to give him high regard when late in1945, Pope Pius XII elevated Father B to the rank of Monsignor.  It was an honor long overdue that recognized his tremendous accomplishments. [24]

Yet, Msgr. Bojnowski still had ambitions, despite his age. His lifelong goal of building a hospital was unrealized despite his continuous fundraising and acquisition of properties in northwestern New Britain.  At his passing at age 92, Msgr. Bojnowski left a total legacy of $367,000.00.  Not enough to start a hospital, it was enough to fund the creation of a 60 –bed convalescent home in his honor.  Ground was broken in November 1972 and the facility completed and dedicated in August 1974 named Monsignor Bojnowski Manor.  Nearly eighty years after a young priest arrived in the industrial city of New Britain, CT, his final goal was accomplished.[25]

[1] Quoted in Daniel Buczek’s Immigrant Pastor:  The Life of the Right Reverend Msgr. Lucyan Bojnowski of New Britain, Conn. (Hemingway Corporation:  Waterbury, CT; 1974), 138.

[2] The Hartford Courant. 21 February 1960

[3] Buczek, op.cit. 8-9.

[4] Buczek9-10

[5] Ibid. 10

[6] Ibid. 10-12

[7] Buczek, 15-17

[8] The Hartford Courant. 29 September 1902

[9] Buczek, op.cit.,17

[10] Memoirs of the Rt. Rev. Alphonse J.V. Fiedorczyk, Vol. I, 7.  Unpublsihed handwritten memoir written between 1986-1987 in eight volumes is in the Connecticut Polish-American Archives (CPAA) at the Elihu Burritt Library at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU).

[11] The Hartford Courant. 31 May 1911.

[12] The Hartford Courant. 17 February 1906.

[13] The Hartford Courant. 4 April 1922. This article also mentions the fact that Father Bojnowski accepted orphans regardless of background, including “colored orphans” (presumably African-American).

[14] The Harford Courant. 13 August 1923.

[15] The Hartford Courant. 6 August 1933, 19 July 1935, and 21 February 1960. See also Buczek, 151.

[16] Buczek, op.cit., 73-75.

[17] The Hartford Courant, 9 September 1912.  The article noted that Bishop Nilan was initially opposed to the cemetery request by Father Bojnowski, but after a popular subscription campaign to purchase plots, Bishop Nilan relented and gave his approval.

[18] This was especially the case early on shortly after having organized the Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in 1896 with Father Uminski a few years later.  See Buczek, op.cit., 26-34, & 36.  See also The Hartford Courant, 18 August, 26 & 27 November, and 5 December 1902.

[19] Fiedorczyk, op.cit Vol. II., 351.

[20] See Buczek, op.cit., 46.  See also New Britain Herald, 13 February 1907.

[21] Buczek, op.cit., 49-53.  Despite the considerable numbers of young Polish men encouraged to joint Haller’s Blue Army, many more Polish American males joined the U.S. military.  Approximately 1,000 young men and women with Polish/Slavic surnames are listed from a brief survey of Service Records:  Connecticut Men and Women in the Armed Forces of the United States during World War, 1917-1920. (Office of the Adjutant General, State Armory:  Hartford, CT; 1941<?>) Three volumes.  What this indicates is that far many more young Polish-Americans saw themselves as “Americans” fighting for the U.S. instead of as Polish immigrants fighting for Poland.  This marks a burgeoning generational and perspective shift that would be seen in the next decade.

[22] See Buczek, op.cit. 43-48.The Elihu Burritt Library at CCSU has most years of publication on microfilm.  Marut continued publishing the paper until his death in 1965 and the paper finished its run in 1966.  See The Hartford Courant 6 February 1965 and 1 June 1966.

[23]Many instances can found in Buczek, op.cit.  81-86. Most of this had to do with Father Bojnowski’s insistence on handling matters with his parishioners without interference from the diocese on the matter of various controversies since he became pastor.  The most significant had to do with the events leading to the formation of Holy Cross Parish in 1927. See also Stanislaus Blejwas’ A Polish Community in Transition:  The Origins and Evolution of Holy Cross Parish, New Britain, Connecticut. (Chicago:  Polish American Historical Association; 1978). Other issues included Father Bojnowski’s support for more Polish or Polish speaking priests being assigned to the diocese and Father Bojnowski’s gradualist approach to the use of English in the parish versus the diocese’s view that the ethnic parishes were vehicles of “Americanization.”

[24] Buczek, op.cit. 135.

[25] See The Hartford Courant, 29 November 1972 & 29 October 1974