Founding Nebraska's Polish Communities in Central Nebraska


Written and compiled by:
Lawrence Molczyk
President Polish Heritage Center
Ashton, NE
Published in the Silver Salute Section of the Grand Island, Nebraska "Independent" August 2010


    
 “The Pole on American soil will never be the same as the European Pole, but we
desire that he believe as a Catholic, that he speak Polish.  Let him know the history
and traditions of Poland.  As for the rest of him be a Yankee.”  - John Barzynski,
Polish Newspaper editor and P
RCUA  Member

 During the later half of the nineteenth century, a number of social and ethnic organizations emerged to assist
European immigrants in their newly adopted homeland.  For Lincoln's Germans from Russia, it was the
American Forward Association.  In Grand Island there was the Liederkranz and the Platte Duetsche Society.  
For the Poles of  North Central Nebraska it was the Polish
Roman Catholic Union of America (PRCUA).  
Through the efforts of the P
RCUA, their settlements became the largest and most successful, planned Polish-
American colonies in rural America.  That success did not come without hardship, however.
   As a religion-based fraternal organization, the P
RCUA  was as interested  in the social welfare of the new
immigrants as in preserving their allegiance  to the religion of their birth.  The 1870's were a time of anti-
Catholic sentiment both in the United States an among some of the Poles, themselves.  Many believed that the
Catholic Church was to blame for the failure   of their recent movements towards independence in their
homeland.  At the time, Poland was    ruled by Prussia, Austria and Russia and there had been a series of
unsuccessful uprisings.
    The Chicago-based P
RCUA declared in its 1875 convention platform, “Poles are an agrarian people, who
by their settling in large and populous cities have rather worsened their moral and financial situation.”   Having
fled the poverty and political strife of their homeland, these new immigrants found themselves victims of the
American industrial revolution.  Huge factories and meat packing plants trapped these newcomers in cities
which author, Upton Sinclair came to call “The Jungle.”
   For fifty years beginning in 1870 the P
RCUA worked to establish more rural Polish colonies throughout the
United States.   In addition to Nebraska, there were locations in Wisconsin, Ohio,  Missouri and Texas. Some
locales fared better than others, but for the agrarian Poles, Nebraska was a favored location from the
beginning.  According to one early missionary, Father Wladyslaw Sebastyanski,  “We  are not forest dwellers
to be working with trees, nor are we stone cutters to be sitting on rocks.  We are Poles- field dwellers.  We
need clear fields.”
   By late 1877 one member of the P
RCUA committee had made arrangements to serve as a land agent to
assist Polish colonization in the area.  Jan Barzynski brokered railroad lands to the poles for a commission of
10 cents an acre. (In addition he was given half a section of land in Howard County for his own).  His plan was
to settle 400 Polish Families on railroad land in Howard, Greeley, Valley and Sherman Counties.  Within a
year, he disposed of over 20,000 acres,  with the railroads making further promises to reserve land for three
townships, a Polish Church and cemetery.  They also agreed to provide free passage for Polish colonists
moving to their new Nebraska homes.
   The communities they established in Nebraska included:  New Poznan (later named Farwell at the
insistence of the Post Office), Elba, Elyria (Boleszyn), Paplin (Choynice), Loup City and Ashton.  One Priest
wrote, “The poles hastened therefore to their paradise in the West, to the virgin steppes of Nebraska , and
they knelt to pray and kissed the earth, shouting 'Ha  i  Nebraska, To Boze laska”  (Ha Nebraska! A place
favored by God).  According to another account, upon looking at the sandy,  desert-like plain, the cry was
“Lord, help us! “
   Despite the early rhetoric, the Poles faced many hardships and dangers, there was thick fertile soil and vast
open spaces, yet they faced tornadoes, prairie fires, blizzards, droughts and grasshopper plagues. These
difficulties served as a backdrop to contentious  relationships with early Priests sent to minister to the area.  
These contentious relationships extended to the Poles themselves, who came from disparate parts of Poland,
had an array of dialects and customs and were prone to petty disagreements.
   Father Anthony Klawiter was chosen by Bishop O'Connor of Omaha to minister to the new Polish Colony in
New Poznan.  Initially the Omaha Bishop had serious misgivings about Klawiter, who had previously caused
financial embarrassment to his former diocese of Pittsburgh.  O'Connor was committed to the idea that he
needed a priest able to care for the spiritual needs of  the foreign speaking elements of the population in
Nebraska.  As a result, Klawiter was able  to clear himself with the Bishop, who was predisposed to having  a
Polish-speaking priest.  
   Klawiter's fiscal inadequacies  continued during his period in New Poznan and did little to help his
relationship with struggling farmers.  During the last quarter of 1877 when church collections  were a paltry
$105.87, Klawiters parishes incurred an indebtedness of $2,444.  He bought land, cattle wagons, farm
machinery and planted trees as though he were settling a colony of opulent farmers, according to historian,
Henry W. Casper, S.J.  
    Parishioners felt he was disposed to deal with them harshly and arbitrarily  which led to increasing
resentment.   Casper goes on to describe the fact that parishioners were scandalized  by Klawiter's standard
of living in the midst of their dire and want.   During his time in New Poznan, he effected a series of
questionable financial deals.  Including a brazen sale of sacred vestments belonging to the church to a
Lutheran.  This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.   After an unofficial investigation by
Bishop O'Connor he was eventually removed from his post in 1880 and transferred to Valley county.

   Ultimately, Bishop O'Connor sought the help of Jesuits to minister to the needs of the area. Unfortunately,
the fist Jesuits to arrive in Howard County (1880) were Bohemians, Austrians and Germans.  While satisfying
the needs of the Bohemian population, the Poles waited until 1882 for the arrival of Polish Priests, answering
their own ethnic demands.
   
   The Polish reverends Joseph Sperl and Francis Stuer also made their home in New Poznan.  While Sperl
died less than a year after his arrival, Father Stuer continued with the effort to build a church to replace the
first structure built by the controversial, Father Klawiter.  Contrary to the Bishop's instructions to build in a
location central to the Polish colonies, Klawiter had erected his building in New Poznan on one far edge of the
colonies.
   Not only was Stuer planning to replace a building put up only a few years before at great cost, but he was
planning to build in the same inconvenient location.  As the new church was nearing completion, it was burned
by a disgruntled parishioner.  In fact, the church was the target of arsonists on more than one occasion.  This
appears to have weighed heavily in the decision to build a second church a few years later in Paplin, a few
miles away and more centrally located.
   Until additional churches were added, the Jesuits traveled from their location in New Poznan to locations as
much as 60 miles distant.  They rode horse and buggy or went on foot to celebrate mass in private homes,
schoolhouses, and other public meeting places.  There were  83 families in the area of Paplin who had to
travel ten miles to attend church in New Poznan.  The donation of several tracts of land by Stanley Badura
enabled the construction of Mount Carmel Church in Paplin.  Father Stuer celebrated the first mass in the
partially completed church on Christmas of 1882.  He served as Parish Priest in Paplin for the next 13 years.
   Under his pastor-ship, a church school was built, which was staffed by nuns from the School of St. Francis
in Milwaukee. At his insistence Polish-speaking teachers were included.
   Stuer also ministered the community through the diphtheria epidemic of 1892.  Over one hundred children
lie in one corner of the Paplin cemetery.  During the epidemic, parents returning home from the funeral of one
of their children often returned to find another dead.  In later years, a prairie fire destroyed the temporary
wooden cross markers, leaving a mass of unmarked graves.
   When the railroad made plans to lay tracks through nearby Turkey Creek, the Paplin residents insisted on
more money than the railroad was willing to pay.  As a result, the railroad bypassed the town and relocated
south to the town of Ashton.  Today all that remains of Paplin is the Church and cemetery.

   The next few years  brought extreme drought to the entire region and poverty and hunger to the Poles of
Central Nebraska.  While public aid monies were being handed out to others, the Polish Catholics were
purposely ignored by the Masons and the American Protective Association, which were both anti-Catholic
groups at the time.  The Jesuits appealed to their fellow Priests around the country for donations.  The
P
RCUA held special fund-raising concerts in Chicago.  This helped the Polish farmers to get back on their feet
and buy seed for spring planting.
    St. Josaphat's in Loup city was built in 1882 when a non-Catholic, J. Woods Smith donated 12 lots for the
purpose of building a church and a badly needed school.  The joy was short-lived when in June of 1896 a
tornado destroyed all but one wall of the building.

   While early colonization efforts by the Polish Catholic Union did not progress as smoothly as first imagined,
these communities were eventually able to prosper through hardship.  In the 1980 census, Sherman County,
Nebraska was identified as having the highest percentage of Poles in the United States.
   St. Antony's in Farwell, St. Francis in Ashton and Mount Carmel in Paplin are now closed to regular worship
and Loup City and and St. Paul now serve as the area's spiritual centers.  The Polish ethnic identity of area
residents is still strong.  It's spirit lives on in celebrations such as Loup City's Polish Days and the educational
efforts of Ashton's Polish Heritage Center. Jescze Polska nie zginela!  (Poland has not yet perished)





For more in-depth information on the establishment of the Polish Colonies in Central Nebraska:

Keely Stauter-Halstad. The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasant National Identity in Austrian Poland,
1848 1914. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2001

Catholic Chapters in Nebraska Immigration 1870-1900 by Henry W. Casper, S.J. Professor of History
Marquette University, Bruce Publishing Company Milwaukee 1966

The Catholic Church on the Nebraska Frontier 1854-1885 a Dissertation by Sister M. Aquinata Martin O.P., M.
A. Published by the Catholic University of America, Washington D.C.

The Eagle & The Cross: A History Of The Polish Roman Catholic Union Of America, 1873-2000  by John
Radzilowski  Published by East European Monographs (May 2003)