Peasants, PROPINACJA, and Polonophobia. The PRCUA (Polish Roman Catholic Union of America): A History

  • The Eagle & the Cross: A History of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America, 1873-2000  by J Radzilowski  – Published May 28th 2003 by East European Monographs (first published May 21st 2003)


This work covers a broad sweep of Polish-American history, beginning about 1850 and ending with the election of (now Saint) Pope John Paul II. It features important events, and includes a detailed index of important persons.


The problems faced by Polish immigrants in the USA were a continuation of those in foreign-ruled Poland. Let us consider the immigrants of peasant origin.

Do social classes cause inequality, or does inequality cause social classes. Consider what happened when the social classes, based on serfdom, were abolished.

A large degree of serfdom-like living long continued among the Polish peasantry. This is shown by what happened when the Partitioning powers abolished serfdom. Radzilowski comments (quote) Despite its name, emancipation did not always help the peasants, at least at first. They often lost ancient feudal access rights to pastures, forests, and mills without gaining ownership of land in useful quantities. Peasants’ old labor obligations were transformed into rents, payable in cash, a rare commodity for most peasants. Thus, peasants entered the marketplace as laborers, often working the same land their fathers and mothers had worked but earning less for it. As one Polish historian put it, emancipation „took off the chains from the peasants’ feet and [took off] the shoes as well.” (unquote). (p. 9).


The author describes the PRCUA efforts to curb the immoderate drinking among Poles. He touches on, but does not elaborate, on the PROPINACJA, and the role of the Jews in promoting alcoholic consumption among Polish peasants, (quote) Excessive drinking had been an increasing problem among Polish peasants in the nineteenth century due to feudal regulations that obligated peasants to buy large quantities of vodka from the local estate. As Polish peasants came to America and became workers, they brought their drinking habits with them and the result was often highly destructive. (unquote). (p. 128).


Author John Radzilowski cites the following work (p. 295): Napierkowski, Thomas J. 1983. The image Polish Americans in American literature. POLISH AMERICAN STUDIES 40(1)5-44. This is in reference to Poles as a stand-in for blacks. The cited article, which is freely available for download on the internet at the time of the posting of this review, elaborates on negative stereotypes of Polish-Americans in American literature. It also cites studies that refute the contention that Poles (and other white ethnics) are more prejudiced against African Americans than are WASPs. In fact, the opposite is the case.


The author describes the NAROD POLSKI, the newspaper of the PRCUA, at the start of the 20th century, (quote) One occasional target of the editors was Poland’s Jewish population. At that time, Polish and Jewish newspapers in America and Europe sometimes engaged in fierce debate in which each side was accused of a whole catalogue of wrongs, both real and imagined. (unquote). (p. 120).

Anti-Polonism continued. The hostilities between Poles and Jews intensified in the wake of the new round of Jewish attacks on Poland at the time of the restoration of Poland’s independence (1918). Radzilowski comments, (quote) The PRCUA newspaper defended Poland and the Polish cause against all foes as the new state sought to get on its feet. This was especially apparent as conflicts between Polish American and Jewish Americans grew over alleged „pogroms” in Poland. Although after investigations by U. S. and British officials most of the „pogrom” reports proved to be false, the incident was the occasion for ethnic prejudice from newspapers and commentators on both sides, and NAROD POLSKI was no exception. (unquote). (p. 162). [And now, a century later, we have the same thing. This time it is fantastic and unsupported allegations of Poles killings 200,000 fugitive Jews during the German-made Holocaust.]

Author John Radzilowski then elaborates on the more recent activities of the PRCUA that dealt with anti-Polish trends. He writes, (quote) Protecting Polonia and Poland from defamation was yet another important activity of the Union leadership. This had been a growing problem since the late 1960s, when anti-Polish bigotry had become a socially acceptable substitute for racism against African Americans. By the 1980s and 1990s, stories in the U. S. media also began to blame Poles for the murder of Jews during World War II and even to suggest that Poles were the perpetrators of the Holocaust. The PRCUA and its newspaper played a role in exposing and protesting such bigotry. In 1995, when nationally syndicated columnist Ann Landers (aka Eppie Lederer) slurred Pope John Paul II and Polish people in general, Union President Dykla was in the forefront of protests and was quoted in the national press. These efforts resulted in a public apology, one of the few apologies offered by a public figure who slandered the Polish community. Although fighting defamation often took up an inordinate amount of time for Polonia leaders, Union presidents also found time to promote a more realistic view of Polonia, such as in the 1970’s when the PRCUA was featured in a Chicago-area television show on the history of the Polish community. (unquote). (pp. 308-309).


The PRCUA was founded with the stipulation that only Roman Catholic Poles were welcome in it. This was based on the premise that non-Catholic Poles in its ranks would lead to a dilution of its mission by disparate elements. Non-Catholic Poles, of course, were free to form their own organizations consistent with their beliefs. (pp. 56-57, 150). The insurance initially offered by this organization, however, was not limited to Catholic Poles, but also extended to Poles and Rusyns (Ukrainians) of Eastern-rite Catholic Churches. (p. 275).

In 1897, the PRCUA allowed women to join as members, regardless of whether or not their husbands were members. (p. 279) This was unusual for fraternal organizations at the time. Leading Catholic clergy, such as Fr. Barzynski, a veteran of the January 1863 Insurrection (p. 113), supported the inclusion of women. (p. 279). (This counters the common misportrayal, of the Catholic Church by feminists, as an organization opposed to the progress of women.)


The various Polish-American organizations varied in their emphasis on support for a resurrected Polish state. Evidently adopting a „For your freedom and ours” position, the PRCUA openly supported the Cuban rebels in their late 19th-century struggle with Spain for independence. (p. 122).


One of the problems facing Polish immigrants was the difficult working conditions, and the open exploitation they faced. Apart from Polish activism in the labor movement, the solution was to get Poles to learn the English language, to work together, and to educate themselves to become skilled workers. (p. 126).


Jan Peczkis

Published with the author’s permission.


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  • Title image:  „The Eagle & the Cross: A History of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America, 1873-2000” by J Radzilowski –  part of the cover / selected by wg.pco

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