The Immigration: The founding of Polonia
By Kris Leonhardt
Final installment of the series
To Polish-born Americans, land was a symbol of wealth. Those without their own property in which to reside were doomed to struggle in the new country.
While many took work in industrialized cities to earn the funds to buy the land, many others came with small amounts of savings to buy cheap land and work it into an operating homestead. While it was hard labor, it is something Polish farmers knew well.
At the heart of it all in Portage County was a place called “Polish Corner,” which in the late 1860s consisted of two churches – St. Joseph’s and St. Martin’s – and three taverns. Today the area is known as Ellis.
In 1870, Father Joseph Dabrowski was assigned to St. Joseph’s and struggled with the nearby taverns. He soon made the decision to move the parish away. With land donated by the McGreer family, a location was plotted out on a 20-acre parcel to the east.
“Dabrowski announced the move on a Sunday and the next day a crew of parishioners assembled to dismantle St. Joseph’s,” Michael Goc wrote in “Native Realm.”
“The work was fairly easy since the church was a wooden frame building. It was easy to knock apart and reassemble even though frame construction was a new style of architecture the Poles had never seen until they came to the United States. Dabrowski’s crew was not without opposition. A gang opposed to the move threatened the workers with angry words, axes and stones. One woman threw herself on the church bell after it had been removed from its tower and set on the ground. She clung to the bell and shouted insults at Dabrowski’s supporters. Through it all, the pastor urged his people to remain quiet and keep working. In a week, they took the church down, loaded it onto wagons and moved it off to the hilltop that Dabrowski had christened Polonia.
“The church was reassembled and, in September 1872, the new parish was dedicated to honor the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin. The parishioners also built a rectory for Dabrowski. It was a two-story building with living quarters upstairs and a large room on the first floor that the pastor turned into a school. Once again, he called on the McGreer family for help and young Mary McGreer volunteered to conduct English classes. So it came to pass that the first teacher in the first Polish Catholic parochial school in Portage County was a convert of Scottish descent.
“The Polish teachers soon came to Polonia. Dabrowski wrote to Cracow and invited the Third Order Franciscan Sisters of St. Felix to come to Wisconsin. The five Felicians who arrived in November 1874 – Sisters Wincentyna, Waclava, Rafaela, Monica and Cajetan – were the first Polish nuns in the United States. The school they staffed, along with English teacher Mary McGreer, became a magnet for Polish immigrants. Polish parents from all over central Wisconsin and as far away as Milwaukee sent their children to the school at the newly-renamed parish of the Sacred Heart.”
The community of Polonia would become the center of the Polish-American community in Portage County, and a lasting symbol to the area’s heritage.