My Polish Grandmother
In the heart of what is still called Polishtown in Riverhead stands St. Isadore’s Roman Catholic Church. It was the pride and joy of the once thriving Polish community of the east end of Long Island. It still has a Mass said in the Polish language. As I write, practicing Catholics are observing Lent, the 40 day penitential season before Easter, the most important holy day in Christianity.
The story of the East End cannot told without mention of the Polish immigrants who came in droves to seek a better life. The story about the Polish people who came here cannot be told without mention of Catholicism. There is also Our Lady of Ostrabrama in Cutchogue and Our Lady of Poland in Southampton which were spiritual homes for Polish immigrants.
It was the Catholic Church which strengthened the people of Poland against continual invasions throughout its history. However, one can enslave someone’s body but the God of the Catholic Church ensured that the souls of the Polish people were never conquered. The Catholic Church’s acknowledgment of the faith of the Polish people culminated in the canonization of Pope (and now Saint) John Paul II. Very few of Polish heritage will deny that JP II may be the greatest of the modern day popes, the current darling of the secular media, Pope Francis, notwithstanding.
The Polish people prospered on the East End, especially in farming. It is fitting that St. Isadore, while not Polish, is the patron saint of workers. The Polish had always prided themselves on their work ethic and their thriftiness. My grandmother came from Poland as a 19 year old with no family and no prospects before the turn of the 20th Century. She soon married another Polish immigrant, bought a farm in Wading River and gave birth to nine children.
My mother and her siblings were always very fond of speaking of her childhood in Wading River. They swam in “Long Pond” and the Long Island Sound. One of her older brothers had matinee movie idol looks and was a life guard at the newly opened Wildwood State Park. Her other brothers worked for the park, as well. My mother and her siblings, being of Polish heritage, loved to have a good time. Prohibition was no impediment and Catholicism is not a teetotaler religion. After all, the Polish polka’s lyrics hold true: “In heaven there is no beer, that is why we drink it here.”
Her husband died when her youngest was only two years old and was faced with trying to run a farm and raise her children. The Great Depression proved to be too much for her. All through this, my grandmother never lost her faith in God. In the words of St. Peter when Jesus asked him if he, too, would leave because his teaching was too hard. “Where will I go Lord? You have the words of eternal life.” She knew the story of Job from what Christians describe as the Old Testament. She settled in Polishtown to be near her beloved Catholic Church. She died praying the rosary in a pew at St. Isidores Church.
Five of her seven sons served in World War II. The other two were disqualified for medical reasons. Her children were eager to assimilate and display their patriotism for this land of dreams. My mother and her siblings did not learn to speak English until she went to grade school. My grandmother never learned to speak English so the language in the home was Polish.
One of her sons was drafted at the maximum age of 46 when America called for every able bodied man. He had not volunteered because he felt morally obligated to care for his widowed mother. His last assignment was cleaning out of one of the Nazi extermination camps. This man who loved people so much died a few years after the war. My mother says he never emotionally recovered from seeing man’s inhumanity to man.
Not everything was idyllic for these Polish immigrants. The Ku Klux Klan was active on eastern Long Island during my mother’s childhood. Their hatred was not reserved for blacks and Jews. Polish speaking Catholics had two strikes against them. I once heard a story that a cross was burned on the front lawn of St. Isidores Church by those who resented these foreigners who came to America but who were buying up and making a “go” of all of the farms which then pretty much occupied most of the land on the east end. It is interesting to note that Suffolk County is still is the biggest farming county in all of the 62 counties that make up New York State.
I wonder what my grandmother would think of this country now. I wonder what she would think of what was once a great Christian country that her sons fought for. The country her grandson, my half-brother, had died for. The country her great grandson is currently protecting in the Middle East where people seek to destroy this country. I wonder what she would think of the children and the children of those children of the original Polish immigrants who left the Catholic Church and became immersed in the secular and materialist culture that is modern day America where God is dead.
I wonder if she would think that this land of such great opportunity would have been worth the struggle she and all of her fellow immigrants from Poland were so willing to endure. I wonder if she would be aghast at the empty pews in her beloved Catholic Church because young people have no time for such superstitious nonsense and antiquated morals.
Where the youngest generation is the most highly educated in this country’s history but the least catechized in her beloved Catholic Church? Where people who call themselves Catholic never set foot in church and believe in none of its teachings? Where the sacrament of matrimony has been made such a mockery? Where human beings in the womb are discarded as being nothing more than a clump of cells?
I believe that she would think that such a godless country could not prosper and withstand the forces that seek to destroy. She might think that this country will kill itself before any outside forces do. If one believes that there is a heaven and a hell, I imagine my grandmother weeping and praying her rosary for what a place of moral evil this country has become. I believe she is weeping for the generations who sprang forth from those original immigrants from Poland to the east end of Long Island.