III. THE GROWING YEARS|
For the first hundred years of its existence, the United States followed a policy of unrestricted immigration. This policy was rewarded through substantial contributions made by immigrants and their descendants in the building of the nation.
By the early 1900s, however, native-born Americans had begun to fear the uncontrolled admission of immigrants. The country had previously been a mostly English-speaking society: first colonists had come from the British Isles, and later arrivals from France, Sweden, Holland and Germany were assimilated fairly easily into the larger population. The huge mass of emigrants from Poland and Italy, however, with their much different cultures, did not blend in smoothly. These newcomers, who often found the language barrier difficult to overcome, became the targets of bigotry.
In 1901, President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York, by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, whose Polish-sounding surname would cause the Polish grief. In a blanket indictment, Poles were blamed for the President's death. It was an additional burden on a people already unfairly shunned as illiterate foreigners by the Anglo-Saxon majority of Americans.
Reacting in a naturally defensive fashion, groups like the Polish and the Italians began to form tight, self-sustaining communities. In Camden, such a close-knit neighborhood developed around St. Joseph's Parish in the area which would come to be called "Polishtown", or later, "Whitman Park."
Through the efforts of St. Joseph's pastors and the Kosciusko Savings and Loan, more than 3,000 houses were eventually built for the Polish in South Camden. The area stretched from the church to Woodlynne, a community a mile away at the city line.
"A European Basilica"
Polish-born Father Stefan Wierzynski recognized that the continued influx of emigres and the birth of a new generation called for a policy of plant expansion. It troubled him to see over-crowded conditions at Sunday Masses, with many worshippers jammed outside the doors of the second floor stairwell. Also, the location of the church on the upper floor was inconvenient. This was particularly true during a funeral, when pallbearers had to struggle up two winding flights of stairs while carrying the casket.
George I. Lovett was selected as the architect who would design a building in the style then popular among architects of European churches: baroque. Work began in 1913, and the cornerstone was laid the same year.
St. Joseph's is a uniquely beautiful church, the only one of its kind in the Delaware Valley. Students of architecture at nearby universities have frequently come to study its graceful simplicity. The exterior is composed of metallic gray New Hampshire granite. Adhering to baroque principles, the architect attached special importance to the main entrance, then to the two subordinate accesses on either side. Entry can also be made through doorways at wing extensions that lead to the sanctuary area.
Rising high above the grand portal is a single spire atop which stands an open-columned cupola. A twin cupola rests at the rear of the gable shaped roof (where a bell which was never installed, was to ring only at Consecration.) The single steeple breaks with tradition because as a rule Gothic Polish churches in American have two steeples.
The interior of the church has a 63-foot-high arched ceiling nave, separating two arcades which are supported by pillars. The apse is crowned by a lofty, half-rounded cupola above the center altar. Two other altars stand in niches to either side. Facing the three altars is the choir gallery or organ loft. The church, which can seat 1,OOO people, cost $100,000 to build, with an additional outlay of $15,000 for interior painting being made in 1923. In later years, stained-glass windows were donated as memorials.
Each parish family gave fifty dollars toward the church building fund. To scrape money together, families denied themselves treats and had their children pick fruits and vegetables for farmers during their school vacations.
In May 1914, one month before the outbreak of World War II Bishop McFaul consecrated the new church Once again, the "Ulani" on horseback led a parade of bands and marching units past an excited crowd of parishioners.
Father Wierzynski loved parades. We once had a marching band accompany a class of first communicants up Mt. Ephraim Avenue to Van Hook Street, so that all could share in the children's pride and excitement. When bells were installed in the belfry he called for a procession, and for an hour after the blessing ceremony, while the parade unwound, Father kept the bells pealing.
In keeping with Catholic tradition, these bells were named at the time of their blessing. The quarter-ton bell which rings the Angelus is Mary; the half-ton bell which sounds the call for Sunday Masses is John; and the one ton bell which tolls at funerals is Adalbert. During parades and on other special occasions, the three are rung in unison. St. Joseph's also follows the Polish Catholic tradition of naming "Godmothers of the Bells." Emilia Oslowska was one of the women chosen in the parish to lend her name as "godmother."
For a dozen years Father Wierzynski presided over a parish full of growth, hope and purpose. In his 1967 history, Mr. Zachary provided the day-to-day details of life in a close-knit community:
Mothers scraped flakes of soap into a big copper boiler placed on the coal stove, where the clothes were boiled before being hand-scrubbed on a corrugated metal or glass washboard. Monday was washday and Tuesday was ironing day.
Every home had a costumer in the front hall for hanging coats and hats. Pills from the doctor or druggist came in round cardboard boxes. Crowds gathered whenever a plane appeared in the sky, and the biggest-selling souvenir in Atlantic City was the pin-cushion. Kids didn't wear long pants until they were thirteen, and then only if they were boys. They ran errands for a penny and dropouts were called hooky players.
The iceman was the most popular person with small children, especially during the hot summer. He would call on certain days, when the housewife placed a card in the window, indicating the size of ice piece she wanted. He would chip off the block, sling it on his shoulder and lug it into the home, dripping water as he went. Before he returned to his horse and wagon, the kids would scurry around and grab off the ice chips and wait for his next stop, unless their mothers caught them and cooled their britches.
In the evenings and over the weekends, large gatherings watched the games being played at two baseball diamonds located near the Green farm. At one time or another, nearly every boy played baseball or was keen follower of the national pastime.
Mr. Zachary paints a picture of a seemingly idyllic time in a small world. Outside events, however, also touched and shaped the community. The war of 1914-1918 wrought a great psychological change in much of the western world, bringing first the destruction of battle, and then the anxiety of the threat of communism.
Many of St. Joseph's young men served in the American Expeditionary Forces. The parish lost its first soldier to World War I when seaman William Laskowski died aboard the destroyer Jacob Jones, which was sunk off the coast of France. Army engineer John Wojtkowiak, whose father was one of the founders of the parish was killed in action ten days before Armistice Day. In 1928, the Laskowski-Wojtkowiak American Legion Post 74 of Camden was formed in memory of these men.
Because of the country's defense needs the workingmen of the parish saw their wages increase at war plants and munitions factories. Father Wierzynski determined to use the extra funds his parishioners donated to the parish to build a new school, and work commenced on a two-story building. At the Silver jubilee celebration on October 24, 1917, however, he announced that the school would be even larger. It would be a three-story, sixteen-classroom building, which would accommodate 900 students and cost $60,000. On September 5, 1920, Bishop Walsh dedicated this new school.
On January 1, 1920, Prohibition went into effect. Families were permitted to purchase brewing ingredients and produce their own beer for home consumption. A large number of local "brew masters" resulted from this policy until the law was repealed in 1933.
Father Wierzynski's last major project was the artistic painting of the church interior. He died prematurely, in April 1924, from injuries he had received in a fall. The parish was shocked and full of grief. Father Wierzynski was buried at Calvary Cemetery.
The Reverend Francis Czernecki came to South Camden soon after Father Wierzynski's death. He had previously served as pastor at Holy Cross Church in Trenton and at Sacred heart Church in South Amboy. His tenure at St. Joseph's began during the flush days of the Roaring Twenties and would last through the worst years of the Great Depression.
The first assistant pastor of the parish, Reverend Adalbert Tomaszewski, was appointed during these years.
Father Czernecki was known as an astute administrator. When he arrived at St. Joseph's, he made the reduction of parish debt his goal. Nevertheless, he managed to install a new central heating system and new flooring in the church. In addition, he honored his predecessor's last request: Father Wierzynski had bequeathed $3,000 from his life's savings to the church, to be used to purchase an altar. Both priests felt that the beautiful church deserved an altar of equal grandeur. Moved by the gesture, St. Joseph's parishioners raised another $5,000. They purchased a majestic altar, replete with a statue of St. Joseph holding the infant Child.
The high living of the 1920s came to an abrupt end in October 1929. As the financial misery which resulted from the crash of the stock market hit Camden, many parishioners found themselves out of work. Home foreclosures multiplied, and families were forced to double up in single-family units.
Father Czernecki badly felt the strain. Already suffering from ill health he was forced to limit his activities. In 1934, he took a leave of absence. For several months, Father Tomaszewski served as administrator. The pastor returned for only a short time before retiring at the age of seventy-five, wishing to see the parish of 10,000 people led by a more vigorous priest. Father Czernecki died in 1941, and was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Trenton.