Czestochowa (CHeNstəˈKHōvə) in Poland, is the site of Jasna Gora Monastery and the famed icon of the Mother of God with the Christ Child, known as Black Madonna of Czestochowa or Our Lady of Czestochowa. A small force consisting of monks from the Jasna Gora monastery led by their Prior and supported by the local Polish nobility, fought off invaders and saved their sacred icon. King John II Casimir Vasa "crowned" Our Lady of Czestochowa as Queen and Protector of Poland on April 1, 1656.
Like the majority of early Catholic immigrants, Middletown Poles in the Diocese of Norwich first worshipped in St. John Church. They sat in the back rows and listened uncomprehendingly to the English and Latin services. To hear the mass in their native language required an eight-mile journey to St. Stanislaus Church in Meriden or even farther, to Sacred Heart Church in New Britain.
By 1902, with 800 Polish families resident in the city, Middletown’s Poles had determined to build a church of their own. That summer, the founders of the Saint Kazimierz Society, the first Polish Society in Middletown, planned the organization of the St. Mary of Czestochowa parish.
The group requested the then-Bishop Michael Tierney that Middletown's Polish community could sustain a parish, and requested the Bishop approve construction of a Polish Catholic church in Middletown. A copy of the handwritten contributor list shows that most people donated $1, $2 or $5 -- a lot of money for a congregation of laborers. Religion was an important part of immigrant life, and despite the low wages earned by most church members, they contributed a total of $3,000 to a building fund.
The bishop granted approval, and on Nov. 24, 1903, the new parish of St. Mary of Czestochowa Church was organized. In 1903, parishioners rented a hall on Court Street for religious services and gatherings, and a house on William Street for a rectory, and welcomed the citizens of Middletown. The congregation raised more money and bought property on Hubbard Street. On Nov. 19, 1905, they dedicated their new church (pictured above). Buying the property and building the church cost $13,000.
Most people walked to church. Portland parishioners had to either row across, walk over on the ice, or pay a 3-cent toll to cross the bridge that spanned the Connecticut River. In the early days of St. Mary's, the men sat on the left, or St. Joseph, side of the aisle, and the women sat on the right, or Blessed Mother, side. Newly married couples shocked their elders by sitting together.
The parish soon outgrew the church. In 1911, they built a second church, a Gothic edifice with stained glass windows and statuary inside. The altar was so tall, altar boys and short priests stood on stools during Mass. Priests gave sermons from a tall pulpit.
The old church became a school, which graduated its first class in 1917.
The congregation, which by now had grown to embrace all nationalities, spent more than $400,000 to renovate the church for its 75th anniversary, which culminated with a banquet Nov. 11, 1979. But progress was cut short. On Aug. 22, 1980, the church was destroyed by fire.
It's impossible to discuss St. Mary's history without mentioning the blaze. It was the seventh in a series of suspicious fires over a 10-week period in the city. City officials determined the cause was arson, but the motive and arsonist remain a mystery. When it was over, only the brick walls and the steeple were left standing. It was a devastating loss for the parish and the city.
The fire destroyed the church, but it didn't destroy parishioners' faith or resolve. They rebuilt their beloved church. On March 12, 1983, church members dedicated a modern church complex that included a new parish center and a parking lot on Hubbard Street. The design incorporates the statue and bell from the old church building.
Today, the parish serves some 750 families. Certainly more ethnically mixed now, Saint Mary remains proud of its traditions and can well look to the future with true commitment to the love of God.