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St. Michael Parish - Muskegon MI

A short parish history from the 1944 Jubilee Book

Nearly six years ago the City of Muskegon observed the Centennial Celebration of its founding and existence. The beginning of civilization and first community life here is given as 1837, and is claimed to have been in the vicinity now known as Port Sherman, in the westernmost part of Muskegon at the channel, on the shores of Lake Michigan towards Muskegon Lake.

It appears that about this time a settlement arose on the northern shore of Muskegon Lake, known as Bay Mills, where according to hearsay the first Polish people of this locality settled. It appears quite certain that these early Polish settlers were in no way affiliated with the later Polish settlers who inhabited the northeastern boundary of the City, east of Ottawa Street near the mouth of the Muskegon River.

The religious services of the first settlers were infrequent because there then existed but a small mission chapel in the neighborhood of the present Cherry and Thompson streets. French-Canadian missionaries came to this mission at intervals and served the French people who were then predominant in this area. Without a doubt it was then under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Detroit, prior to the establishment of the Grand
Rapids Diocese; consequently, it is impossible to refer to statistics or records of those early years.

As to the later settlers, whom we recognize as the founders and organizers of the St. Michael's Parish, they were somewhat more fortunate, because from time to time they were visited by a Polish priest or missionary. Who was the first in this field, we do not know, but presume it was the Rev. Fr. Candid Kozlowski, who was known along the western shores of Lake Michigan and who in the early 1880's trecked all the known settlements in this area.

The early Polish priests who labored among the first settlers were Fathers Szulak, Kralczynski, Rodowicz, Wo}owski and Barzynski.

With the establishment and founding of the Grand Rapids Diocese under the efficient direction of Most Rev. Bishop Richter, religious work took on renewed life in this locality as it did throughout the new formed diocese. In Muskegon, the already existing parishes: St. Mary's (Irish), St. Jean's (French), and St. Joseph's (German), experienced marked growth. The Polish people, who then numbered but a few families, were divided into groups which belonged to St. Mary's and St. Joseph's parishes respectively. The matter of establishing their own parish already had the support and endorsement of the late Father Skory and was ready for presenting to the Diocesan authorities. Some of the early Polish settlers were reluctant towards the new venture and did not sever their affiliations with their respective parishes. But the remaining few hardy pioneers forged ahead without them and succeeded in getting the Bishop's approval for their new parochial organization.

In the early days of this parish unit, Rev. Father Francis Piaskowski was delegated by the Bishop to aid in this movement. For a greater unity among these families, services were held in the chapel of St. Jean's Church as a neutral place for the erstwhile Polish parishioners of St. Mary's and St. Joseph's. Father Piaskowski was very successful in his early work here, gaining not only the known Polish people in this area, but enrolling newcomers and large numbers of immigrants who poured into what is known now as Greater Muskegon. Father Piaskowski's labors here were short but very fruitful, as Bishop Richter visioned a great parish in the making and appointed Rev. Father Andrew Narloch its resident pastor. Though Father Narloch did not take up permanent residence here at once, he immediately got busy and purchased ground for the new church. From 1909 to 1911 the efforts of the Polish people and their pastor were so beneficial that the cornerstone for the first combination school and church structure was laid in 1911.

To add a few words about the early pioneer life of Muskegon, it is well to mention that the early industry here was lumbering. Huge timbers were felled and floated down to the mills and vast amounts of lumber in all forms were shipped largely by boats to the great lumber markets. With the unwise devastation of the forests, the lumbering industry came to an early end and the city of Muskegon began to look quite barren.

Credit is to be given to the sacrifices and perseverance of some of the erstwhile financiers and leaders of this area, who immediately undertook the task of obtaining other industries for Muskegon. As a result several large factories were established here, to mention a few: The Brunswick Balke Collender Co., Central Paper Co., Racine Boat Works., Chase-Hackley Piano Co., Continental Motors, etc. Later on several foundries were started, and till this day we have such nationally known firms as The Campbell Wyant and Cannon Foundry Co., Lakey Foundry and Machine Co., The West Michigan Steel Foundry and others employing several thousands of men and women. With the tremendous growth of Muskegon many other diversified industries located here and manufacture such commodities as furniture, fixtures, rollers, curtains, office supplies and equipment, wire, machinery, automobile accessories, engines, motors and countless other articles. The industrial growth also reflected the commercial growth with its railway systems, ships, car ferries and highway transportation. The natural resources also made great strides with the discovery of oil, oil refining and greatly improved agricultural development, celery growing, truck farming, dairy farming, grain producing and soil conservation activities.

The rebirth of Muskegon and its tremendous growth cast a definite reflection upon the growth and expansion of St. Michael's Parish which under the able direction of Father Narloch had enrolled newcomers not only from adjacent localities but from neighboring states and the countless numbers of immigrants who came as individuals and in entire family groups. With the outbreak of World War 1. the immigration ceased, but was revived again in the early 1920's.

It may be well to make a brief note about the Polish people as a whole in comparison with the present day Polish American element on whose behalf this resume is written. For many years the Poles, with their motive land divided by Russia, Germany and Austria, were deprived of the Unity and the common goal of an ultimate reunion. Only the rebirth of Poland alter World War I. brought about the reunion and rehabilitation of this downtrodden race. The same complex prevailed among the immigrant Poles who found a common solution to their rehabilitation in our great Democracy. Invariably finding solace in their churches, as of old, the soon made up the bulk of our parish membership. Proudly we mention that there is not a county of the Republic of Poland or the partitions of Poland before that, of which we do not have descendants in our midst. Our remarks would not be complete if we did not mention the fine elements of the Slovak. Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Czech people who individually and as family groups make up a fair portion of St. Michael's Parish. Another comparison, though quite contrasting, is the occupation of our pioneers, who engaged chiefly in lumbering and farming. while today we may proudly boast of priests, sisters, professional men. craftsmen, businessmen, industrialists, civic and political leaders etc., in our midst. It is without a doubt that the sincere cooperation of all these people and our American friends has contributed in great measure to the fast growth and expansion of St. Michael's parish from those humble beginnings to the prominence it now enjoys in the community.

Christianity and Catholicism always stood in the first place as far as our ancestors and founders were concerned. The question has been asked, how in the absence of religious services and assistance did those ideals survive? There are many answers; to note but a few: the rosary and private family devotions, the noels and carols, readings from the lives of the Saints, the matins, the office to Our Lady, the fasts and the "Old Country" customs of "Oplatki" and "Swieconka", and countless other characteristics and observances were brought down from generation to generation in our Slavic countries and explain the religious traditions and attitudes in our early Polish homes.

From the early life of our pioneers in this area it is pleasant to note that the families were large though the earnings were meager. Home furnishings and commodities were simple, but foremost in the setting up of a household in this land of adoption were precious images of favorite saints, the crucifix and religious pictures. In the better established homes a colored picture of the erstwhile Holy Father Leo XIII was prominently displayed. Indeed a contrast to our present-day homes, where any picture of religious semblance if found at all will be in some remote part of the home so that it will not be offensive to the modern age, while in prominent places about the apartment fabulous patriots, actors or actresses, questionable champions, and semblances of nature not necessarily artistic, are displayed and admired.

To return to the history of the parish, with the first steps of organization realized in 1909 and the first building started in 1911, it was soon found that with the establishment of the church on the second floor there was room available for only four class rooms on the main floor. The Sisters of Mercy were engaged to teach. Their quarters were temporarily made in the basement which is presently used as a kitchen adjacent to the parish school hall. The pastor had no permanent living quarters but roomed in private homes that were available from time to time. Within the next five years due to the efforts of the pastor and the parishioners the rectory was built. In the following five years a convent was erected to house the increased number of teaching Sisters. And so hopping along through 1911-1916-1921, the need for increased school and church quarters became more pressing. In the interim classes were set up in the school basement and, when this did not suffice, additional classes were set up in the former Kociuszko Hall by virtue of the co-operation of St. Michael's Lodge No. 78 of the Polish Roman Catholic Union which owned the building a few blocks away from the parish proper. With the need of expansion more imperative in the years to come, efforts were made to increase the combination church and school building by erecting an addition towards the south. However, prices were prohibitive and in 1925 the temporary portable structure with a six-class-room capacity was erected and serves the school purpose until the present time, and probably will continue to serve efficiently until high school classes are established in the parish curricula, which we hope will be in the none too distant future.

The years following 1925 found the parish in dire straits, because each time an additional structure was erected since the founding of the parish the parish debt was sizably increased and the solvency of the parish became a foremost consideration. The pastor and the parishioners worked towards this end, although sentiment was high as to the need of a new church. Aside from the efforts to liquidate the parish debts, many circles and clubs were organized and began to raise funds fir the new church. These efforts were thwarted, however, by the financial crash and the depression which followed and man families were forced to seek public relief.

As in other cities, so also in Muskegon, the church acted is a hill) and backbone of Polish activities and organization even for those outside of the church. The reason for this was the fact that a major part of the membership of these organizations, lodges and clubs, is a church affiliation with St Michael's parish.

We will give a brief sketch of these organizations, to round out this Memorial or Dedication History. In the first place, it will be well to recall that our early pioneers and founders of the parish sought some organization many yaws before the founding of the parish became a reality. Polish organizations of national scope were active in the United States and the one that appealed to our pioneers most was the Polish Roman Catholic Union, which in its infancy had headquarters in Ray City, Michigan, and was later transferred to Chicago. Our pioneers subscribed to this organization which also carried the benefits of fraternal insurance and as early as 1891 they obtained a charter which gave them lodge No. 78 in the P.R.C.U. The name of the original lodge was St. Francis a Paulo, which in later years was changed to St. Michael's Lodge to coincide with the name of the parish to which it belonged. St. Michael's Lodge enjoyed a fine and noteworthy span of existence since its conception in 1891. In more recent years the lodge succeeded in forming an auxiliary lodge which is now known as St. Mary Magdalen Lodge No. 1283 P. R. C. U. and still more recently has succeeded in getting the district headquarters transferred from Grand Rapids to Muskegon and serves most of Western Michigan in that fraternity.

The first and oldest organization within the parish is the Rosary Society of St. Michael's church, which was organized immediately after the parish was founded and has contributed much to the spiritual and material welfare of the parish.

St. Michael's Choir was also started in the early days of the parish. It was first to subscribe to the new church efforts by starting a drive for an organ fund for the new church. For many years under the direction of Miss Anna Narloch two choirs were maintained, including the junior and adult groups.

The Sisters fared well in the organizational efforts of the parish. From the early days of the founding of St. Michael's school they headed the child groups: Children of Mary and St. Stanislaus Society, the Altar Boys' Society and the Young Ladies Sodality which is now a part of the National Order of Sodalists.

Also about 15 years ago, as a consequence of a mission given in the parish by the Franciscan Fathers of Pulaski, Wisconsin, a Third Order of St. Francis group was organized. The youth of the parish was also organized by the first assistant pastor of the parish, Father Malinowski, and has enjoyed nearly continuous existence with several athletic trophies to its credit. It is now a part of the C. Y. O. organization in the diocese.

Foremost in the civic aspect with parish affiliation is the Mother's Club of St. Michael's parish and an affiliate of the P. T. A. council. The club was active in the parish and community long before Parent-Teacher organizations were set up in conjunction with public school units. The club promotes welfare activities within the parish and assists in the school recreational activities, is an auxiliary unit of the Red Cross and recently furnished the school library and playground equipment.

As to the national organizations among our people, besides the P. R. C. U. which was already mentioned, early in 1910 a club for the promotion of Citizenship and Americanization was organized and soon linked up with the Polish National Alliance, a contemporary organization of the Polish Roman Catholic Union. The Falcons of that day were an adjunct of the Alliance. As an outgrowth of this first civic club, Lodge No. 1371 of the P. N. A. was chartered as was also Nest No. 276 of the Polish Falcons. Their first lodge hall was located on 8th Street at Clay Avenue and later the present Falcon Hall was built. Both organizations dissolved in later years due to the dissolution of their national organizations and each followed its own respective ideals. Locally the Alliance has enjoyed expansion and growth now having still another group organized under another charter. Just as the P.R.C.U., it has succeeded in setting up Commune headquarters in Muskegon for this part of Michigan. The Falcons have also fared well through the years, having established an auxiliary lodge known as Nest 883, and having succeeded in winning the district seat for Muskegon after it had been in South Bend, a strong Falcon seat for many years. The Falcons have successfully competed in district and national field meets, some of them being held here in Muskegon.

The most recent organization of civic scope among the Polish people was the chartering of the Polish War Veterans, Post No. 146, only a few years ago. Though only 8 veterans were listed on the original charter and no prospects were in sight for an increase in their roster, it appears that the present conflict will abet the future activities of this noble group.

World War I was the cause for much activity among the Polish Americans of Greater Muskegon, A volunteer committee with the pastor at its head was organized and many of our young men enlisted in the American forces and in the Polish and Czech legions, Till this day a proud note is struck at the sight of Polish names on a memorial tablet at the entrance to the Causeway Memorial Drive. Red Cross. Liberty Loan, and War Chest Drives were the keynote of the committee.

The same spirit prevails among our people today as is evidenced by the service flag displayed in our new edifice. The age-old cry: 'For God and Country" instilled by our pioneers is sealed not only by the blue but also by the gold stars appearing on our service banner.

The steady growth and expansion of St. Michael's parish has also had a note of complexity. Unlike other parishes with stated boundaries, St. Michael's, being a Polish parish, had to include in its boundaries all the places where Polish people dwelt. The faculties of the parish were taxed to minister to a widespread area. Missions at Elbridge and Rothbury were regularly served. Only in recent years were these places taken over by the increased number of Polish priests serving adjoining pastorates.

The rapid post-war growth of the parish made it necessary for the pastor to seek assistance especially for the Sunday services, hence we recall that Father Skory would delegate one of his assistants to say a Mass at St. Michael's on Sundays. This help was supplemented by members of the Seminary Faculty on alternate Sundays until the late Father Opyrchalski was appointed chaplain of Mercy Hospital in Muskegon. Fr. Opyrchalski took care of the 9:00 o'clock services at St. Michael's, which at that time was the children's Mass. Many of the old-timers will recall his vivid and sincere discourses on catechetical subjects and could well caption his sermons thus: "Suffer these little ones to come unto Me."

Father Malinowski was the first full-time assistant of the parish and, as before mentioned, took the youth of the parish under his wing. It took a breakdown of his helth to remove him from us, but he was followed by an able successor in the late Father A. Tomaszewski, who served the parish well for the subsequent two years. The parish was served in the following order: by Fathers Wodecki. Maciejewski and briefly by Father Kaminski. Then came Father Zielinski who also acted as administrator during the first pastor's transfer from St. Michael's to St. Rita's in Saginaw prior to the appointment of our present pastor, Father A. Sikorski.

Father Sikorski was greeted by an assistant, Fr. A. Ulanowicz, when he first came to Muskegon, and though Fr. Ulanowicz's stay here was short, it will be remembered for years to come, as will be the services rendered to the parish by Fr. Sruba and Fr. Kolenda, who but very recently left our midst.

This history is not intended to be a greeting but may serve as one to Father Sniegowski, our present assistant, who already has endeared himself to the hearts of our parishioners.

Reference to the sacerdotal aid given St. Michael's would not be complete without the mention of the cooperation and assistance rendered by our first pastor's brothers, Fathers Stephen and Adalbert Narloch, each of whom has been of great help during special devotions and in times of sickness and distress. Our remarks would also be incomplete if we did not give due mention to Msgr. Noa and his ready cooperation and help rendered by himself and members of the Seminary Faculty whenever the emergency arose. Last but not least, worthy of mention is Msgr. A. Volkert, D.D., presently of Mercy Hospital but formerly of St. Joseph's Seminary, who though in advanced years has nevertheless served our parish faithfully for the past few years directly and thirty years ago indirectly by relief duty at St. Adalbert's in Grand Rapids in order that the assistants could come to Muskegon and serve us. Msgr. Volkert's help, both spiritual and material, will no doubt leave an indelible mark in the annals of St. Michael's parish as will all the efforts and sincerity of those mentioned and unmentioned pioneers, founders, builders, organizers, promoters, leaders, members and friends of St. Michael's Parish of Greater Muskegon.

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Last Updated on October 20, 2011