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St. Stephen Parish - Paterson NJ

A brief parish history from the 1953 Golden Jubilee Book

The Poles began to settle in Paterson in about the year 1883. They found themselves in a city as strange to them in ways and speech, as they themselves must have seemed to those who were already residents of this city. Year after year more families arrived. Being a thrifty nation and liberty loving, they found conditions in this city highly favorable.

The Poles have been for centuries, a devout Catholic race; consequently, they aspired more and more to the founding of a Polish Catholic Church where they could hear the word of God in their own tongue and join in the services of their Church.

For many years, the Poles attended the parishes of Saint John, Saint Boniface, and Our Lady of Lourdes. To start a Church for themselves, they encountered two principal difficulties:

(a) Lack of Polish Catholic Priests
(b) Lack of Finances

In 1903 the idea of forming a Polish Catholic Church became concrete. A group of friends composed of Messrs. John Gniedziejko, Frank Strezeski, Stanislaus Krzeminski and Joseph Stark approached Father A. Stein, Rector of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, asking him for help to organize their own church, according to the laws of Church and State.

In October of 1903 this committee received from the Most Reverend Bishop John O'Connor a letter addressed to Frank Strezeski, head of the committee, wherein a favorable answer was given to their petition to i'o!m a corporation committee to build a church of their own.

Meanwhile, having no Polish speaking priest on hand, visiting Polish priests would come every Sunday for Vesper Services only from neighboring cities, e.g.:

Rev. Boleslaus Kwiatkowski, Jersey City
Rev. Valentine Chlebowski, Passaic
Rev. John Strzelecki, New York City

December 14, 1903, the Church (in abstracto, i. e., without buildings) "Saint Stephen's Polish Roman Catholic Church, Paterson, N. J." was officially incorporated. Name of incorporators:

(a) Most Rev. Bishop John O'Connor
(b) The Rt. Rev. Msgr. John Sheppard
(c) Frank Strezeski
(d) Joseph Komorowski
(e) Rev. Boleslaus Kwiatkowski

It was at this time that Fr. Kwiatkowski purchased 10 lots on Martin Street with the idea of building a church and rectory. In the meantime, Rev. Jos. Zielinski was appointed as first Pastor of St. Stephen's Church, June 1904.

This was the occasion of great joy for the Poles of Paterson. The task of Fr. Zielinski was not at all a pleasant one. He was forced to make frequent house collections in order to maintain the parish and he found continual trouble brewing among the people. At this time, the Poles held services in Saint Michael's Church on Cross Street.

July, 1904, Father Zielinski purchased the Methodist Episcopal Church at 138 Beech Street, i.e., an old frame church and rectory, in which buildings the Poles thereafter held services. The purchase price amounted to $8,000.00.

In September, 1905, Rev. Leo Wierzynski became Pastor as Father Zielinski resigned for an unknown reason.

Also, Father Leo Wierzynski encountering a great deal of difficulties and troubles resigned.

In May, 1906, his successor was Reverend Erasmus Ansion. He began his work with great energy and prudence. He started the school in the basement of the Church, bringing in the Sisters of St. Bernard. There were 65 children and 3 teachers. He organized the St. Cecilia's Choir and the Children of Mary Sodlality. He gathered the Lithuanians and held devotions for them, being conversant in the Lithuanian language. Fr. Ansion also frequently visited scattered Polish families in Ramapo, Ramsey, Mahwah and Singac. On November 1, 1908, Fr. Ansion was transferred to St. Stanislaus's Parish in Newark.

The Most Reverend Ordinary then assigned Rev. Paul Knappek as the next Pastor of St. Stephen's. Fr. Knappek continued in the footsteps of his predecessor and the parish prospered. He proved to be a man of vision, capability, determination and ,full of an unusual zeal and devotion to God's cause. However, in February, 1909, Saint Stephen's suffered a calamity as their Church burned down and all their possessions in the Church were· also destroyed. Though the Poles suffered a great loss, they were greatly heartened by receiving assistance from the late Rev. C. Gillen, Pastor of St,. Joseph's Church, who offered them the use of the school hall on Carroll Street, where they held their devotions.

Plans were immediately made for building a church and rectory on Martin St. The blessing of the corner stone was performed by the late Rev. Dean McNulty. The Most Rev. Bishop O'Connor dedicated the newly built church and Msgr. Stanislaus Nowak. preached the sermon. The beautiful picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa was received from Poland and blessed by the Most Rev. Bishop Paul Rhode.

Fr. Knappek started the school again, bringing in as teachers the Felician Sisters from Lodi, N.J. On Feb. 20, 1912, Fr. Knappek was transferred to St. Casimir's, Newark. The Rev. James Wrzeciono filled the position as next Pastor, but in less than a month he was transferred to Passaic, for an unknown reason.

Reverend Stephen Nowakowski was now the appointed Pastor of St. Stephen's, which position he retained until November 2, 1926. Fr. Nowakowski purchased two more lots and beautiful the grounds. He also decreased the church debt. He was assisted at various times by the Salesian Fathers of Ramsey, NJ.

Lack of unity and dissensions within the parish hampered the growth of the parish, especially after the Sisters were removed by their Superiors.

From March, 1926, Rev. Joseph Maj assumed charge of St. Stephen's. At his request, the Most Rev. Bishop assigned Father James Czarnogorski as the first curate. In Fr. Maj's time, St. Stephen's Parish built the Sisters' Convent costing $ 20,000.00. He reopened the school to six classes, bringing in the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth ... 5 teachers, and 180 children. Fr. Maj organized the Holy Name Society, the Sacred Heart Sodality for women, the Children of Mary, and the St. Hedwig's Club for young women.

Seeing the need of a church for the Poles residing in the Riverside Section, he obtained permission from the Most Reverend Bishop to purchase" the Second Christian Reformed Church, which was formally dedicated as St. Hyacinth's Church. This was accomplished in 1927, and it is still used as a place of worship for the Poles of that section of the city. Soon the St. Cecilia's Choir and the Holy Rosary Society were organized. These organized Societies helped the newly formed church greatly.

After twenty-five years of existence, St. Stephen's Parish possessed church, school, convent and rectory on a plot of land composed of 16 lots or 1,123 acres.

In January, 1932, Father Joseph Maj was transferred to St. Ann's, Jersey City, and Fr. James Wreciono assumed charge of Saint Stephen's, and this in a very trying period, a period of country-wide depression. All the parish buildings from the outside and inside, from floor to roof and chimney needed a thorough repair; also the financial status of the parish was not enviable.

Taking the lead in his new responsibilities, Fr. J. Wreciono started step by step to repair, refresh, improve parish buildings, buy all new Mass vestments, erect a 1050 ft. long new fence, redecorate the church and classrooms, install oil heating, pave the school yard, install a new organ, electronic bells etc. St. Stephen's parish with its beautiful park-like garden has changed its whole visage and appearance.

Besides material progress, Fr. Wrzeciono has gained the good will of his people and has assisted the spiritual growth of his flock, which is evidenced by numerous church sociieties and sodalities.

In 1949, Father Wrzeciono was elevated to the dignity of a Monsignor in recognition of his zeal and Catholic Action. In 1951, Msgr. James Wrzeciono enlarged the inadequate 43 year old rectory by seven rooms, thus making the material part of the church buildings complete and self-sufficient.

In the last decade, cities started to decentralize, people moving into the suburbs. Due to this fact, the number of school children of Polish extraction began to reduce rapidly and to prevent the closing of classes, the late Most Rev. Bishop McLaughlin gave permission to admit to St. Stephen's School any children from the neighborhood, regardless of race or nationality. The school now has 5 teachers and 175 pupils in eight grades.

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Last Updated on October 20, 2011