Polish Presence in Houston
While Polish immigration to the United States dates back to the beginning of the Republic and includes such illustrious names as General Thaddeus Kosciuszko whose engineering skills enabled the American army to win the battle of Saratoga during the War of Independence, Polish immigration to Texas dates back to the nineteenth century. At that time, the Polish nation was divided between three empires: Prussian, Austrian, and Russian, and each consecutive uprising against foreign armies brought to America a new wave of political and economic immigrants. According to one estimate, some 3.6 million people left Poland between 1870–1924. Between 1911–1914, one quarter of the Polish population living in the Austrian part of Poland emigrated due to poverty and exploitation by the Viennese authorities. Some of these emigrants settled in Texas
Among the factors which made Texas attractive to Polish immigrants was the abundance of land. During the Napoleonic War, the Spanish consul in New Orleans offered land in Texas to the soldiers of the Polish Legion who would desert the French army in Spain. The Poles did not desert, but after Napoleon’s fall in 1815 a number of Polish soldiers took up the offer. In 1817 they joined a group of French colonists from Philadelphia who likewise decided to go to the then-Spanish province of Texas.
“There is no place better than Texas.”
A Polish inhabitant of Houston in 1906.
The first organized group of Polish immigrants came to Texas on December 3, 1854. On that day, a party of some hundred and fifty Polish farmers from Silesia disembarked in Galveston and moved to the mainland. With the assistance of the Polish Franciscan Rev. Leopold Moczygemba (who came earlier to minister to German Catholics in Texas), Polish farmers bought virgin land and established the first Polish colony at a place they called Panna Maria, or Our Lady. In 1855, seven hundred Silesian Poles left for Texas, and in 1856, five hundred.
Within a couple of decades these colonists established thriving agricultural communities in several counties around San Antonio. They also suffered many adversities. Some Polish colonists were killed by Indians, others perished because of severe drought in the 1850s, still others were drafted to the army during the Civil War before they learned to speak English, set up homesteads, or sell their first crops.
Time went on, and within a few generations quite a few counties in Texas became heavily Polish. The fecundity of these early immigrants was stupendous by twenty-first century standards. The immigrants adopted the prevailing Anglo culture, especially when the women married into families with Anglo names. The admixture of Polish blood in the Anglo families of Texas is considerable. But the immigrants did not quite forget their Polish roots, as evidenced by some of their names, their interest in things Polish, and the cultivation of many Polish traditions and customs.
Houston likewise was a destination for the early Polish immigrants. A visiting Polish journalist S. Nestorowicz wrote in his book Travel Notes in 1909:
I found about 200 Polish families in the Houston area. There is no Polish district here: Polish households are scattered throughout the area. Large distances and difficulties in communication account for the lack of organizational Polish presence in the city. In 1830, the first Polish organization was formed: the Kosciuszko Lodge #165. A Polish Catholic parish is in the planning stage, and so is a Polish library. Economically, however, the Poles in Houston prosper. Quite a few Poles are well-to-do, some are wealthy. I have not met a single Polish person that would complain of economic privation. “Houston is the best, ” they say, “there is no place better than Texas.”
Houston‘s Polish population resided mostly in the northern and southwestern parts of the city which at that time consisted of the present-day downtown area. At the turn of the century, about twenty members of the Polish community established a social club. In 1891 a group of Polish immigrants met in a small shoe store on Milam Street and laid the foundation of what became the largest Polish American Society in the state of Texas: the fraternal benefit society which provided insurance to its members. In 1893 this society was renamed “the Kosciuszko Lodge #165 of the Polish National Alliance,” thus becoming a part of the all-American organization established in 1880 in the Midwest. In 1918 the first Polish Home was built on the 6th Street and Studywood in the Heights. It became a cultural center for the Polish population. For many years, this Polish Home remained a place where social, cultural, and religious gatherings took place.
After the First World War the Kosciuszko Lodge continued to operate but, as the Polish community grew considerably in the 1920s, two more Polish National Lodges were formed. In 1924 a club called “the Polonia Society 2308” was organized. In 1925 the Polish Women‘s Group was formed and later renamed “The Progressive Club.”
The Depression of the 1930s negatively impacted the Polish community in Houston. It became customary for members of the Polish National Alliance‘s Kosciuszko Lodge to bring their own food to the meetings and try to sell it, so that the organization would have some spending money. Times were tough,and few could afford to belong to an organization that charged dues. At the end of 1936 the lodge had only fifty-eight members. With the start of the Second World War, however, the situation changed. The Polish population from rural Texas came to Houston, because this is where the jobs were. Thus the Polish societies in Houston survived and continued to grow.
The upheavals of the Second World War and the loss of over twenty percent of the prewar population of Poland (and thirty percent of the prewar territory of Poland) brought about the displacement of millions of Poles. Those who survived and found themselves outside Poland‘s borders were reluctant to return to the Soviet-occupied country. A return to Poland occupied by the Red Army meant imprisonment and possibly death. Many veterans of the Polish Army who served in the British Army in Italy, as well as former slave laborers from the German concentration camps immigrated to Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Some came to Houston, among them Marian Krzyzaniak (now deceased), Professor of Economics at Rice University and founder of a Circle of college-educated Polish immigrants.
On February 27, 1971 in Austin, the Rev. John W. Yanta, descendant of the original Panna Maria settlers, founded the Texas Division of the Polish American Congress, a nationwide organization headquartered in Chicago. The first convention of the new chapter took place 5–6 November 1971 in San Antonio. The elected Executive Committee consisted of seven members, and it was headed by Rev. Yanta. The seciond convention took place 3–5 November 1972, and it was held in Houston‘s Rice Hotel. This convention elected Dr. Joseph A. Jachimczyk, later the Harris County Medical Examiner, as president of PAC-Texas chapter. In 1973 presidency of the chapter was transferred to Dale Michael Gorczynski, the future youngest and longest-serving Houston councilman. Gorczynski is now judge at Precinct #1 in Harris County. The author of this article arrived in Houston in 1974 together with his wife Maria, and he took over the leadership of the PAC-Texas Division after Dale Gorczynski.
In 1963, under the auspices of the Most. Rev John L. Morkovsky, Bishop of Galveston-Houston, a Sts. Cyril & Methodius Slavic Heritage Festival was initiated as an annual event in which Croatian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, and Ukrainian Catholic groups participated. This annual festival continues to this day.
Between 1960–1980 the Polish population of Houston grew considerably. It also generated two distinct groups, one consisting of native-born Americans of Polish descent, and the other émigrés and first- generation Americans with Polish roots. The first group included three lodges of the Polish National Alliance (PNA) operating out of the Polish Home built in the northern part of Houston in 1974. The Mazewski family played a prominent role in maintaining that Home. Some newcomers born in Poland also joined this group and created a new PNA Copernicus lodge led by Professor Marian Krzyzaniak and by Mr. and Mrs. Jan Karon. The second group established contact with the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in New York and set up a Houston Circle of that organization. Its first president was likewise Professor Marian Krzyzaniak.
The Polish American Congress-Texas Division continued to hold its annual conventions in San Antonio, Austin, Houston, Arlington, Corpus Christi, Fort Worth, El Paso, Victoria, Irving, and Brownsville. The programs of these conventions included lectures by local university professors such as Z. A. Kruszewski and Witold Łukaszewski.
The election of the Polish Pope, Karol Wojtyła, on October 16, 1978, energized the Polish community in Houston. The Pope’s visit to Poland in June 1979 strengthened the resolve of the Polish people to end Soviet domination of their country. The 1978 convention of the Polish American Congress-Texas Division on 27–28 October 1978 coincided with Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński’s reaching out to the Polish American Congress by symbolically placing it in the hands of Our Lady of Częstochowa. The creation in Poland of the 10-million strong Solidarity Labor Union in 1980 initiated political changes in Central and Eastern Europe, and it gave further impetus to the Polish community in Houston.
In December 1981, after the imposition of martial law by the Soviet-controlled government of Poland, fourteen members of the Polish commercial ship Zabrze left the ship at the Port of Houston and applied for political asylum. Their petition was granted by emigration authorities, and the entire event became a symbol of oppression which the Polish people have suffered ever since Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939. In 1989, when Poles regained independence and freedom to travel, a number of Polish professionals came to Houston and stayed here. Many of them joined local universities and research institutes. Among the latter, one should mention the Burzynski Research Institute headed by Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, a world class pioneer in cancer research. Soon one could distinguish three distinct groups among Houstonian Poles:
1. The third- and fourth-generation Americans of Polish background
2. The political émigrés who came to the United States via England and Germany in postwar years
3. Solidarity emigration that began to trickle in the period of the Soviet-controlled martial law in Poland (1981–1989) and later. This last group turned out to be particularly acctive in organizing cultural activities, and their children (and now grandchildren) have demonstrated a strong adherence to their Polish roots (unlike a certain percentage of earlier immigrants who sometimes lost all discernible links to their Polish background, with the exception of their names and their adherence to Catholicism).
In 1999, after sixty years of forced isolation from the Western world to which it belongs through its Western Christian culture, Poland joined NATO and, on May 1, 2004, she joined the European Union. The city of Houston acquired the first official representative of the Republic of Poland, the Honorary Consul Leonard M. Krazynski, well known to the local community as a person dedicated to public service. Mr. Krążyński was instrumental in bringing to Houston a fine exhibition of Polish art and other paintings from the Polish museums. The exhibit was titled “Leonardo da Vinci and the Splendor of Poland,” and it was on display at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts from December 2002 to February 2003. The Polish Ambassador to the United States, Dr. Przemysław Grudziński, arrived for the occasion, and he used it to award the Commander’s Cross to Consul Krążyński, while the Officer’s and the Cadet‘s Crosses were bestowed on a number of Houstonians including the author of this article. In 2004 Dr. Zbigniew Wojciechowski replaced Consul Krazynski as the Honorary Consul of Poland In Houston.
Between 1997–2004 the Polish American Congress-Texas Division was headed by Mr. Thomas Ostrowski; in 2004, the presidency passed on to Dr. Marian Kruzel. In academic life, a scholarly quarterly Sarmatian Review was founded by Professor Ewa Thompson. The quarterly is now recognized as a major resource in Polish and Slavic Studies nationwide, and it has found an audience in academia and among college-educated general readers.
In 1984 the Polish Genealogical Society of Texas was launched by Ms. Teanna Sechelski and Ms. Virginia Hill. The Society turned out to be extremely successful among those Texans and Houstonians who trace their roots to nineteenth-century Poland. The Society publishes a newsletter which is a treasure trove of information about nineteenth-century Texas and its Polish component. The PGST sponsors workshops on genealogical topics and publishes documents otherwise inaccessible to the general educated reader. Anyone interested in Texas history would do well to subscribe to it.
In 2005 Texas Poles celebrated the Sesquicentennial of the Polish Silesian Emigration to Texas. The festivities took place in Houston and in Panna Maria. Speeches and culinary feasts abounded and dignitaries came, but perhaps the most significant event was a concert in which the Louisiana Symphonic Orchestra performed the works of classical composers under the baton of Maestro Mariusz Smolij, with the piano soloist Adam Golka, a Houston-born Polish American who is well set on a distinguished musical career. Poles have come a long way. From impoverished Silesians who excelled in agriculture, to professionals who occupy a notable place in Houston’s intellectual and professional life: the Poles have seen it all and done it all.
And they remained strongly Catholic. While not all Poles are Catholic or Christian (there are Jewish Poles and even a few Muslim Poles, and of course atheist and agnostic Poles), statistics indicate that Catholicism is still the religion of an overwhelming majority of the nation: over 90 percent of Poles declare themselves Catholic. Therefore, the September 1987 visit to San Antonio of Pope John Paul II resonated with American Poles in a major way. Pope Wojtyła‘s open-air mass was the largest gathering of people in one place in Texas history. The Polish American Priests’ Association arranged a special meeting with the Pope on the grounds of the San Antonio Archdiocese. Several hundred representatives of Texas Polonia attended. When Monsignor Moczygemba greeted the Pope in an archaic Silesian dialect, the Pope was duly impressed! The event took place late at night, John Paul II was tired, but he did react strongly and with pleasure to the sign of Polish fidelity to the roots.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Houston Polonia continues to be vigorous and active, and is likely to remain so for years to come.
1891- founding of the first fraternal Kosciuszko Lodge #165
of the Polish National Alliance in Houston
1918 - the first Polish Home erected at 6th Street and Studywood
1924 - founding of the Polish Society Group #2308 (PNA)
1925 - founding of the Polish Progressive Club Lodge #2336 (PNA)
1963 - SS. Cyril and Methodius Heritage Day initiated
1971 - Polish American Congress Texas Division organized by the
Most Rev. Bishop John Yanta
1974 - dedication of the new Polish Home at 103 Cooper Road (sold in 2006)
1982- founding of the Polish Catholic Pastoral Mission in Houston
under Bishop of Galveston-Houston John Louis Morkovsky
with designated Pastor Rev. Wojciech Baryski.
1984 - purchase of property for the Polish Church of Our Lady Of Czestochowa at 1731 Blalock
2001- blessing and dedication of the new church and parish of Our Lady of Czestochowa (built under the supervision of the Rev. Jerzy Frydrych and dedicated by Bishop Vincent Rizzotto)
Polish and Polish-oriented organizations and institutions in Houston as of September 2006
Our Lady of Czestochowa Catholic Parish
The Polish American Congress - Texas Division
Polish Genealogical Society of Texas
The Sarmatian Review (published by the Polish Institute of Houston)
The Houston Chapter of the Kosciuszko Foundation
Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Poland
Polish National Alliance
Chopin Society of Houston
Burzynski Research Institute
Sources: S. Nestorowicz, Notatki z podrózy 
interviews and conversations with members of Houston’s Polish community
the author’s notes and remembrances
Dodano: 2009-12-07 | aktualizowano: 2009-12-20 19:55:19 | odsłon: 2134