Many Poles and Lithuanians who immigrated to Grand Rapids in the late 19th and early 20th centuries clung to the hope that their nations would one day become sovereign countries again after 123 years of partition by the Kingdom of Prussia, the Russian Empire and Hapsburg Austria.
To keep their national identities alive, the immigrants built churches, organized societies, founded newspapers and launched schools in Grand Rapids with the hopes that they may someday return to a reunified Poland and re-establishment of Lithuania.
But the promise of the American dream gave them a different hope. In 1918, Poland was reunited as a country and Lithuania was re-established as a democratic state, but immigrants to Grand Rapids largely remained here and sought to become U.S. citizens so their children could live better lives.
The immigrants’ journey is summed up well in this 2005 excerpt from Veronica Kandl, former curator at the Grand Rapids Public Museum:
“The first substantial number of Poles came to a Grand Rapids in the 1870s from the German-ruled regions of Poland. A large percentage came from the towns of Trzemesszno near Poznan and the villages of the Novi Dwor area. Most settled on the west side of town and worked as craftsmen in the furniture factories.
Since these first settlers knew of the German language and most were Catholic, many attended the German Catholic church of Saint Mary, founded in 1857. By the 1880s, the Polish population had grown in their desire for their own church, prompted the building of the Basilica of St. Adalbert at Davis Avenue and 5th Street in 1881.
During the 1890s, a number of the new Poles who were arriving from Russian- and Austrian-ruled regions of Poland settled on the east side of town, near Diamond Street and Fuller Avenue. Tending to have less skills than the previous Polish immigrants, many were drawn to this area to work in the brickyards. In 1897, St. Isadore Catholic Church was built on Diamond Avenue and Flat Street.
Many of the Russian and Austrian Poles arriving here between 1890 and 1914 found work in the gypsum mines located along Butterworth Street near John Ball Park and at nearly 20 furniture factories on the west side such as John Widdicomb and Widdicomb Furniture, Stowe Davis, and American Seating. In 1903, permission was granted to organize a parish in that area with the name of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church.
Hoping that one day their homeland would be reunited and they could return home, many Poles desired to keep their national and religious traditions and customs alive among themselves and their children. Each church had its own school where English and Polish were taught.
Many mutual aid, sick, burial, social and fraternal societies were organized. The oldest society, the St. Adalbert’s Aid Society, was formed in 1872. Other groups included the Polish National Aid Society, St. Hyacinth’s Society, the Polish Veterans Association, the Polish Political Society and St. Teresa’s. There were more than 24 Polish societies at St. Adalbert’s alone.
The Knights of St. Casmir was a quasi-military organization founded in 1895 with the purpose of working for the liberation of Poland. Local authorities allow them to conduct military exercises and physical training. Many members were recruited to fight in the military units organized in France under the command of Polish born general Joseph Haller.
The Polish settlers also organize their own halls, bands, choirs and published their own newspapers. The Polish National Hall on Jackson Street erected in 1899 was the first Polish hall in the United States.
That same year of the Lutnia Halka Choir was organized. The choir gave concerts and gained considerable national fame. The Pulaski Cornet Band was organized in 1885 and consisted of 12 “not” cornet players. It was succeeded by the Polish Military Band with 30 members.
The first Polish language newspaper Glas Polski (Polish Voice) was published on March 22, 1899 and lasted for 16 months. The Echo newspaper succeeded it and was produced weekly until 1957.”