Buffalo "Polonia" at the Turn of the Century
St. Stanislaus and Father Pitass
The pivotal point in Buffalo Polonia was St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic Church, built by Father Jan Pitass in 1873. The building was a small wooden structure housing a church and school, but it was the cultural and spiritual center of the Polish community, which radiated out in all directions.2
While St. Stanislaus was the pivotal point in the Polish community, Fr. Pitass was the pivotal leader. A native of Silesia, a rural area of Poland inhabited primarily by the peasantry (and under Prussian control) Fr. Pitass was brought to Buffalo by Bishop Ryan to create a Polish presence in the Buffalo Diocese. He did just that, building Buffalo Polonia into a proud, unified community where Polish traditions and culture thrived.
Fr. Pitass worked with former city treasurer and east side landowner Joseph Bork to encourage Polish immigrants to purchase lots and build homes rather than rent. Bork had deeded the land upon which St. Stanislaus was built and he , his brother George and Henry V. Vogt offered hundreds of one- and two- story homes in the vicinity of the church, to the Poles for very low downpayments. This was a wise business decision for Bork, as the population of Buffalo's polish community grew to comprise nearly 20% of the city's population by 1904.3
while he profited from his land speculation, Bork proved a friend to Polonia,
doing more for the Polish people than for any other ethnic group.4
Father Pitass was a central figure and leader to Buffalo's Polish immigrants. Conservative and pro-Polish, he built Buffalo Polonia into a proud, unified community where Polish traditions and culture thrived. In doing so however, he also kept the Poles relatively secluded from the rest of the city's residents.
Indeed while the
late 19th century may have been a period of employment as day labor for
most Polish immigrants, by 1920, the number of working-age Poles holding
semi-skilled or skilled jobs had increased measurably.7
Most were industrial or factory
workthe Lackawanna Steel Company began operation in the early 1900'sbut
more and more residents of Polonia opened their own businesses or went
into professions like law or medicine. Dr. Francis Fronczak attended Canisius
College and was the first Buffalo Pole to graduate from the University
of Buffalo Medical School. Francis
Burzynski became the first Polish lawyer admitted to the New York State
Bar and Bernard Pitass, nephew of Fr. Jan Pitass graduated from Canisius
College8 and opened one of the largest
dry goods establishments in the city.
The Polish Democratic Club (Klub Polsko-Demokratyczny) was formed by local Polish leaders John Gosielewski, James M. Rozan, Jacob Johnson (Jasiak) and K. Binkowski in an attempt to unite Poles in support of Democratic candidates.10 Their efforts were successful, for in 1892 Rozan was elected supervisor of the 5th Ward, the first Pole to hold elective office in Buffalo.
Besides the Polish Democrat Club, there formed the Old Settlers' Club, a republican organization influential in the election of Frank A. Gorski, to the city's Board of Councilmen. These political clubs, as well as the numerous Polish organizations, helped immigrants to become acclimated to American systems while still allowing for social and cultural ties to Poland. Fr. Pitass supported these efforts calling for Poles to vote and to seek higher education. 11
By the early 1900's Buffalo's Polish-Americans were no longer dormant in politics, although the community was still socially isolated. They would face many obstacles both prejudicial and economic. However, Polonia's settlers and their descendants would come to be one of the largest and most influential communities in Buffalo during the 20th century.
* Sincerest thanks to Ms. Pauline Nowak for updated unformation on the Przewozniczek Bros. In many contemporary sources, the name is incorrectly spelled "Przewoznik."