Keeping the Polish Spirit Alive in Greenpoint for 100 Years
The northmost Catholic parish of Brooklyn built by Polish immigrants 100 years ago, celebrated its anniversary Nov. 19 with a multi-lingual standing-room-only Mass.
“It brings me joy to visit SS. Cyril and Methodius parish for the 100th anniversary of the parish and the 25th anniversary of the Polish school,” said the main celebrant, Auxiliary Bishop Witold Mroziewski. “We are thankful for this gift first and foremost to God and then to the men and women who work hard to bring hope, love and faith into the community.
“The parish of SS. Cyril and Methodius in October of 1917 was built with the hands of Polish immigrant in search of a better life,” he said. “Though thousands of miles away, the heart of Poland has been and continues to beat here… Yes, we have a beautiful building but the most inspiration part of this community is the people who give it life.”
The Greenpoint parish, named after the patron saints of the Slavic community, has been home to a large Polish immigrant population from its very beginning. On the very first Sunday in parish history, an infant was baptized into the community and a total of 1,600 worshippers came for Mass in a church with a seating capacity of 600 people. The collection amounted to $480 or nearly $10,000 in today’s value.
The first pastor at the parish was Father Emil Strenski and the first Mass at the church was celebrated by Father Mieczyslaus Mrozinski. The parochial school opened in the fall of 1920. Although the Great Depression brought much suffering onto the people, many of whom could no longer afford the nominal payment to keep their children enrolled, the parish kept the school going for the good of the community.
It’s where John Mielnicki enrolled in 1934 when his family moved into the area from Bay Ridge. He also met his wife in the parish when they were both teenagers. At first he did not pay her too much attention because she was two years younger than him, but soon they fell in love and married when he was 23 and she was 20.
“My wife was good and everything she did rubbed off on me,” he said. Throughout his life, Mielnicki was a lector, member of the Holy Name Society and part of a Polish-American veterans’ society, among others.
Although his wife died 30 years ago and his childhood school closed nearly 20 years ago, Mielnicki finds himself at the parish nearly every day, helping in the rectory in any way he can. He has been in the parish to witness the tide of history.
By the mid 1930s, as the entire nation was struggling with the Great Depression, the parish was burdened by a crippling debt accumulating from keeping the church building, convent and school open. The outlook was bleak, but Father, soon-to-be Msgr. Mrozinski was up for the challenge when he became administrator of the parish in 1935 and pastor two years later.
Msgr. Mrozinski had immigrated to the United States from the German-occupied section of Poland in 1910. Having been part of the leading underground Polish patriotic society since high school, he brought the same fighting spirit to the nation founded on freedom. He entered the newly founded Polish seminary of SS. Cyril and Methodius in Orchard Lake, Mich., and finished his studies in the Diocese of Brooklyn.
It took Msgr. Mrozinski nearly 20 years, but with spirit to do what it took, including go door-to-door collecting funds, he brought the parish back into the black. He inspired parishioners to do more than just keep the doors open. During his tenure, the parish constructed a new church building, a new three-story convent and renovated the school. The parish borders also expanded when nearby St. Columbkille parish, which originally served a predominately Irish population, merged into SS. Cyril and Methodius in the late 1930s.
Msgr. Mrozinski retired as pastor in 1968 but remained at the parish in residence until he died in 1984.
In the late 1970s and into the 1980s there was a large influx of Polish immigrants into the United States and the parish increased the number of Polish Masses and other services to meet their needs.
The last diocesan priest to serve at SS. Cyril and Methodius was Father Robert Czok, a Greenpoint native of Polish heritage who had previously served at the parish as a newly ordained priest, 1966-73. During his tenure as pastor, 1990-96, he oversaw a complete renovation of the church building.
In 1996, Bishop Thomas V. Daily gave the parish over to the care of the Vincentian Fathers of the New England Province of the Congregation of the Mission. Father Joseph Mietelski, C.M., was the first Vincentian Father to serve as pastor.
The Vincentians took on the pastoral care of not just the parish but also of the three-year-old Saturday School.
“The past 25 years here have been the history of the school,” current pastor Father Eugeniusz Kotlinski, C.M., said referring to the Polish supplementary school, which educates children on the elementary and high school level. “It brings life to the parish.”
Father Andrzej Lukjaniuk organized and founded the school in 1993. In the first year, 57 children signed up to attend four grades. Currently, the school has 400 students and 26 teachers, with classes held on Fridays and Saturdays. Students learn Polish language, history, geography, literature and cultural traditions and customs. High School students can earn credits for their regular high schools or toward college.
Father Kotlinski said the parish families and educators come from different regions in the area to give their children the opportunity to thrive in their Polish culture. The school children and teens are integral in parish life and will continue the legacy for generations to come. He said the parishioners are dedicated and bring great care and sacrifice to the parish.
Bishop Mroziewski commended the community for preserving Polish heritage and cautioned them to never give up the Polish language or the Polish spirit.
Pastors of SS. Cyril and Methodius
Father Emil Strenski 1917-1935
Msgr. Mieczyslaus Mrozinski 1935-1937 (administrator), 1937-1968 (pastor)
Father Leon Baltrucki 1968-1990
Father Robert Czok 1990-1996
Father Joseph Mietelski, C.M. 1996-2002
Father A. Rafael Kopystynski, C.M. 2002-2003 (administrator)
Father Roman Kmiec, C.M. 2003-2006
Father Tadeusz Maciejewski, C.M. 2006-2015
Father Eugeniusz Kotlinski, C.M. 2015-present