Story by Tim Bowman, Photos by Michael Coyne
As you drive down Belmont Avenue on Chicago’s Northwest Side, you notice a portrait of Pope John Paul II on the wall of a large building. It is visible from a block away, his face growing larger as you inch nearer. Officials within those walls believe when people see the striking image of the late pope they will immediately know St. Ferdinand is a special Polish and Catholic place.
Located in the Belmont Central neighborhood of Chicago, St. Ferdinand Church is socially engaged with one the largest immigrant groups in the city.
St. Ferdinand at 5900 W. Barry Ave, serves a large Polish community, with 65 percent of parishioners being Poles. Every Sunday 4,000 people come to pray and worship together at the church. There is Mass in Polish and English every day, with four services on Sunday.
The church is made of white marble, spanning an entire block. The building is a beautiful structure, almost timeless in its design. A bell tower above the chapel signals the times throughout the day. Inside the main chapel, depictions of Jesus’ life adorn the walls. Fourteen sculptures circle the room, showing his birth to crucifixion. Above them, images of the saints in stained glass windows. The pews are of clean and vibrant wood, enough to sit hundreds of people each Sunday morning.
St. Ferdinand was a predominantly Italian parish when it first began in November 1927. As the parish began to grow, a larger addition to the church was completed in 1959, a sleek marble design modeled after the popular architecture in Italy of the time. The church is named after its patron Saint Ferdinand of Castile, a 13th century political leader.
The Rev. Jason Torba, 46, has been the head pastor since 2006. Born in Poland and ordained as a priest in 1991, he was sent to the U.S. in 1998 to meet the needs of Polish people in Chicago. A healthy age range of parishioners attend the church and its social events, from youth to those who have been with the parish since its opening in 1959. Parishioners are predominately from the neighborhood, but some that have moved to the western suburbs still come to the weekly services.
The neighborhood’s culture changed in the past 20 years. There was a mass influx of Polish immigrants to the U.S. during the 1980s, with a majority of them settling in Chicago. Many of them were young adults in their early 20s, hoping to create a better life in America.
“They didn’t see any future in Poland with the end of communism,” Torba said. “When I was in seminary there was nothing. It was horrible. If you go to stores it was empty stores.” St. Ferdinand a Polish ministry 18 years ago at the request of the neighborhood and now it is the focus of the church.
Torba saw the importance of having an open community, making the church available at all times throughout the day for people to pray and seek help. Early on, his mission was difficult because there were not enough volunteers, Torba said. More churches now see its importance, but St. Ferdinand was ahead of the curve.
“We see fruits,” Torba said.
When he came to the church, it was in debt and in decline. Now it has many volunteers to take care of all the church’s needs. “We have enough to pay for everything,” Torba said. “Thanks be to God they still very generous and we have enough.” For its 50th anniversary in 2009, the Church raised $500,000 to build a new organ.
Wanda Kwiecien, 58, has attended St. Ferdinand for almost seven years.
“The St. Ferdinand Church is my second house, or maybe first house,” she said.
A Polish immigrant, Kwiecien came to America in 1985. Since she works the afternoon shift in the infant ward of a hospital, Kwiecien said St. Ferdinand’s openness is important to her.
“I feel very empty if I have a closed door and have to go to work,” she said.
She goes two times a day for Mass and prayer, once in the morning and again before heading to the hospital where she has worked for 13 years. Kwiecien also regularly writes for the Polish bulletin about the importance of the Divine Mercy outlined by St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun of the early 20th century.
Torba and his parish are committed to serving the neighborhood. The social activities St. Ferdinand provides every week like “Fish Fry Friday” draws hundreds of people from the community. The event has more than 100 volunteers and serves more than 800 dinners.
“Right now people live in isolation,” Torba said. “Everybody wants to be just for yourself and forget about others, and that’s the time to be with others.”
Besides a Polish school, the building also has a preschool, elementary and the Notre Dame all-girl high school.
Torba said the Polish community feels freedom while at the church. In Poland, many were well educated with good careers, but once arriving in the U.S. they had to restart their lives.
“Some of them are very educated people in Poland. They finished, they graduated, they got master degree, but they came here and didn’t know English. They start as a very simple work,” Torb said.
Many feel frustrated by their circumstances, having to work simple jobs like housekeeping to support their families.
“Here they can express themselves,” he said.
On Saturday mornings Polish school educators, who might be caregivers during the week, get to be real teachers again, Torba explained. The school preserves the language and culture for a generation of Polish Americans born in the U.S.
Polish immigrants face many hardships that the parish tries to assist with.
“They try to call them “illegal.” They are not illegal because they pay taxes, they take care of community, they build houses,” Torba said.
The church organizes and sometimes brings lawyers to help people with immigration problems. Some Polish immigrants cannot return to Poland for legal reasons, which divide their families. If a family member is ill or dies in Poland, the church organizes a Mass for them. At the church, people can also vote in Polish elections.
“When we organize something in the Church, we use the term “undocumented people,”’ Torba said.
St. Ferdinand struggles with openness in a community that may not necessarily want to be open all the time. Months ago the church organized a meeting for undocumented immigrants. The media came with cameras and everyone immediately left, afraid of being recognized. Many immigrants feel terrible about their circumstances.
Since Poland has helped the U.S. with the War on Terror, sending soldiers to combat, many wonder why they face so many adversities with the immigration system. “They feel, “wow, we are kind of in some way betrayed,” Torba said.
Steven Scienski, 28, the assistant director of the Belmont-Central Chamber of Commerce, described the church as an “important meeting place and ties for the community.” He estimated up to 75 percent of local businesses are Polish-owned. Several of the restaurants are always packed on Sunday with parishioners.
A predominately middle class neighborhood, the difficult economy is changing the area again. “It’s hard for them and harder for us too,” Torba said. Some families are returning to Poland now that the country’s economy is stronger, said Scienski. More Hispanics are also moving into the community. There is even a growing minority of Filipino parishioners at St. Ferdinand that have a Mass spoken in Tagalog.
St. Ferdinand united the unlikely pairing of Polish and Jamaican missionaries, two groups that on the surface appear to be polar opposites but share many similarities. Clergy and parishioners of St. Ferdinand’s went to Jamaica to help the Missionaries of the Poor, a group that began its mission in 1981 to serve the needs of the country. Torba said the Polish people can relate to the struggles in Jamaica because they remember how it used to be in Poland. In March a group from the church will travel to India for missionary work.
The vision from St. Faustina helps those at the parish facing difficult challenges in uncertain times. “For me the magic word was, “Jesus I trust in you,”’ Kwiecien said.