As I walk up the debris littered slope of Polish Hill, the turquoise cupola atop the massive dome of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church stands sentinel over the panorama of Pittsburgh neighborhoods. This Catholic Church, according to an earnest usher within the main foyer, was built by Polish immigrants who would labor an additional eight hours upon arriving home from a 12 hour shift. His enthusiasm is soon dampened, however as he explains that “many young people are abandoning the beautiful church” and its congregation is shrinking. Despite this modern exodus, however, the traditional beliefs and practices of the original parish are evident in the ethnic traditions still celebrated and the ornate artwork filling the interior of the sanctuary (“Catholic Church Pittsburgh”).
Polish immigrants came to America seeking land and a better economic prospects. The steel mills of Pittsburgh provided a steady, if dangerous, source of income. However, Polish Americans often were accused of “ruining” the economy, as they sent money back home to relatives who had not yet emigrated (“Immigration Library.”). Some anti- immigrant vigilante groups, including militant members of the Know Nothing Party, violently reacted to this stigma with raids and assaults (Hay 25). According to an elderly churchgoer of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Party once destroyed the enormous stained glass windows that adorn the sides of the church with stones, attempting to drive the Catholics out of Polish Hill. Despite these accusations and hardships, the Polish Americans continued to arrive and work, becoming an important factor in the Industrial Revolution.
Although financial incentives spurred the migration to America from Poland, the poor and dangerous conditions back home served to force many immigrants out of the country. In 1919, in fact, “60% of the land was owned by 2% of the population”. This discrepancy forced thousands of Poles to seek land and property elsewhere (“Immigration Library.”). Religious liberty, too, spurred the mass exodus from Europe. The largely Roman Catholic Polish immigrants, such as those that founded the Immaculate Heart of Mary, were scattered and persecuted by the Russian, Austria-Hungarian, and Prussian Empires (“Polish/Russian – The Nation of Polonia”). These and other factors galvanized the mass departure of Polish immigrants out of Europe and into Pittsburgh.
1-“Catholic Church Pittsburgh, Immaculate Heart of Mary Church History.” Catholic Church Pittsburgh, Immaculate Heart of Mary Church History. Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.
2- Hay, Jeff. Immigration. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2001. Print.
3-“Immigration Library.” Immigration Library. The Advocates for Human Rights, 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
4-“An Interior Ellis Island.” An Interior Ellis Island. MTU Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections, 2007. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
5-“Polish/Russian – The Nation of Polonia – Immigration…- Classroom Presentation | Teacher Resources – Library of Congress.”Polish/Russian – The Nation of Polonia – Immigration…- Classroom Presentation | Teacher Resources – Library of Congress. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.