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 "Our 3 Polish Parishes - but for how much longer?"

written for May 2004 Wilno Heritage Newsletter by Shirley Mask Connolly

We are very proud of the three Polish parishes in our community - St. Mary's in Wilno, St. Hedwig's in Barry's Bay and St. Casimir's in Round Lake, but fear that eventually the "Polish element" that our ancestors worked so hard to establish will be lost.

Old postcard from Sylvester Peplinskie. Note Omanique's mill in background.

At this time (May 2004), only St. Mary's Parish in Wilno, the "mother church" of the area, has a Polish speaking priest in Father Rich Philiposki, who hails from the United States.  He celebrates a Polish language mass on Sunday at 10:00 a.m. accompanied by a Polish choir made up of local parishioners.  St. Hedwig's also has a Polish choir and had a Polish mass up until last year. Unfortunately, very few of our parish priests of Polish Kashub Canadian descent can celebrate mass in Polish (although a couple of our retired priests can - Msgr. Ambrose Pick); fortunately we have been able to maintain a Polish mass in Wilno with the assistance of the Society of Christ  who have provided us with a Polish speaking priest.

When the first Polish Kashubs arrived in this area in 1859, they attended mass in the English speaking parish of Brudenell. They petitioned  to get their own Polish parish church and Polish speaking priest - finally in 1875 the Bishop of the diocese (which then was part of Ottawa) granted them their wish.  They started with little but a small log chapel (of which we have no photographic record) and a Polish speaking priest who did not last long.

Old postcard of St. Mary's  published by Thatcher-Winger Ltd., shows the old rectory.

 He was followed by a couple of other Polish speaking priests who also could not "tough it out" in the bush, until finally the feisty Father Ladislaus Dembski, a Polonized Lithuanian,  appeared on the scene in 1880 and construction was begun on a large church. Fr. Dembski stayed a dozen years and the parish progressed.  The interior of the church was not completed until in 1892 after the arrival of a young  priest by the name of Father Bronislaus Jankowski. He was here to stay. Not only did Fr. Jankowski complete the church that we know of as the first Polish church (dedicated to St. Stanislaus Kostka),  Jankowski recognized the huge burden of attending mass or receiving the sacraments for parishioners who lived on the far borders of the parish, in areas like "Siberia" near Barry's Bay, at Bark Lake, Paugh Lake, Bonnechere and Round Lake Centre.

Apparently Fr. often visited these areas and said mass at the homes of parishioners - sometimes at the Biernaski's or Shallas at Siberia;  sometimes at #4 school in the Simpson's Pit area; sometimes at the Laginski's  in Bonnechere. 

In 1896, a mission church was established in Siberia  near Kaminiskeg Lake and dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

Old post card of St. Casimir's Church built in 1930 from Bridget Laginskie nee Lehowicz

In the mid 1920s, a mission church dedicated to St. Bronislaus was built on the shores of Round Lake.  None of these original three Polish churches survive today.  The Church of the Assumption was replaced in 1914-1915 by St. Hedwig's Church; St. Bronislaus was replaced in 1930 by the present St. Casimir's Church; and St. Stanislaus Kostka Church burnt in 1936 and was replaced by the present day St. Mary's.

Today these three churches stand as powerful symbols of the strong faith of the Polish Kashub people in Canada, although the Polish element is constantly weakening. It has almost disappeared at St. Casimir's. 

 For a number of years, starting with Canadian born, Father Peter Biernacki, there were enough Polish Kashub speaking native sons who joined the priesthood to meet the needs of the Polish parishes.  But just as the Polish Kashub language has slowly disappeared from usage in many area homes, the Polish Kashub speaking priests have aged and retired.  Again the parishes must rely on finding assistance from priests from outside the community— priests  who speak Polish (not Kashub) to maintain the Polish language element in the Polish parishes.

Some see it as no longer of much importance - after all, we are Canadians first and foremost, although we are still proud of our Polish Kashub roots;  and of course most of the parishioners of the Polish parishes now speak English as their language of choice, although many can still speak the Polish Kashub language they learned as children. We should not forget, however, how hard our ancestors fought to get their own Polish churches and parishes and respect this history. If only we could find realistic ways to maintain a Polish Kashub element in our Polish parishes. If not,  we will risk losing them in the cultural melting pot that will eventually rob us of all uniqueness.

This year (2004), the Wilno Heritage Society is paying tribute to the three Polish churches and parishes in our community  and as President, David Shulist states so fervently: "Our culture is strong because of these churches around which our predecessors built their own Polish Kashub communities and identities".

As a symbol of the faith of our fathers, we have brought to the park, the iron cross salvaged from the fiery ruins of the old Wilno Church dedicated to St. Stanislaus Kostka. This cross was made by  Leon Ostrowski, who was trained as a blacksmith in Kashubia before he emigrated to Canada in the mid 1880s. Ostrowski also made the cross for the first mission church at Siberia near Barry's Bay.  A scooped roof shelter has been constructed at Wilno Heritage Park to showcase the old cross, so that it will serve as a visual tribute to the strong faith of the Polish Kashub pioneers in this community and the three Polish parishes they built.      

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