O God, help Polonia!
75 years of the Polish Church in Devonia Road, London
Fr George Lech Tyc
The Church of our Lady of Czestochowa in London celebrates its 75th anniversary of ministry to Polonia in England. It is the official church of the Polish Catholic Mission in London, which was created in 1894. The following people played a very important role in establishing the mission: Sister Franciszka Siedliska, foundress of the Congregation of the Nazareth Sisters, and Cardinal Herbert Vaugham, Archbishop of Westminster.
Although the Polish immigration had existed in England since the periods of the November and January Risings, and Liverpool had been the transfer station to the New World - America, it was only in 1894 that the Polish religious centre was created, having received the support from the English ecclesiastical authorities. 36 years after the establishment of the Catholic Mission in London, a Protestant church in the district of Islington, in Devonia Road, was bought, the rector of the mission being Fr Teodor Cichos. It was a Gothic church, with one nave and a chapel, sacristy and adjacent apartments for the rector. The purchase was finalised in February 1930, and on 10 October Cardinal Hlond arrived in London and blessed the church, in the presence of Cardinal Francis Bourne of Westminster and Polish Ambassador. Since then it has been the Church of Our Lady of Czestochowa and St Casimir.
In the years 1930-39 the church was visited by many eminent personalities, both lay and religious ones. In the hall of the 'Church in Devonia', as it has been popularly called, new Polish organisations came into being: Polish Benevolent Fund, Polish-Catholic Association, Polish Students' Circle, Anglo-Polish Club. During the inter-war recession the Mission (actually Polish Benevolent Fund) ran an aid-centre for Poles.
In 1938, Fr Wladyslaw Staniszewski, priest of the Poznan Diocese, took over the Mission and became its rector. The first Polish weekly was created, namely the News of the Polish Catholic Mission. The Polish Embassy in London immediately granted money, which allowed the Mission to restore and enlarge the Polish School. At the end of 1939 there was a new wave of Polish immigration. England, Wales and Scotland were swarmed with various units of the Polish army. The government, ministers and President of the occupied Poland arrived in London. Although the Polish Forces had their chaplains the Church in Devonia was very popular with people. The Polish Soldiers House was established at 4 Devonia Road, next to the church. Numerous Polish soldiers visited the 'soldiers' hotel' during the occupation.
The elite of the Polish government, civilians and soldiers who missed their homeland came here for every feast. The church in Devonia became a piece of free Poland for them.
In February, at the conference in Yalta, Poland was sold to Soviet Russia. The hope for free Poland was destroyed. In June 1946, at the post-war parade the English authorities thanked all nations, excluding Poland, in order not to hurt Stalin. Pessimism came over the English Polonia. The soldiers did not want to return to the homeland. The Poles, civilians and the demobilised soldiers settled in London and towns in the vicinity. The church in Devonia became 'mother' for many chapels and pastoral centres, which were often organised in hotels. Sometimes services were held in tents or a hired church.
This phase in the history of the Polish émigré population in England was called the political immigration and had lasted until the Third Republic of Poland was created. The Polish migrants began to organise their lives in exile in such a geo-political reality. Numerous social-professional, political and youth organisations were formed. They gathered in the church in Devonia. Polish language and history schools as well as schools of dance and customs were created at the Polish religious centres. (Up till now there have been 136 Polish centres with 88 priests.)
The Church in Devonia has always been a co-ordination centre for the whole network of deaneries and parishes. Fr Staniszewski efficiently co-ordinated the Polish pastoral ministry (personal parishes) and met the requirements of the English ecclesiastical authorities. He had friendly relationships with the Archbishop of Westminster. The editorial activities of the Catholic Mission on the pages of 'Gazeta Niedzielna' (Sunday Paper) and 'Wiadomosci' (News) gave encouragement to the origin of new papers and periodicals. Each of the one hundred Polish organisations wanted to have their own forum. And each new paper sought the approval of the Church, some sort of blessing.
Just after the war there were many artists, including Adam Bunsch, coming and going to the church in Devonia, and they left their marks - stained glass windows, pictures, memoirs, poems or plays. As some people used to say 'one can find the patriotic spirit here'.
The archives of the Polish Catholic Mission, created by a priest, community worker, and an amateur journalist, include the letters of Monika Gardner, Zofia Kossak, Maria Winowska, Jerzy Pietrkieiwcz, Jedrzej Giertych, Karol Bunsch, Rostowski, Grot, Kazmierczak and many other writers, poets, painters, architects and professors. Here we find famous figures: their signatures, invitations, wishes and letters. Although it sound poetic it is undoubtedly true that the church in Devonia was the catalyst, magnet, patron, 'cathedral' of freedom and recess of inspiration. Jan Nowak-Jezioranski called the parish priest his friend and the church the inspiration for his words broadcast on Radio Free Europe.
On the day of the 75th anniversary, i.e. the diamond jubilee, one must state that the existence of the Church in Devonia has been providential for Poles. The church led the large Polish community throughout the years of the war and then the cold war, until the fall of communism.
Poland's accession to the United Europe has opened the door to the West for many young resourceful Poles. However, the spiritual adaptation of the new immigration is complicated. New working and living conditions, which are not often like those in dreams, create the psychological need to express oneself before God. Most 'economic' migrants want to follow the values of their families, religion and the Church. Spiritual hunger leads them to the doors of the church in Devonia. Numerous young people from the outskirts of London come here to participate in Eucharistic meetings and discussion groups. The church again becomes the place of spiritual transformations, which are brought about by people's longing for home and family values. They seek acceptance, good and true values. The present rector Fr Tadeusz Kukla, who was a youth chaplain for many years in London, does his best to meet the pastoral needs of every generation of parishioners-migrants; however, the youth is his priority.
Currently, the church in Devonia is experiencing its physical renewal from the basement to the attic of the adjacent building. New robes, new tasks, new directions in the pastoral ministry. The jubilee is the time of great celebration for the Polonia in England and Wales. Analysing the rich history of the Polish population the following question arises: what are the new tasks of the church in Devonia?... It is important that the parishioners are faithful to their Christian roots and do not lose their Polish religiosity. O God, help Polonia!