History of Saint Hedwig Church

The Beginnings

The story of the Catholic Church in Southbridge begins with a dozen of the faithful who gathered in the Globe in September of 1840. Tradition claims that it was at the home of Lawrence Seavey, a superintendent for the Hamilton Woolen Mills, where Father James Fitton, the Jesuit missionary based at the newly constructed Christ Church on Temple Street in Worcester, joined them to celebrate that first recorded Mass in town. Of the twelve there, seven were Irish and the remainder a mix of German and French-Canadian. From that initial gathering, Father Fitton would travel to town every six months until his transfer in 1843 to celebrate Mass for the local townspeople.

When the Jesuits founded the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, it was Father William Logan, SJ who came every other month and celebrated Mass for the Catholics in and around Southbridge. In 1846, Catholics then numbered over a hundred, and for the first time, Mass was celebrated on Sunday. Father John Boyce followed Father Logan and Mass was offered for the growing community in the South Schoolhouse, the Town Hall, and the home of Mrs. Jager. On September 18, 1852, Father Boyce chaired a meeting at which it was approved to build a Catholic Church in Southbridge.

Building a Catholic Church in anti-Catholic New England would not be easy. Land would be needed, but no one would sell to the Catholics. It happened that Mr. William Edwards, a Baptist who employed a large number of Catholics at the Hamilton Woolen Mill recognized that it would be good for his business to help the Catholics. Many of his workers left each winter when the lakes and rivers froze to return to Canada. He believed that if they could practice their Catholicism in Southbridge, they would stay year round. He chose a plot of land close to his mill on the newly designated Hamilton Street, so that they could attend services and walk easily to work right afterward.

Work began on July 12, 1852 under the guidance of Father Boyce. Less than a year later, on May 1, 1853, Bishop Fitzpatrick came by train from Boston to dedicate the new church in honor of Saint Peter, Prince of Apostles. The bishop put the new church under the pastoral care of Father Peter Blenkinsop, SJ. Southbridge and its Saint Peter’s Church was still a mission, cared for by Fr. Blenkinsop and other missionaries in the Worcester area.

A photo of the original Catholic Church in Southbridge, Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles Church built on Hamilton Street as it looked about 1897. It was destroyed by a fire in 1999.

Coming to America

To better appreciate the arrival of the Polish people from Europe to Southbridge, it helps to remember the history of their homeland from the late 19th through the 20th century. From 1795 onward, neighboring nations were confiscating parts of the Polish nation into their territory, partitioning Poland into the German-Prussian state to the west and the Russians to the east. From the south, the Austrians took the area of Galicia that bordered Austria and the Czech Republic.

Depending on which part of Poland they called home, the Polish people had imposed obligatory military duty of 20 years in the Austrian or German military or 25 years in the Russian army. In addition, their land was seized from them and redistributed to settlers from these invading home governments. They took the natural resources of the land they acquired, prohibited Polish from being taught in the schools, rewrote history lessons to their benefit and imposed heavy taxes with few rights. History records that these efforts to amass power and land escalated from the late 19th century into the early part of the 20th century exploding with the assassination of Duke Ferdinand that was the fuse for what would later be known as World War I.

It was these circumstances that caused the people of Poland to seek a better life for themselves and their children by immigrating to America. Unafraid of hard work, with an even stronger spirit of determination, they found jobs in coal mining and laying rails for the railroad in their newfound home of America. Many arrived in Pennsylvania and then relocated to Webster, Massachusetts, and from there settled in Southbridge. These first arrivals found employment in the cotton and woolen mills in town as well as at the American Optical Company.

Polish Mission

Records indicate that the first arrivals from Poland came to Southbridge in 1890. While they found here a very different way of life, they clung tenaciously to their cultural traditions, language, and most importantly, their Catholic faith. Initially, they worshipped at Saint Mary Church. They were not always received hospitably there, so the Reverend A. A. Cyran, Pastor of Saint Joseph Church in Webster established a mission in Southbridge to minister to the Polish people here. On September 11, 1916, the community was officially organized as an unnamed mission; it continued to gather strength and numbers.

On January 1, 1918, the Most Reverend Thomas Beaven, Bishop of Springfield, declared that this mission to the Polish people of Southbridge would become a parish and the Reverend Martin Hanyz was named as the founding pastor. He proposed three patrons to the bishop: Saint Casimir, Saint John Kanty and Saint Hedwig.

The bishop chose the beloved Jadwiga as the patroness of the new parish; Saint Hedwig Parish had begun. Masses were said in the old Notre Dame Church on Pine Street since the new and larger Notre Dame Church on Main Street had opened on July 2, 1916.

The Church

History of Saint Hedwig Church

A part of the Dresser Estate at Everett and Summer Streets was offered for sale and Father Hanyz bought it, including the spacious brick house with its furnishings and a distinctive carriage house on the property, all for the price of $15,000. The open lot toward the corner where the streets met was decided as the site for the new church and the house became the rectory for the parish priests. The Church is built of wood, and was originally shingled with cedar shakes. It was painted dark brown and eventually was covered with aluminum siding in the 1970s.

The first Mass in the new church was celebrated on Labor Day, September 6, 1920, by the Most Reverend Thomas Beaven, Bishop of Springfield. The Reverend Andrew Krzywda, of Three Rivers, Massachusetts, preached the homily. Mr. Peter Kowalewski directed the parish choir which sang for the Mass. It was completed at a cost of nearly $30,000 and could hold 450 people. The funds were raised by picnics and carnivals, often held at the Hamilton Woolen Mill grove (now the Polish Club). Some of the founding parishioners would recount travels to more developed Polish communities in Webster and Worcester to solicit offerings of ten and twenty-five cents to help build their church, and sitting on rough wooden benches during construction.

History of Saint Hedwig Church

Second Vatican Council

When the Second Vatican Council was convened in the 1960s few anticipated the changes the Council would bring upon the Church. Among these were the movement of the priest to face the people, the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, and an aggiornamento to the signs of the times. These reforms in the universal Church brought major changes to the architecture of Saint Hedwig Church. The former ornate high altar was dismantled and the statues of familiar and favorite saints redistributed throughout the church. The altar rail was removed, only two small sections remain in front of the tabernacle and by the Silver Shield. These renovations included a marble altar, platform, steps and reredos. The altar is inlaid with gold mosaic tile. A rendering of the Last Supper from the former high altar is on a moveable platform.

The Vestibule

The original vestibule, as shown in this photo of the final blossoming of the tree in 1967, had a stairway with a turnback in it. With the many stairs needed to reach the main floor of the church, it was especially hard during funerals to carry beloved parishioners into and out of the church. Father Henry Banach oversaw the construction of a larger and more open vestibule with direct stairs from the front entrance to the main level of the church. Father Charles Borowski oversaw the installation of various flags from the lands of origin of parishioners during the early part of the 21st century. These are the reason for the plaque over the main entrance: ‘One from Many.’ Fr. Borowski was also responsible for the installation of the glass doors at the front and side entrances etched with angels.

The Patronal Statue

To the left in the middle of the south wall above eye level is a pedestal that holds a statue of the patron of the church, Saint Hedwig. Saint Hedwig was born in 1174 and died on October 16, 1243; she was canonized a saint of the universal Church in 1267. Of noble birth, she was raised in a monastery in Franconia, Bavaria and was given in marriage at the age of 12 to Henry, the Duke of Silesia in Poland, who was 18 years old. Henry and Jadwiga were blessed with eight children and taught by example to love God in every way. Together they sought to expand the mission of the Church in Poland. Jadwiga influenced her husband to build a monastery in Trubnitz, the first monastery for women in Poland. After the birth of their last child, Henry and Jadwiga took a vow of continence; she retired to the monastery in Trubnitz and her husband to a monastery for men. In her years at Trubnitz, Jadwiga devoted herself to the poor, each night choosing thirteen beggars to share her evening meal in imitation of the Last Supper. History records her as a woman of unusual physical beauty that matched her unique and magnificent soul. The statue in our church depicts her in the vesture of her royal birth, including a crown above her veil. She holds a building with a spire or steeple, representing the various churches and monasteries she helped to build throughout her beloved Poland.

The Windows

The stained glass windows detail the Mysteries of the Rosary: As you face the sanctuary they begin on the right and follow counterclockwise in order: the Joyful, the Sorrowful, and finally the Glorious. The Joyful are on the right side of the church, the Sorrowful are located in the choirloft and need to be viewed by reaching the sanctuary and facing the choirloft. The Glorious Mysteries are on the left side of the church. The sacristy has stenciled windows that are companions to those in the main nave; they depict symbols for the priesthood and baptism.
In the entryway to the church there are two windows presented to the parish as commemoratives: one from the men’s Saint Stanislaw Society was presented in 2002, and the other from the women’s Holy Rosary Sodality was given in 2003. The windows above the main doorway have been relocated there from the original church entrance.

Stations of the Cross

The devotion of the Stations of the Cross originates with Saint Francis of Assisi to recall the steps that Jesus traveled in carrying His Cross. The Stations in Saint Hedwig Church are a plaster cast and may be original to the church itself. They were repainted in 2010 by a local artist to better highlight the detail of the depictions of the events in the journey of Jesus to his death on Calvary. Above each framed picture is a wooden, gilded cross that is the actual Station of the Cross.

The Black Madonna & Silver Shield

History of Saint Hedwig Church

Our Lady of Czestochowa is often referred to as the Black Madonna. Tradition claims that this portrait of the Mother of God was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist on the cypress table from the home of the Holy Family in Nazareth. As Our Lady sat for the portrait and Luke painted, she recounted stories of her Son’s life that he incorporated into his gospel.
Hidden for 300 years in Jerusalem, Saint Helena in her journey to Jerusalem to find the True Cross brought it back as a gift to her son, the emperor. While in Constantinople the city was attacked and the chapel where it hung was burned. The already dark olive features of the woman and child were blackened by the intense heat and soot. In 803, the image was then gifted to a Greek princess who took it to Kiev when she married and it remained in the Royal Palace of Belz for nearly the next 600 years.

It had several owners by 1382. When invading Tartars attacked the palace of Prince Ladislaus, the prince transferred the icon to a church in Czestochowa on a hill called Jasna Gora, meaning ‘bright hill.’ The story is told that in moving the painting, at a point on the hill, the horses stopped and no coaxing or goading could move them. It was then that Our Lady appeared to the prince and explained that this spot was to be her new home. Many miracles have been attributed to this image. It was a favorite of Pope John Paul II who made several pilgrimages during his life and his pontificate to pray before her image.

The Virgin directs attention away from herself, gesturing with her right hand toward her Son Jesus as the source of salvation and grace. Her gaze is intense; she seems to look intently and directly at you. The child, in turn, extends his right hand in blessing toward the viewer while holding the book of gospels with his left hand. On August 24, 2008, the feast of Our Lady of Czestochowa, this image of the Black Madonna and its Silver Shield were installed and dedicated by Father Charles Borowski. The shield that decorates the images of Our Lady and Our Lord is bejeweled with personal donations from parishioners.

The Carillon

In the 1980s an electronic carillon was donated to the parish in memory of Joseph Swiacki, the parish’s choir director and organist for five decades, by his wife and daughters.

Favorite Saints

Throughout the church and vestibule there are various saints that have been part of the decoration of the church since its construction. These images are part of Catholic piety that date to its early centuries. Like photographs of beloved family members, statues are reminders of those members of the Church whose life and faith continue to inspire the faithful and whose intercessory prayer is often invoked before the Lord. In a time of need or great difficulty, one might ask a friend or family member to pray for one’s intention, praying to saints is in the same fashion, as these friends see God face to face and are able to intercede to Jesus on our behalf.
On the front of the choirloft there are statues of the 4 evangelists that originally were part of the high altar in the sanctuary. Each evangelist is depicted with an image of the four creatures described in the Old Testament Book of Daniel that is a reference to their gospel and its particular viewpoint of Christ:

Son of Poland

On July 1, 2011, the former Saint Hedwig Parish was merged by the Most Reverend Robert J. McManus, Bishop of Worcester, as part of a new canonical parish in Southbridge. He chose to give it the patron of the late Pope John Paul II. Bishop McManus explained to our founding pastor that his choice was in deference to the Polish community of Southbridge. While discussions for the new parish did not articulate the need to continue Mass in Polish, Bishop McManus wanted to respect and honor the contribution of the Polish people and their faith in town.

History of Saint Hedwig Church

Pope Saint John Paul II was a remarkable man. He lived through the rise of Nazi Germany, their occupation of his homeland, and then under the persecution of Communism. He studied for the priesthood during World War II, was ordained secretly and performed much of his early priestly ministry surreptitiously. He believed that through the protection of Our Lady he survived an assassination attempt in Saint Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981. Many credit him and his efforts with the elimination of the Soviet Communist empire and the liberation of Poland through Solidarity. A strong believer in the visions of Sister Faustina whom he canonized, he promoted the devotion to Divine Mercy throughout his pontificate. He died on the feast of Divine Mercy in 2005 and that same feast day was when he was beatified in 2011 and canonized 2014. His statue is near the image of Divine Mercy over the tabernacle and looks out over the people in blessing and invitation to come to Jesus in the Eucharist.