Polish parish to celebrate 120 years

How many generations fill 120 years?

At St. Joseph’s Church in South Camden, the genealogy goes back to 1892, when Polish immigrants founded a parish to call their own. Twelve decades later, it remains the only ethnic Polish parish in the Diocese of Camden.

Now, a descendant of one of the founders is an organizer of the 120th anniversary celebration taking place Sunday, Oct. 21. Connie Wojtkowiak Wilke, great-granddaughter of parish pioneer Adalbert Wojtkowiak, will be among the parishioners and friends attending the 10:30 a.m. concelebrated Mass in the church at 10th and Mechanic streets. The anniversary luncheon follows at 12:30 p.m. at Tavistock Country Club, Haddonfield.

“My great-grandfather and his three brothers all lived in a house at 1147 Kaighn Ave. The first Mass of St. Joseph’s Parish was celebrated there,” Wilke said.

The rowhouse still stands, about four blocks from the church, and the Wojtkowiak family safeguards the altar crucifix used at that historic Mass.

“I want to make sure our language and culture continue,” said Wilke, whose grandchildren represent the sixth generation of the family in South Jersey.

The language and culture are cherished equally by the Polish-born pastor, Father Pawel W. Kryszkiewicz, who has shepherded St. Joseph’s since the autumn of 2008.

“I can utilize my heritage, and people appreciate having someone who shares their traditions. I am inspired by the people; they are so genuinely dedicated to this church.” Father Kryszkiewicz said.

He will concelebrate the anniversary Mass with the two pastors who preceded him: Father Edward J. Lipinski and Father Piotr Szamocki.

Bishop Joseph A. Galante will preside at the Mass.

Father Lipinski, a son of the parish and alumnus of St. Joseph’s former grammar and high schools, led fund-raising to match a $450,000 grant from the Garden State Historic Preservation Trust Fund for exterior restoration of the church. In less than four years, donations and pledges exceeded $694,000. The names of donors of $1,000 or more are inscribed on plaques inside the church.

Father Szamocki, another son of Poland, was parish administrator during planning for the 110th anniversary. He was installed as pastor on the day of the celebration in August 2002. In 2003, St. Joseph’s European-style building – dedicated in 1914 — was recognized for its architectural significance and listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places.

Except for a newly constructed ramp at a side entrance, the gray-granite church looks as it did to earlier generations, towering above its Whitman Park neighborhood, providing the city with one of its landmarks.

The familiar facade graces the parish’s bilingual bulletin, with a photo of the church from about 70 years ago. The parishioner-photographer, William Lang, lived next to the former convent of the Felician Sisters who taught at the parish schools. His daughter, Bernice Gooch, remembers when the image was taken. “My dad took that in the early 1940s. He went all the way down Mechanic Street, so he could get the tower and the cross. Then he airbrushed out the poles and wires,” she said.

Lang died in 1949, the year his daughter was in the first graduating class of St. Joseph’s High School. So, she assumed his role of chronicling the cycle of parish life: Christmas mangers, Forty Hours, Easter lilies, May crownings, first Communions, graduations, dinners, dances, school plays.

“I prepared a large number of photos for the 100th anniversary of the parish (in 1992) and lined the walls with them at the dinner,” Gooch said.

A few years ago, she gave the photographs to the St. Joseph’s History Society. “I hate for history to be lost,” she said.

Henry Szychulski, president of the society, calls those photos and others “the core of the history collection.” Appropriately themed images are displayed on holidays, at school reunions, for the Armed Forces Mass and at events like the 110th anniversary of the parish choir, St. Lucia’s, in 2011.

The historical trove also includes vintage vestments, Polish-language schoolbooks, sports trophies, documents and architect’s drawings of the church. “It’s important to preserve the story of this parish,” Szychulski said.

The history room is in the early church/school building on the corner of 10th and Liberty streets. In use since 1895, the structure serves as the parish hall, accommodating meetings, socials, breakfasts, Polish-themed holiday meals and a chapel for weekday Mass.

In recent years, it’s been the setting for the Appreciation Dinner hosted by Father Kryszkiewicz to thank parishioners for their support. “Seeing that dedication makes me feel even more responsible for the place,” the pastor said.

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