The first Polish Catholic church in New Bedford closes at the end of January
NEW BEDFORD – For all of her 99 years, Cecelia Cowell has considered Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church on North Front Street a big part of her life.
It was there that she received all the Holy Sacraments, and it was there that she was married in 1950.
Unfortunately, the church will close at the end of the month.
“I hope it’s not torn down,” said Stacy Clougherty, Cowell’s granddaughter. The two were on a three-way phone call with the Standard-Times for this story. Clougherty calls Cowell “Babci” (pronounced bob chee) which means grandmother in Polish.
“The decision to close is based primarily on declining attendance at Mass and in parish spiritual ministries,” said John Kearns, spokesman for the Diocese of Fall River.
“At a recent Saturday Mass, there were less than 20 people in attendance and less than 30 on Sunday,” Kearns said.
Kearns noted that the church was administered by priests from the Franciscan Order of Conventual Friars Minor.
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The newest pastor, Reverend Conrad Salach, died suddenly in October and the Franciscans were unable to replace him. A retired priest from the Diocese of Fall River filled in until the church closed Jan. 30, Kearns said. .
First Polish Roman Catholic Church in New Bedford
Built in 1905, Our Lady of Perpetual Help was built at a contract price of $17,200 by local contractor John B. Sullivan & Son. Reverend Edward A. Uminski first organized the Polish parish and would lead the church until 1912.
According to an essay on church history posted on the Our Lady of Perpetual Help website, the blessing of the cornerstone took place on September 1, 1905, and the Reverend William Stang, first bishop of the Diocese of Fall River, solemnly blessed the church on December 31 of that year. On the same day, the painting of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was hung in the church. The painting was imported from Rome and endowed with numerous privileges by the Holy Father, Pius X, on November 20, 1905.
The church also had a school for Polish children in the city.
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The church nearly went bankrupt in 1932 due to the Depression and Father Stanislaus J. Ryczek took the bold step of approaching the Most Reverend Bishop Feehan with the idea of inviting a religious order to take over the parish. Feehan accepted and the church was ceded to the Polish Franciscan Fathers of the Order of Friars Minor Conventuals of the Province of Saint Anthony of Padua.
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A noticeable drop was detected in weekly Mass attendance and concerns grew over the properties and future viability of the parish, the church history essay noted. The parishioners were aging. Funerals increased and new parishioners were fewer. Notable parishioners who put serious dollars in the church offering tray also began to die.
Beloved ‘Father Roman’
Reverend Roman Chwaliszewski led the church from 1982 and was its longest-serving pastor and one of the most modern members of the congregation, including Cowell.
“It’s the one I remember the most,” Cowell said.
It was during the time of Father Roman that the social side of the church flourished. Bingo, seasonal bazaars, food sales and the annual Polish Church Festival continued to draw people from all over the south coast for the food, popular polka music or just the chance to take a moment and reminisce about the past.
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“I did pierogies and galumpkis,” Cowell said. Pierogies are a Polish dumpling stuffed with potatoes and cheese. Galumpki are meat and rice wrapped in boiled and baked cabbage leaves. Cowell prepared the traditional Polish delicacies with the other ladies of the church in preparation for the church food sales.
“It was a lot of work, but somehow we got through,” Cowell remembers fondly.
What will happen when the church closes?
Clougherty’s favorite time at church was Christmas Eve because it was a time to see older parishioners, or those who didn’t attend regularly, come out for service.
It was something of a shock when parishioners learned in December that the church was going to close.
“They were fixing the kitchens,” Clougherty said.
Kearns said it is hoped other churches will reach out to parishioners and welcome them into their fold.
If parishioners want to continue attending Mass at a Polish Roman Catholic church, they can choose to attend Saint Stanislaus in Fall River, Kearns said.
Standard-Times digital producer Linda Roy can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter at @LindaRoy_TBS. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to the Standard-Times.