MADISON • The congregation of the once-thriving Sacred Heart of Jesus Polish National Catholic Church barely filled the 20 folding chairs set up Sunday beside the church's charred remains.
Despite a fire destroying the 86-year-old church on Wednesday, the gray-haired parishioners celebrated Mass under a tent as a sign of hope they can hold on to their history.
Sitting in the front row was Ellen Gaddy, 92, whose Polish parents were among the thriving Polish population that worked in the area's foundries and raised money to build the church. She hasn't been able to attend Mass for the past eight years because she has difficulty climbing stairs and gets dizzy. But she was determined to show her dedication.
"I wanted to be here because my mother and my father and my whole family were constantly here," Gaddy said. "They loved this church."
On the concrete slab where the remaining parishioners sat their folding chairs, she once danced with friends during three-day-long picnics. She remembers Bingo games, barbecues and holiday dinners. She sang in the choir, worked in the kitchen making fried chicken and stuffed cabbage, and watched her children and grandchildren get baptized and married at the altar.
"I belong to everything here," she said through tears.
While more than 50 families once attended the church, the numbers have dwindled over the decades to only about 15 members. The story is the same at its 105-year-old sister church, Sts. Cyril and Methodius Polish National Church in north St. Louis. The Rev. Andrzej Bako celebrates a 9 a.m. Mass in St. Louis and then makes the five-mile trip to Madison, where he celebrates Mass at 11 a.m.
"All inner-city churches have the same problem. No one lives in the neighborhood anymore," said Bako, 54, who has been leading the St. Louis church since 1989, and both churches since 1995. Also, he said, descendants of Polish immigrants don't have the same need as their parents to connect with immigrants, hear Mass in Polish or eat Polish food.
"For the fourth, fifth and sixth generations, it's not as important for them to have a Polish church," Bako said with his strong Polish accent. "They don't want to be different. They want to assimilate and behave the way others behave."
The denomination stresses that people from all backgrounds are welcome, he said. A member church on the East Coast even dropped "Polish" from its name.
The Polish National Catholic Church is a non-Roman Catholic denomination founded in 1897 in Scranton, Pa., by a Polish priest. At the time, Poland had lost its independence, Bako explained, and establishing the church was a way for Polish immigrants to regain their national identity. Today, the denomination has more than 25,000 members and 120 parishes in the United States.
Wednesday's fire at Sacred Heart of Jesus began shortly after roofing repairs were made using heat and rubber. It was the last of repairs to the building from an April hailstorm. The fire destroyed everything except the brick walls.
The small and aging group of parishioners could easily give up any plans to rebuild. But an outpouring of support, their love for one another and their history give them hope they can have a church home once again.
A neighbor delivered a $1,000 check. Nearby churches have offered use of their buildings. Polish National Catholic churches across the country have sent letters and emails with donations and offers to send work crews. Members who have drifted away want to get involved again. "It's very important to feel not alone in this time of need," Bako said.
A handful of members from Sts. Cyril and Methodius came Sunday to show support to their ailing sister church. "We love our church as much as they love theirs," said Tom Bratkowski, 68, of St. Louis, whose grandparents were Polish immigrants. "I understand their plight, and I share their concern about the future."
The parishioners own their churches, Bako explained, so they will decide whether to rebuild, move to another location or join another parish once legal issues are resolved and they get a clear financial picture.