You may have heard the oft-repeated statistic that “Chicago has the largest population of Polish people outside of Warsaw.” As WBEZ pointed out last year, that may not be entirely true. While St. Louis certainly does not have the same number of Poles as Chicago or New York, we do have an active Polish community.
On Wednesday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” Honorary Polish Consul Robert Ogrodnik joined the show to discuss the region’s population of Poles along with Jarek Czernikiewicz, President of St. Louis Polonia, a group that connects and educates people about Polish heritage in the region. Scott Kennebeck, the executive director of St. Louis Cathedral Concerts, also joined to discuss an upcoming concert by the Polish Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra at the Cathedral Basilica on Feb. 29.
Ogrodnik estimates that there are 50-60,000 people of Polish descent in the greater St. Louis area. He also estimates there are about 5,000 Polish-born residents living here today.
Polish immigration to the St. Louis area actually began in the 1830s with a group of Polish Jews who settled in downtown St. Louis, said Czernikiewicz. Polish Catholics came to the area later, in the 1860 and 1870s, settling in north St. Louis. Other waves of immigration came after World War II, in 1968, and post-Solidarity in the 1980s. “We see traces of them in every area of St. Louis,” Czernikiewicz said.
When people think of the Polish community in St. Louis, they think of Saint Stanislaus Kostka Polish Catholic Church. The church had made headlines for leaving the St. Louis Archdiocese and disaffiliating from the Catholic Church.
“I would say that the congregation is partially Polish but it has embraced other people that are looking for the venue of a Catholic Church that is more welcoming,” said Ogrodnik. “St. Stanislaus does not play the prominent role that it did prior to the problems it had with the St. Louis Archdiocese, unfortunately.”
At one time, there were as many as four Polish parishes in the area. St. Agatha’s is a Polish Roman Catholic congregation, which is located by the Anheuser-Busch Brewery on Utah. St. Agatha’s also offers Polish language and culture classes for children from kindergarten through fourth grade.
Ogrodnik says you won’t find many Polish-specific businesses in St. Louis today, but to keep an eye out for Piekutowski's European Style Sausage, which makes Polish kielbasa, and Slavonic Store & Distribution, which offers Polish goods. You can also find a list of Polish-owned businesses here.
Ogrodnik said that the same issue is facing the Polish community here as it does with other nationalities or ethnic groups — natural spread.
“The diversification has affected the community,” Ogrodnik said. “People don’t live together as they did 50 years ago; they’ve dispersed through the St. Louis area. Therefore, you don’t have the same neighborhood concept.”
St. Louis Polonia is trying to rectify that with the idea of a “virtual neighborhood” online. Czernikiewicz says the website has connected many people. The group is also trying to connect those of Polish heritage to non-Poles through community events, the next of which is the Polish Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra concert.
“The orchestra is the oldest music institution in northern Poland,” said Kennebeck. “They are based in Gdansk, where they perform in a beautiful symphony hall. This is their inaugural U.S. tour, the largest tour they’ve ever done. They’re in over 48 cities on this tour and we’re excited to have them perform for us.”
Ogrodnik said that the orchestra is a source of pride for people in St. Louis’ Polish community. Many people here were formerly deeply involved with Solidarność, or Solidarity, which started in Gdansk and was the first trade union not controlled by the communist party in the Warsaw Pact countries. Lech Walesa, who led the party, became President of Poland in 1990 after pushing the country toward its first semi-free elections in 1989.
The Polish Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra has over 70 members. The last time a Polish orchestra performed in St. Louis was five years ago. This concert is partly in honor of the 30 year anniversary of Solidarity.
The concert is one of many community events that St. Louis Polonia is promoting in its newfound resurgence, Ogrodnik said. In April, renowned classical guitarist Łukasz Kuropaczewski will perform at the Ethical Society of St. Louis in collaboration with St. Louis Classical Guitar Society.
“We are bringing a number of events to showcase things about Poland and Polish people that people have not seen or heard of before more than Polonia itself,” said Ogrodnik. “Polonia is still there, they’re supporting this, they’re supporting it. These are all things that are directed at people who aren’t Polish but should know more about Polish people.”
Recently, the group held a talk about Jan Karski, who secretly carried eyewitness reports of the destruction of the Jewish people of Poland to the Allied powers during World War II, at Saint Louis University.
“The mission culturally is not to preach to the choir, the Polish people who should know their history, but to other people who do not know much about Poland,” said Ogrodnik.
What: St. Louis Cathedral Concerts Presents the Polish Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra
When: Monday, February 29 at 8:00 p.m.
Where: Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, 4431 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards,Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.