On Polish Identity at Mater Dolorosa

One of the most outstanding things about the Mater Dolorosa parish, and the reason for my being there, is its Polishness. This Polishness is manifest in the way the parish is described to strangers (it is referred to as either an “ethnic” or “Polish” parish). It is manifest at the 9:00 AM Mass, which is entirely in Polish (with its own musical tradition of Polish hymns) and led by Father Stanley Sobiech. It manifests itself in the Polish names and backgrounds of many of the parishioners. It manifests itself in the grilled kielbasa-and-cheese sandwiches they serve at weekly bingo. (I jokingly asked Helen Domorat, who works in the kitchen, if she felt obligated to serve kielbasa because of Mater Dolorosa’s Polishness and received a knowing laugh in response—an example of the feedback loop between things that make Mater Dolorosa Polish and things done because Mater Dolorosa is Polish.)

Many of the parishioners I’ve talked with have gone to Mater Dolorosa their whole lives, or else married into the parish. There is a really big family element there. So many parishioners have family connections to Poland that are just as important as their religious connection with a Polish parish—it’s not at all uncommon to hear of vacations taken to Poland among the senior parishioners.

Much mention has been made of the services around Christmas and Easter, and there is a great deal of pride in the quality of these events. They tend to come up in conversations about uniquely Polish features of Mater Dolorosa. At Eastertime during Holy Week there are regular blessings of food (during which, according to Barbara R., the whole church smells of kielbasa, ham, and eggs), which is a Polish tradition. Mater Dolorosa’s Midnight Mass is also a source of pride, although it in and of itself is not distinctly Polish. However, it is another opportunity for Polish identity to be expressed in the form of specifically Polish carols. It is not surprising that the general quality of that service is used to bolster claims of strong Polish identity, despite the fact that superb Midnight Masses occur in Catholic churches all over Holyoke (and beyond).

However, it is important to remember that parishioners do not choose to go to Mater Dolorosa in order to claim or bolster their Polishness. Their choice of religious institution is motivated fundamentally by family traditions—and this is reflected most obviously to the outsider as a choice for an “ethnic” parish. It would be easy, for instance, to explain that Leo Morawski attends Mater Dolorosa because he is Polish. But from his perspective, he attends because it is his family’s church. The links between ethnicity and family are thus strengthened by conscious adherence to traditions, and the role that the church plays in Mr. Morawski’s life becomes more than that of a religious institution.