Polka music and the smell of cabbage in various forms drifted thick across the Church of Saint Adalbert parking lot Sunday afternoon.
Hundreds of Poles and Polish food lovers gathered in a tent far below the high neo-Gothic steeple to celebrate the church’s 27th annual Dozynki, or harvest festival.
“This is about three things,” said Joe Kaczynski who helped organize the event, “food, faith and culture.”
The food, as with all the best festivals, was the main attraction.
Kielbasa links, sauerkraut, Polish pizza, golabki and potato pancakes were all plentiful, aromatic and hearty enough to take the fall chill out of the crowd.
“This is all good stuff,” said George Sykala, enjoying a plateful of everything, “It was done right.”
Rows of tables were lined with hungry men holding full plates and the happily sated with empty ones, but some had a larger appetite than others.
After consuming a tray of everything the festival had to offer, Joshua Scism stepped up for the official pierogi-eating competition. Only his brother Jason had the confidence and capacity to challenge him, and so brother faced brother with three minutes to prove their honor and take the $25 prize.
“Hurry it up,” shouted someone in the crowd. They shoveled down the large potato-based dumplings with Kaczynski’s eye firmly on his watch. Bottles of water were fetched to ease the passage from mouth to stomach.
As the clock ran out, Joshua was proven the victor, consuming six to his brother five pierogi.
Towering above the event was the church itself, more than 100 years old and as many feet tall. Between the food and the polka, many toured the building, getting the history crash course from fourth-generation parishioner Bob Chelkowski.
In the balcony, the massive pipe organ accompanied by a solitary violinist filled the high ceilings with Pachelbel’s Canon, setting a solemn mood.
Chelkowski pointed out a stained-glass window of military insignias, recounting how his father, Teddy, landed at Normandy with the 30th Infantry, and how wool sent to him by women of the church back home kept him warm through the cold winter of the Battle of the Bulge.
“This church sent more men to war than any other parish in the area,” he said. “We’re proud to be Polish, but grateful to be American.”
He said that when the church was built back in 1911, Schenectady was the third largest Polish community in New York, just after Buffalo and New York City.
In the years after the place was built, every one of the 1,600 seats were commonly filled. Numbers have gradually dwindled.
Now, for the three Masses, about 550 people will come out on an average week. To Kaczynski, this represents a scattering of culture and religion.
“The whole area used to be a Polish neighborhood,” he said. “Even the bathrooms at GE had signs in Polish.”
Now the congregation is about 50-50 Polish and other nationalities.
Kaczynski said that moving the festival back to the church from the Polish community center, where it had been held in recent years, was meant to get people of every culture familiar with the place and make them more likely to come back.
A few hours in, the plan seemed to be working, bringing in at least twice as many people as usual, according to Kaczynski.
“Here are our nice people, our pretty church and our great food,” he said. “Come and join us.”