Ed Panfil of Glenville doesn’t need a history book to tell him why the Polish National Catholic Church seemed like a pretty good idea to many immigrants flooding into Schenectady during the first two decades of the 20th century. He remembers.
“They wanted to understand their service,” said the 94-year-old Panfil, a long-time member of the Holy Name of Jesus PNCC in the Mont Pleasant section of Schenectady. “I went to the original church on Raymond Street. I served on the altar there as a young boy, and then we went to the new church. They wanted to hear Polish.”
The Holy Name of Jesus PNCC put up its original building on Raymond Street in the Goose Hill section of Schenectady in 1921, the year after Panfil was born. In 1930, the congregation moved to Mont Pleasant and constructed another building at 1040 Pearl St., between Chrisler Avenue and Crane Street, and that church is still in use today. While the Polish connection still exists — there are special Christmas and Easter services celebrated in Polish — the membership these days is pretty diverse.
“We have just about every nationality included among us, and what’s interesting about our church is that even back then it drew people from many different ethnic groups,” said James Konicki, a deacon in the church who is studying for the priesthood and hopes to be ordained at Holy Name of Jesus sometime later this year.
“There were Lithuanians, Slovaks, Italians, all kinds of groups that came to this church looking for something a bit different,” Konicki said.
It was Father Franciszek Hodur (1866-1953), a Polish immigrant and a Catholic priest, who is credited with founding the PNCC in 1897 in Scranton, Pa. In Schenectady, just after the turn of the century, many Polish-Americans were attending either St. Mary’s on Eastern Avenue or St. Adalbert’s on Crane Street.
“When the Poles came to the U.S. they wanted to build their own churches, but they had to apply to Rome for permission and Rome kept on dragging its feet,” said Phyllis Budka, a Schenectady native who recently created the Project to Discover Schenectady County’s Eastern European Roots. “The people were upset. They wanted to worship in their own language so they broke away.”
Many PNCC parishioners today have a more liberal outlook on life than conservative Roman Catholics. The PNCC allows its priests to marry, allows their churches to have their own autonomy and leaves questions of birth control up to the individual.
Konicki grew up in a Roman Catholic church, and while he loved the experience, he never quite felt totally comfortable.
“About 12 years ago my wife and I started looking for a parish to bring our kids up in,” said Konicki, a state worker who grew up in the Buffalo area and now lives in Voorheesville. “The Roman Catholic church is huge, and we were looking for something that’s a little more close-knit; something smaller and more like a family. We felt very welcomed when we came here, and we liked the idea that the clergy could marry, and that the people of the church parish have control of the property. No one can close us.”
Membership seems pretty solid at the Holy Name of Jesus PNCC. There are 43 formal members, 63 active parishioners and around 130 people that remain involved with the church, according to Konicki. There is one other PNCC church in the Capital Region, the Blessed Virgin Mary Czestochowa on Maxwell Road in Latham.
Come from all over
Lawrence Panfil, Ed’s son, is chairman of the church committee which oversees all aspects of the church not relating to worship.
“I think the attraction of our community is that we’re a tight-knit group and we’re all friends as well as parishioners,” said Panfil. “We have people who come quite a distance to get here. I live in Saratoga, and we have people who live in Voorheesville and all over the area. I met my wife here, we got married here, and we’ve baptized our kids here. We love the place.”
Stanley Bilinski was pastor at the church but left in 2011 to become Bishop of the PNCC’s Western Diocese. Konicki has been filling in ever since with help at least once a month from priests at the Latham and Little Falls congregations.
“We’re very happy that Jim decided to become a priest and we’re looking forward to him getting ordained,” said Panfil. “Our community really rallied around him, and he’s done a great job.”