Polish-Americans in WNY
A quick overview
A1980s-era Dyngus Day celebration
All photos courtesy of The Buffalo History Museum
When the first Polish immigrants arrived in Buffalo, they were coming from a country that had been submerged under the domination of Russia, Prussia, and Austria in a 1772 partition. Poland, as a nation, no longer existed, and the inhabitants of the region had plenty of reasons to leave, including political and social oppression, a complete lack of opportunities, and grinding poverty. Many immigrants had been farmers and, although there was no potato famine, farms had been subdivided—as in Ireland—to the point of unsustainability.
The large part of early Polish settlement here took place in the last decades of the nineteenth century, between 1870 and 1892, when as many as 20,000 people (estimates vary) arrived in Buffalo. Barracks were built as temporary housing, but the Poles soon found work in local foundries, shipyards, and other industries. And thanks to the help of three key leaders, they found a community on Buffalo’s East Side. Immigration from Poland to Buffalo continued through the twentieth century, with bursts following WWII and in the early eighties (with the collapse of the Solidarity movement).
Francis Fronczak, in his WWI lieutenant colonel’s uniform; Father Jan Pitass
Pitass, Bork, and Fronczak
Father Jan Pitass (1844–1913) came to Buffalo from Rome in 1873 and was ordained at Niagara University in 1873. He celebrated the first mass at what was to become the St. Stanislaus parish, helped get the church built, and later worked to establish schools, cemeteries, and other essential institutions for his parishioners. He was assisted in his mission by landowner Joseph Bork, who donated the land upon which St. Stanislaus was built. Bork also built thousands of wood frame dwellings, most one-and-a-half stories, to house the new settlers. As the community grew, more parishes were founded, while hundreds of small businesses (shops, bakeries, taverns, and more) sprang up to serve the residents. Of course, not all Poles settled on the East Side—substantial communities emerged in Black Rock, North Buffalo, and other areas—but Polonia had the heaviest concentration.
Francis Fronczak (1874-1955) was Buffalo’s first Polish-American to graduate from medical school; the young doctor quickly became an advocate for the Polish community and in 1910 became Buffalo’s Commissioner of Health, after serving as the first Polish-American New York State assemblyman. He was active in charity work and promoted his community and Polish culture in any way he could. He also represented the United States overseas, was active in WWI and WWII relief operations, and wrote twenty-seven books on medicine. This hero of the local community lived in a modest two-and-a-half story frame house on Fillmore for most of his life.
Polish-American wedding couple
Rising—and spreading out
By the 1970s, there were over 300,000 people of Polish descent living in Western New York, the largest ethnic group in the area and the largest concentration of Polish-Americans outside Chicago. Buffalo Poles overcame the overcrowding and poverty of their early years in the city, thanks to the church, key cultural organizations (including several Dom Polskis), the growth of social services, and sheer perseverance. Polish-Americans broke into politics, founded major companies, and became doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. They also eventually left Polonia in large numbers, settling in Cheektowaga, Depew, Sloan, and other suburban enclaves. At the turn of the century, social researchers were apt to lament the inability of Buffalo’s Poles to “Americanize,” and, indeed, at that time, improvements in housing, education, and access to services were sorely needed. It’s also true that throughout the decades and all the changes, Polish-Americans here have held on to their identities and their traditions; that stubbornness has been their strength—and Buffalo’s.
Resources for learning about Polish-American WNY:
Adam Mickiewicz Library & Dramatic Circle
Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, Central Library, Grosvenor Room
Buffalo History Museum Research Library
The Fronczak Room, Buffalo State College, E. H. Butler Library
The Polish Room, University at Buffalo Lockwood Library
To see a timeline of Polish history in WNY, click here.