Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The Polish Immigrant Experience

From L to R, brothers Tony Sebastyn and
John Sebastynowicz, and Chet Leach, at
the Firestone/Acme Supply store
John Sebastynowicz, born in Maynard in 1926, was co-owner of Firestone/Acme Supply with his older brother Anthony “Tony” Sebastyn. During World War II, Tony had served in the Coast Guard, John in the Army. They bought the Nason Street business in 1951, and operated it at that site for 35 years. In an extended interview with John about his and his parents’ life in Maynard, and about the Polish immigrant experience in general, a depth of color was added to the somewhat sparse accounting of the Polish community as it exists in Maynard’s history books.

For background, the first great wave of Polish immigration spanned 1870 to 1914. Estimates are that 1.5-2.0 million people arrived during that period. In addition to Maynard, Clinton, Worcester and Boston had significant Polish populations. The exodus was catalyzed by oppression and poverty in Europe, while at the other end, what was seen as job opportunities and freedom in the United States. The jobs were hard jobs. Poles took up physical labor in steel mills, coal mines, slaughterhouses and textile mills. Work was often seven days a week, 12-hour days. At the textile mills, parents falsified child birth records to bypass laws prohibiting work for children under 14 years old.

Poland had ceased to exist as a country in the late 1700s, partitioned to the Russian, Austrian and Prussian (German) empires.  Russian-occupied Poles experienced increasingly abusive Russification in the mid-19th century. From 1864 onward, all education was mandated to be in Russian, and private education in Polish was illegal. Polish newspapers, periodicals, books, and theater plays were permitted, but were frequently censored by the authorities. All high school students were required to pass national exams in Russian; young men who failed these exams were drafted into the Russian Army. Similar oppression took place in the Prussian and Austrian partitions.

Meanwhile, a study conducted in 1911 found that close to 100 percent of Polish immigrants to the United States said that they would be joining relatives or friends, leading to conclusions that letters (and money) sent back home played a major role. That matched John’s description of his family history. His parents came to Maynard because cousins were already here. They met and married here, in 1918. John grew up in what was then called the West End of Maynard. His parents worked at the mill, his mother in the burling department, his father as a department head for napping. “Burling” referred to hand-repairing slight imperfections – knots and loose thread ends – on the woven cloth. “Napping” was a mechanized process wherein fabric passed over revolving cylinders covered with short wire bristles, to increase the thickness and softness of the fabric.

Picnic poster
(courtesy Maynard
Historical Society)
John mentioned that Polish was spoken at home, by his childhood friends, and at the grocery stores in their neighborhood. He remembers that his older brother started public school – at the Bancroft (later Coolidge) School – not knowing any English. The same applied to the children of Finnish immigrants who were living in the Presidential neighborhood. John reminisced that as a child, winters everyone went ice skating on the mill pond. Summers, they swam in the Assabet River, either near the ice house or at Russell’s Bridge (White Pond Road; the Maynard/Stow border). He also mentioned that when a bit older, he and friends would walk the railroad tracks west, to swim in Lake Boon, or sometime canoe that far, then carry their canoes the short distance from river to lake, so they could paddle around on Lake Boon.

St. Casimir's Roman Catholic
Church, Maynard, MA
St. Casimir’s Roman Catholic Church was central to the Polish community. By 1910 there were about 600 Polish-speaking people in Maynard. On December 8, 1912, Reverend Francis Jablonski said his first Mass, at St. Bridget’s Church. In 1926, St. Casimir’s parish bought what had been the power station for the trolley company (extant 1901-23). The church was blessed on November 12, 1928.

John and his wife Lena – married at St. Casimir’s in 1952 – both described the annual Polish Picnic, held in August of each year, with money raised helping fund the church. The day’s events began with an outdoor Mass, followed by food, games and entertainment provide by polka bands. There was a large dance floor laid out atop the grass lawn. John reminisced about how people had admired he and his sister Helen doing the fast-stepping Polish ‘Hop’ Polka. The picnic drew thousands of people, in time becoming so large that it was held at the Maynard Rod & Gun Club rather than on church property.      

Deaths of first-generation immigrants, assimilation of their descendants and dearth of new immigrants tolled on all of Greater Boston's Polish parishes. In 1995, Cardinal Bernard Law announced that 10 of 14 would stop celebrating Mass in Polish. Four years later the Beacon-Villager ran an article about the pending closure of St. Casimir’s. A locally circulated petition could not reverse the decision. The parish was merged back into St. Bridget Parish, although the St. Casimir building remained a consecrated space, used by the Polish community for baptisms, weddings and funerals.

Names of donors of the stained glass windows.
Click on photos to enlarge.
In 2003 the building was sold to St. Mary's Indian Orthodox Church of Boston. Interestingly, St. Mary’s decided that removing St. Casimir’s altar would not be appropriate, so a curtain is drawn across the alcove during services. At the entrance to the church, the four stained glass windows donated by John’s parents and another couple – Jan and Nadia Lojka – still grace the building.

John mentioned in passing that back in the day, Maynard was infamous for having 27 licensed liquor-serving establishments. That would include restaurants, bars, saloons, dance halls, pool halls, bowling alleys and social clubs.

 

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