From time to time when I discuss researching family history with others, I run into people who mention how tight-lipped their immigrant ancestors were about the homeland they left. It is not surprising to learn that some of these ancestors came from the same location as mine: the land that eventually became known as Poland.
I am beginning to realize there may have been a reason for that obstinate refusal of these immigrants to mention anything about the land of their birth. To learn just what it was they refused to speak of takes a willingness to learn more about the history of that land and to then put ourselves in the shoes of people living through such experiences.
Following the story of Father Ignacy Benevenuto Gramlewicz and his nieces and nephews is illustrative of that point. We'll take a glimpse today of what life back home might have been for the young Catholic priest before his decision to leave the land of his birth. On Monday, we'll continue the story with a review of the nephew who, in many ways, followed in his uncle's clerical footsteps.
Thanks in great part to the extensive article in The Wilkes-Barre Record following Father Gramlewicz's 1910 death, we glean some details of the man's early life—details which, in some respects, could not have been documented in any other way at this point, due to lack of available records.
According to that June 6, 1910, article, Father Gramlewicz was born on July 31, 1837, in Żerków—the same small town in Poland where my paternal grandmother was born. Only then, the town was part of a region called by the Germans, Posen. And that region was—depending on the year, the war, and the political decisions—part of a country known as Prussia.
Father Gramlewicz's formal education was completed at the College of Ostrow, located in a city which was recognized as an important center of Polish education—and which eventually became a center of Polish resistance and their national liberation movement.
In 1857, Father Gramlewicz was ordained to the Franciscan order, and assigned his role in the priesthood at Pelplin in 1862, where he said his first mass that April.
His years of finishing his education and entering the priesthood were not particularly peaceful years in Poland's timeline. Prussian politician—and, eventually, Chancellor of the unified German Empire—Otto von Bismarck was deep in the midst of power struggles with the Catholic Church, instigating by 1871 in Prussia a difficult struggle which became known as Kulturkampf. The Chancellor, in essence, blamed the Catholic priests, particularly in the province of Posen, of fostering Polish nationalism—directly in opposition to von Bismarck's diplomatic goals for a unified German empire.
As the Pennsylvania newspaper, The Wilkes-Barre Record, later reported, Father Gramlewicz was one of those who took an active part in opposing the Chancellor's policies. It is no surprise to learn that, in 1875, he was forced to leave his homeland—fled his homeland, as the Saint Stanislaus Church centennial history put it—because he had "helped a brother missionary escape over the border to flee from religious persecution."
At that turning point, the newspaper article reported, Father Gramlewicz's choice was to head to America, "the home of Washington, of freedom and of tolerance of religion."
As outspoken as he was—"fearless in his defense of the Catholic Church," as the Record phrased it—perhaps he was fortunate, as a young priest, to be given that second chance to serve in ministry to "his people" in America. For his nephew—Father Edward Gramlewicz mentioned in the elder Gramlewicz's obituary—his time had not yet come to face a similar ecclesiastical showdown. At a similar decision point in the younger priest's life, the ultimate outcome could not possibly include the same sort of accolades, as we'll see next Monday.