The recent Polish air catastrophe that claimed the life of President Lech Kaczynski and his wife and almost 100 other members of that country's political elite has opened a window on to Houston's Polish community. Who knew it was still thriving enough to support its own church?
Well, it is. Yesterday there was a memorial Mass at Our Lady of Czestochowa, a 25-year-old Polish-language church in Spring Branch. The Branch is something like Houston's unofficial Polish 'hood, or at least the area in which many of the post-World War II/Cold War-era émigrés congregate. Polonia Restaurant and its mouthwatering golabki, kielbasa, and pierogi is not far from the church.
As with Mexican immigration, Polish immigration to Houston has come in waves, albeit much smaller ones, over many decades. Some say that Houston's recent Polish immigrants are less blue-collar than those that have gone to places like Chicago. The ones that came here tend to be doctors, engineers and artists, and that Forum Polonia link, which comes complete with links to local Polish-American poets, classical pianists, and art gallery owners would seem to bear out that stereotype.
The older wave was more rural and blue collar.
Around 1900, Houston's Poles -- many of whom had first settled alongside the Czechs and Germans in rural Central Texas, where Panna Maria is America's oldest Polish settlement -- tended to end up in the Greater Heights and other close-in areas of the Northwest Side. (The family of Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak is one prominent example.)
A visiting Polish journalist found about 200 Polish families scattered around the then-compact city in 1906. "Quite a few Poles are well-to-do, some are wealthy," he wrote. "I have not met a single Polish person that would complain of economic privation. 'Houston is the best, 'they say, 'there is no place better than Texas.'"
While you won't hear much polka there today (unless Brave Combo or Los Skarnales are playing their more or less twisted versions), venerable music venue Fitzgerald's is one cultural relic of those times gone by: the ramshackle clapboard nightclub was born as a dancehall known as the Polish Home in 1918. (The current building is a more recent version of the original.)
On the other hand, you will still hear pure polka on the jukebox at the Rose Garden, a tiny jewel of a Texas-Polish beer joint off a Sunset Heights side street near North Main and the Loop. Since the predominantly-Czech-but-Pole-friendly Bill Mraz Dance Hall burned down a few years ago, the Rose Garden is just about all that publicly remains of Houston's old-line Polish immigrants. Their degree of assimilation is amply demonstrated by the jukebox, for not only does it include the aforementioned polka, but it is also quite likely the best honky-tonk jukebox inside the loop.
Houston has one other connection to Poland, this one mystical... Polish-born Saint Jacek was a 13th Century follower of Saint Dominic. According to legend, Jacek carried the faith as far as China, and according to fact, he was the first head of the Dominican order in Poland. He was sainted in 1594. In some languages, "Jacek" is rendered as "Hyacinth," but in Spanish he is known as San Jacinto, which gave its name to the river on which the fate of Texas was decided.