One of the biggest events every summer in Bucks County is the Polish-American Festival at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa.
Held annually during the first two weekends of September, the festival is a gathering space for Polish-Americans. The festival was first held on shrine grounds in 1967, in Doylestown just a year after the church was built.
A celebration of Polish culture, featuring Polish food, historical reenactments, and Polish vendors, the festival has been canceled for the first time in its history this year. To ensure the safety of the entire shrine community, the festival has been removed from the calendar of events. As noted by Father Timothy Tarnacki OSPPE, who is in charge of communications for the shrine, the festival will continue virtually as a telethon event, but cannot be held in person.
The cancellation of this event is a disappointment to the community, not least because it is the shrine’s biggest annual fundraiser. Father Timothy underscored that the shrine acts as a home base for many Polish-Americans who may feel a loss of neighborhood or community.
The Czestochowa Shrine is a religious heritage and pilgrimage site that grew from humble beginnings.
Father Michael Zembrzuski of the Pauline order first brought a faithful copy of a Polish icon, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, to the United States in 1953.
Given permission by the Holy See and Cardinal O’Hara, archbishop of Philadelhia, Father Michael first established a chapel and monastery around the icon in a Doylestown barn in 1955. The first pilgrimage, which grew to become famous, came on June 26, 1955, and the church and chapel that stand now on Beacon Hill on Ferry Road were dedicated as the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in 1966 by Archbishop John Krol and in the presence of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
A shrine located in a barn just 11 years previously, Our Lady of Czestochowa quickly became a site of Polish-American heritage and a home for many. Now, the icon sits crowned following its 2019 Coronation ceremony.
Father Timothy has been coming to the shrine since he was a teenager, citing the church as a “connection to his Polish identity.” Father Timothy immigrated to Connecticut as a teenager and found a piece of home in the pilgrimages to the shrine. For him, and thousands of others, the shrine acts as a physical reminder of their ethnic background.
Our Lady of Czestochowa hosts several pilgrimages every year, receiving crowds of thousands. The calendar of events is dense, offering masses, retreats, and pilgrimages for everyone (including one for drivers, motorcyclists and bicyclists on the Feast of St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers).
The shrine welcomes many diverse groups onto its grounds, even offering International Day in May that welcomes visitors who may not be of Polish descent. Father Timothy notes that International Day “embraces many different cultures and helps everyone connect on a certain [spiritual] level.”
At the shrine recently, Father Timothy spoke at length about the global citizenship that comes with being part of the Our Lady of Czestochowa community. During their largest pilgrimage of the year, the Shrine sees three walking pilgrimages journey to the shrine: two are Polish speaking groups and one is a Spanish and English speaking group.
“Many people aren’t aware of the shrine because they think it’s exclusively related to Polish background,” Father Timothy said. International Day highlights the fact that one does not need a Polish background to appreciate the warmth of the holy site. Rather, the shrine is a beacon for all.
The shrine’s lower church is a replica of the original icon’s church in Poland. This fact, coupled with its distinct altar, also a replica, amplifies the feeling of home held within the Shrine.
With Polish immigration numbers declining, places that were once cultural centers have become less concentrated. Thus, the shrine and the Polish-American festival are anchoring points for the ethnic heritage of Polish-Americans and extremely important in maintaining a connection with one’s fatherland.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and in addition to cancelling the festival and adjusting pilgrimage operations, the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa is holding weekly virtual mass. Mass is offered in both English and Polish and can be streamed on the Shrine’s website, as well as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. No registration is required.
From humble beginnings to the beacon it is today, the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa is certainly an impressive sight. Father Timothy observed, “So many different nationalities come here because they feel home here.”
Aine Playdon lives in Wyncote, Montgomery County. She is a student at Temple University.