ST. MICHAEL THE ARCHANGEL CHURCH
1903 - PRESENT
By the inscrutable decrees of divine providence, many Poles, upon losing their independence and freedom, were compelled to leave their native country and to search for liberty and freedom in distant lands. Oceans and long tedious travel constituted no barrier. The majority of them found their way to a land of promise and liberty where their national heroes, Thaddeus Kosciuszko had fought and where Casimir Pulaski had given his life. These rugged Poles endured all the hardships of pioneers with the utmost courage and zeal.
Wherever Polish settlements were to be found, the following factors brought these immigrants closer together: church, school, national organizations and the Polish press. The parish church was the most important link in this chain of solidarity. The Polish priest brought the mother tongue with which to preach the word of God to these emigres in strange lands. It was the school which taught them the rich history of their heroic Polish nation.
"For God and Country" has been their motto for centuries. On the battlefields, they have dearly paid for the glorious title of "Bulwark of Christianity and Civilization". Pope Pius V expressed this truth most dramatically when he said "Squeeze a handful of Polish soil and from it will flow the blood of martyrs," Saint Pius X used this phrase: "A bulwark against the onslaughts of error." With this thought in mind, the first Polish settlers came to Cohoes, New York in the year 1901 and organized a committee for the purpose of establishing a Polish parish. Thirty-six families joined the movement and assessed themselves twenty-five cents a week. The officers of the first committees were Stanley Pitera, President; Walter Tanski, Vice President; Frank Zygmunt, Secretary; Andrew Zabinski, Treasurer; Stephen Moniewski and Joseph Cenkier, Trustees; and Frank Bakowski, Ernest Cynar, Thomas Lukaszek and Michael Opic, Directors. In the meantime, masses were celebrated in the old St. Bernard's School by the Rev. M. Malakaitis, pastor of St. Casimir's Church in Albany, New York.
In the early part of 1903, with the advice of Rev. A. Keveny, pastor of St. Bernard's Church, a committee with Joseph Cenkier as Chairman, was sent to Bishop Thomas Burke of the Albany Diocese with a petition to obtain a Polish priest for Cohoes. The Bishop welcomed the delegation, specifying that in order to assign a priest, they would have to have land on which to build a church. In accordance with these instructions, the committee with Michael Kopczynski as chairman was directed to contact Mr. G. Page, owner of the Cohoes Rolling Mills to purchase land. After inspecting several lots, it was decided to buy five lots on Page Avenue. When the deed to these lots was secured, the delegates returned to Bishop Burke who informed them that he would assign a Polish priest who was newly ordained in Louvain, Belgium, and who was now acting as assistant to the Rev. Joseph Dereszewski in Schenectady, New York to serve in Cohoes.
On the evening of December 3, 1903, a meeting was held in Andres Zabinski's store, where the Rev. Joseph Dereszewski introduced to the members of the congregation the Rev. Valentine Gierlacki. On this occasion, the sum of $12.50 was collected and placed in the parish treasury. On Sunday, December 13, 1903, Father Gierlacki with Thomas Lukaszek as altar boy celebrated his first mass in the basement of St. Joseph's Church where the Right Rev. Monsignor M. Dugas was pastor. He very kindly gave Father Gierlacki permission to have all future services in St. Joseph's Church basement. During the first mass, the sum of $26.30 was collected and A. Zabinski remitted the sum of $12.83, the balance in the treasury after payment for the lots.
On January 1, 1904, the Knights of Saint Michael Society was organized by the new pastor. A survey conducted of all the Polish families in the Cohoes-Waterford vicinity indicated that there were 94 families residing in this area at that time. Most of these families, together with 40 families in Troy, a few in Mechanicville and some Slovak families, joined the newly established parish. By Labor Day, $4,000 was raised, and the breaking-of-ground ceremony took place. Every evening thereafter, after working all day in the factories, the members of the parish dug the hard slate rock for the foundation, under the direction of James P. Dooley, Sr., Contractor. The work was very difficult and slow, but no one was discouraged, since their thought was "It's for God's glory and the future of the Poles". Sunday, October 21, 1904 was the eventful day when the cornerstone for the new church was laid by Bishop Thomas Burke of Albany. During the latter part of November, the building was under roof and a mortgage of $7,000 was taken by the Cohoes Savings Bank to complete the construction and help furnish the interior. Christmas services were conducted in the church school, and the 1905 Easter services were held in the new church.
During this same year, Polish Archbishop Simon, under the direction of Saint Pius X, visited the various Polish parishes in the United States to ascertain the needs of the Polish families. He was invited to Cohoes by Father Gierlacki to dedicate the new St. Michael's Church. Archbishop Simon accepted the invitation, and on September 21, 1905 with a large Polish delegation from Schenectady, New York, he came to Cohoes via a special train. Polish delegations from Albany, Cohoes, Watervliet, Troy and vicinity, headed by Father Gierlacki, greeted him with a big parade and escorted him to the new church where the dedication ceremonies were conducted. Then, in the year 1907, the land on both sides of Page Avenue was acquired, and a new parsonage was erected.
Upon the advent of World War I in 1914, major political changes were predicted in Europe, and the Polish colony in Cohoes was ready for all sacrifices. Eighteen young members of the parish enlisted in the Polish Army which was being organized by a committee headed by Roman Dmowski and Ignacy J. Paderewski in France and commanded by General Joseph Haller. Many others served in the U.S. Forces in which Edward Pilawski gave his life at the battle front in France. In the year 1918, 12 acres of land were purchased for St. Michael's Cemetery. On December 26, 1924, a fire broke out in the school proper, resulting in considerable damage to both the school and the church. At this time, the decision was made to enlarge and renovate both the church and school. On November 29, 1925, Bishop F. Gibbons dedicated the enlarged church.
In conjunction with numerous organizations from Troy, Watervliet and vicinity, a celebration and parade commemorating the 150th anniversary of Thaddeus Kosciuszko was held in the year 1926. Large historical floats representing the life of Kosciuszko were the main attractions. In the fall of the same year, we had the honor of welcoming the late Archbishop Martyr of Poland, Joseph Cieplak at a special evening service. He was welcomed by the Rev. Valentine Gierlacki and parishioners. In his sermon, Archbishop Cieplak made a plea to guard the unity and Catholic spirit of the Polish nation. These counsels are still being followed by the congregation. In the year 1927, through the earnestness and energy of Father Gierlacki, the Sisters of the Resurrection were secured as teachers in the parish school and a new convent was constructed. Remarkable progress by the children was noted after the arrival of the Sisters, who have an enviable reputation as teachers and promoters of God's work. Since then the following have entered the Sisters of the Resurrection: Sister Jolanta Gorski, Sister Michaeline Berdar, Sister Adele Ogniewski, Sister Immaculata Lonczak and Sister Richard Savoie.
The Silver Anniversary of the ordination of Father Gierlacki to the priesthood was celebrated on Sunday, September 30, 1928. In December a three-day Silver Anniversary celebration of St. Michael's was held.
In 1939 when World War II was declared, 430 members of the parish served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Nineteen lost their lives on battle fields all over the world. In 1953, the Golden Jubilee of Father Gierlacki's ordination to the priesthood was celebrated. More than 500 parishioners and friends attended this joyous event to pay tribute to our beloved pastor for his long, diligent and fruitful service to the parish.
During the Korean conflict, 38 members served in the U.S. Armed Forces in Korea. In the same year, a suggestion was made by the Ladies' Rosary Society to build a modern elementary parish school. This idea was enthusiastically accepted by all the organizations and parishioners. A school committee to raise funds was selected and all organizations and individual members responded generously. The contract for a modern fire proof, ten classroom school was awarded to William G. Sheehan Construction Company. On the 18th of July 1954, Father Gierlacki broke ground for the new school building.
Gratefully we remember our founders and all those who in the past have given so generously of their time, labor and finances toward the maintenance of the church. May this inspire us to continue such noble work with devotion and faith to the high ideal which is inscribed in our hearts - FOR GOD AND COUNTRY.