The formation of the Polish National Catholic Church at the turn of the 20th century is the only significant schism to occur within the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. Dissident Polish Catholics began separating as early as 1873 in Polonia, Wisconsin, 1877 in Chicago, and 1886 in Detroit.
More significant breaks occurred in Buffalo and Chicago in 1895 and in Scranton, Pa. in 1897. These movements started spontaneously and independently of each other, often involving church blockades, pushing, shoving and fist fights.
The independents complained that church authorities were not ministering to the needs of Polish Americans. They perceived themselves as being manipulated by Irish and German bishops appointed by Italian popes. Not one bishop of Polish descent existed in the U.S., and the churches the members built with their hard-earned money became the property of the diocesan bishops.
Bitter recriminations were traded by both sides. The independents were called heretics and worse. They responded with charges that Polish Roman Catholics were enslaving themselves to non-Poles, just as they had in Poland.
The dissidents in Scranton asked a young priest, Franciszek Hodur, to lead a new parish. He negotiated with Roman Catholic authorities and in 1898 traveled to Rome to present his case, but was rebuffed. Later that year he was excommunicated and by 1900 his followers had formally left the Roman Catholic Church and formed the Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC). Disgruntled Catholics following Scranton's lead were forming independent parishes elsewhere and aligning themselves with Father Hodur. Within a few years the Buffalo and Chicago groups joined with Scranton. The movement had spread to most cities with a substantial Polish ethnic population.
Father Hodur was elected bishop of the PNCC at the church's first synod in 1904 and in 1907 was consecrated by bishops of the Old Catholic Church in Utrecht, Holland, giving him apostolic succession. The PNCC began full communion with the Old Catholics under the banner "Union of Utrecht." Bishop Hodur's charisma and leadership skills served the PNCC well. As the Church's first Prime Bishop, he was a stern but superb organizer and excellent speaker. He founded a fraternal, devotional groups and newspapers, wrote extensively and composed hymns. Missions were established in Poland and Brazil.
Born in Żarki near Kraków, Poland in 1866, Hodur attended Jagiellonian University and was ordained a priest in America. He was assigned to a nearby parish when he answered the call of the Scranton dissidents. Roman Catholics called him a tool of the devil; his followers an emancipator. He was undeterred in the PNCC's defense, equating the new denomination with Polish patriotism. He espoused a theory of national religions, insisting that Poles should control their own church, not submit to Rome.
Bishop Hodur's intent was for the PNCC to remain Catholic in faith and the central tenets of Roman Catgolicism were followed. Differences were administrative and juridictional. The PNCC rejected the authority of the pope, allowed clergy to marry, used Polish and English in masses, and gave the laity control of church property
Bishop Hodur died in 1953 and many expected the demise of his church, but that did not happen. The PNCC entered into intercommunion with the Episcopal Church in 1948 but this ended thirty years later when the Episcopalians began ordaining women. The PNCC then began a dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church with the ultimate goal being reunification. The talks continue and have resulted in a limited intercommunion and a reduction in animosity.
Meanwhile, Old Catholic Churches began ordaining women and gays, alienating the PNCC. When the latter refused communion with any church ordaining women, it was expelled from the Utrecht Union in 2003. Today, the PNCC is a viable church of about 50,000 souls organized into five dioceses including one in Canada. Certain events in recent decades seem to have obviated the need for a separate Catholic Church to serve those of Polish descent: assimilation of Polish Americans into society at large with less a sense of ethnicity, the presence of several Polish American Roman Catholic bishops, and the election of Polish Pope John Paul the Great. In order to signal their openness to all, some PNCC parishes do not use the word "Polish" in their name. What the future holds for the denomination remains to be seen.
I recommend: Bishop Francis Hodur: Biographical essays