Polish Chicago’s Annual Pilgrimage
Feature photo: Polish pilgrims on their annual march to the Black Madonna.
By Ronald Trigg
The throng of pilgrims, marching in loose ranks down city streets, takes twenty minutes to pass completely by. All ages are represented, but the great majority seems in their middle years, thirties through sixties. Their Polish heritage is easily discerned. Broad Slavic faces prevail, and virtually all conversation is in the language of the homeland. The relentless heat of the August sun, combined with the exertion of walking, turns pale cheeks to bright red.
Shorts and tee shirts are the uniform of the day, although all sorts of other athletic wear and lightweight clothing are present. Feet are clad in sports shoes of every sort, but some get by with sandals or even flip flops. Baseball caps, wide-brimmed floppy hats, and bandannas are the favored headwear. The youngest pilgrims are up front, riding in strollers pushed by a parent, their small bodies tucked in among water bottles, sunscreen, snacks, and other supplies that will get them through the long trek.
Polish flags are everywhere and, here and there, the yellow-and-white banner of the Vatican. Many marchers wave pale-blue kerchiefs and wear commemorative buttons. The most devout among them carry icons and banners lifted high into the air: pictures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Polish Pope who’s now a saint.
The multitude is accompanied by support vehicles: ambulances, police cruisers, truck beds carrying portable toilets, vans with enormous speakers blasting out religious music. No official count of the pilgrims’ numbers is made, but in past years they’ve been estimated at three to six thousand. This year’s crowd is surely in that range.
The weekend of August 11-12, 2018, marked the 31st iteration of the Chicago Polish Community’s pilgrimage to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary on the Feast Day of Her Assumption. Since 1988, the Poles of the Chicago region have marched from the Church of St. Michael the Archangel in South Chicago to the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Merrillville, Indiana. The 33-mile walk takes two days, broken at the two-thirds point by an overnight stay in a tent village erected at the Monastery of the Carmelite Fathers in Munster, Indiana.
Since the early days of Christianity, the faithful have demonstrated their piety by taking part in pilgrimages to holy places, usually shrines housing relics of saints or commemorating miraculous events. In Poland, the most famous of these expressions of religious devotion is an annual trek from Warsaw to the Monastery of Our Lady of Czestochowa at Jasna Gora in the country’s mountainous southern region; it takes nine days to cover the 140-mile distance.
Enshrined at Jasna Gora is the so-called Black Madonna, an icon venerated as the Queen of Poland by royal decree in 1656. Legend says it was painted by St. Luke the Evangelist on a wooden tabletop many centuries earlier. The icon is credited with numerous miracles, including fending off invading armies on several occasions. Over the years the face on the painting has grown dark from age and the smoke of votive candles, hence the name Black Madonna, Czarna Madonna in Polish.
It’s not surprising that Chicago would establish its own version of the pilgrimage to the Black Madonna. It has long been considered to have a larger Polish population than any city outside Poland, even though New York and London might dispute the claim. Poles have been migrating to Chicago since at least the 1860s. A great surge came in the early decades of the twentieth century, migrants attracted by the availability of industrial jobs in America at a time when political instability and limited opportunity made the homeland less appealing.
A new wave came after World War II, when displaced persons from throughout Europe came seeking prosperity in this new land. The Warsaw government’s crackdown on the Solidarity Labor Movement led to another exodus in the early 1980s, which continued until the fall of Communism. Subsequent immigrants have largely come to reunite with family members who arrived earlier. It’s the late-twentieth-century arrivals who comprise the majority of today’s Black Madonna pilgrims.
The pilgrims begin arriving at the trek’s starting point soon after daybreak. St. Michael the Archangel Church, located in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, is an imposing Gothic structure with impressive stained-glass windows. Its two steeples tower over the surrounding homes. The parish was founded in 1892 to serve the Polish immigrant community, and the current building was erected in 1909. The parishioners have changed over the years to reflect the area’s shifting demographics. The congregation now includes Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, and immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia. Many services are now conducted in Spanish.
Hundreds of pilgrims flood the cavernous church for mass at 7:30 AM. The crowd spills out onto the street, where security people in orange vests work to organize the vehicles and marchers who will participate. The Polish-language religious service that kicks off the pilgrimage is shared with the crowd outside via loudspeakers. As the mass draws to a close, pilgrims drop to their knees for a prayer that sanctifies the event.
The faces of the pilgrims are mostly somber at this point, reflecting the religious significance of the venture they are about to undertake. Friends and family members join together as they claim their places in the ranks. The scene is colorful and animated, but there is no carnival atmosphere here. It’s all business as the marchers steel themselves for the long ordeal ahead.
The legion of pilgrims walks through the streets of Chicago’s far southernmost neighborhoods, then into the Illinois suburbs, before crossing the state line into Indiana. There’s a brief rest stop at a city park in Hammond, a chance to re-hydrate and tend to blisters and sore muscles. Then the trek resumes toward its overnight stop at the Monastery of the Carmelite Fathers in Munster.
While the pilgrims are still on the streets, their families and friends are gathering at the monastery where an overnight stop is scheduled. A colorful assemblage of tents rises on the grassy grounds surrounded by the monastery’s high walls. Carmelite monks, displaced from their native Poland during World War II, came to America in 1949. They established a monastery in a house in Hammond, and then moved to nearby Munster. The Carmelite fathers still serve the Polish community and have constructed the Grotto of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lourdes within the monastery walls. The shrine attracts visits from the faithful throughout the year.
The somber faces from early in the day are replaced by wide smiles and looks of joy and relief as the pilgrims arrive at their overnight stop in Munster. They wave to family members who’ve come to greet them and look forward to food and rest after an exhausting day. Coolers of cold drinks await them, along with the warm hugs of friends and admirers. Polish food—sausage, stuffed cabbage, pierogi—is offered for sale, and Domino’s Pizza has set up a stand that is doing booming business. Many of the weary trekkers collapse onto the lawn with little more than sleep on their mind. The night will be short. Early the next morning they’ll be back on the road to complete the long walk.
The pilgrims’ ultimate goal is a large replica of the Black Madonna produced in the early 1980s and personally blessed by John Paul II before it left Europe. It was installed at the Monastery of the Salvatorian Fathers in Merrillville. This icon is much larger than the original in Jasna Gora. Another difference is the addition of a tear shown dripping from Mary’s left eye. It’s said that the new feature represents the troubles Poland was enduring at that time: increased political repression and the attempted assassination of the Pope.
The second day’s walk is much shorter than the first, and the pilgrims seem anxious to finish the task. The Polish Community in its thousands has gathered at the final destination in Merrillville. As the pilgrims arrive, Salvatorian fathers sprinkle them with holy water. The mood here is more festive, but the religious importance of the event still takes priority. There is an outdoor mass celebrated by the bishop of the local diocese and other bishops who have come from Poland. But it’s also a time for celebration, rest, reunion with family, and finally, a blessed drive to the home they left one long day ago.
There is near unanimity among the pilgrims when they are asked why they did the walk. They describe it as a spiritual experience in one way or another. “I feel renewed in my faith,” said one. “It’s all about personal sacrifice for God,” said another. Loyalty to homeland must surely also be a factor, but no one seems willing to utter those words. For most Poles, religion and nationality are closely intertwined in their minds. “To be a Pole means to be a Catholic,” is a common sentiment.
Some among the participants worry that the tradition will not survive the corrupting influence of a secular America, especially in an age dominated by the Internet and social media. A small scene from the overnight stop perhaps demonstrates the problem: Two men sit outside their tent, conversing in Polish. A few feet away sit their daughters, perhaps eight years old. The children ignore their parents, while chatting about girlish issues in idiomatic English without accent. They are sharing a large plate of nachos.
Bukowczyk, John J., A History of the Polish Americans, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 1987.
Szabados, Stephen, Polish Immigration to America: When, Why, How and Where, Lexington, KY, 2016.
Chicago, Illinois: The Church of St. Michael the Archangel in the South Shore neighborhood.
Merrillville, Indiana: Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa at the Salvatorian Monastery.
Munster, Indiana: Monastery of the Carmelite Fathers.
Dukes, Jesse, “Can Chicago Brag about the Size of its Polish Population,” Curious City, WBEZ Public Radio Chicago, October 26, 2015.
Dukes, Jesse, “Poland Elsewhere: Why So Many Poles Came to Chicago,” Curious City, WBEZ Public Radio Chicago, October 30, 2015.
Northwest Indiana Times, various issues 1999-2014 (accessed through newspapers.com).
Content and photos copyright 2018 Ronald Trigg