Note: This essay represents only the extremely unofficial opinion of the webmaster.
Winona, Minnesota proudly claims the distinction of being the Kashubian Capital of America. Winona has never been a purely Kashubian settlement, as were its contemporary settlements in Renfrew County, Ontario and Portage County, Wisconsin. But Winona’s Kashubian community quickly grew larger than these other two communities. The 1900 US Census placed Winona’s population at 19,714 people. At about the same time, Hieronim Derdowski – editor of Winona’s Polish-language newspaper Wiarus – estimated Winona’s Polish population at 5000 people, with 4,000 being of Kashubian descent. Granted, Chicago’s Kashubian parish of Saint Josaphat claimed a membership of 5,000 parishioners in 1902. But Chicago’s Kashubians were but a fraction of its Polish community. By contrast, Winona’s Kashubian Poles made up 20% of Winona’s population, and 80% of its Polish community.
Moreover, Winona’s Kashubian community was already playing an important part in Winona’s society by 1900. From the 1870s on, Kashubian Americans like Teofil Jakob Sikorski and Jozef Milanowski had served Winona and Winona County as aldermen, school commissioners, county commissioners and even as Minnesota state representatives. First-time visitors to Winona could not help but notice the most prominent item of the city’s skyline – the church of Saint Stanislaus Kostka, erected in 1894-1895 by the Kashubian community. The newspaper Wiarus and its (sometimes) notorious editor Derdowski were known throughout Polonia – that is, the Polish immigrant community in North America . Nowhere in Polonia had a Kashubian immigrant community established itself to such an extent, not even in Chicago.
But just how Kashubian did the immigrants consider themselves in 1900? Even before the Civil War, Winonans had referred to them as “Polaks” and “Polanders.” The Kashubians’ neighborhood was originally known as “Warsaw.” After the parish of Saint Stanislaus Kostka was established in 1871, it was staffed with priests who spoke “good Polish,” not Kashubian. The parish school educated its students in “good Polish,” and Derdowski prided himself on having taught his Kashubian readers “good Polish.” As Polish immigration from all three partitions of Poland picked up speed after 1870, the concept of Polonia as a Polish nation within the America became more and more popular. Instead of the grinding poverty which had forced Kashubians to seek a better life in America, they could now embrace nearly a millenium of glorious Polish history and high culture extending from Mieszko the First to Tadeusz Kosciuszko. Their Kashubian accents and vocabulary still remained, but in all other respects Winona’s Kashubian immigrants had become essentially Polish.
This “Polonization” of Winona’s Kashubian community was unavoidable. Nor, despite the Kashubians’ resistance to Polonization in the old country, was it a bad thing in the new country. Hieronim Derdowski himself had stated, even before emigrating to the United States, that “there is no Kashubia without Poland and no Poland without Kashubia.” The Kashubian culture had no greater admirer than Derdowski, who was in fact Kashubia’s first published poet. Still, Derdowski recognized that the Kashubians themselves had never constituted a nation by themselves, and never would. Therefore he believed that the Kashubians’ destiny was as a part of a reunited Polish nation. Like many other Polish intellectuals living in the United States, he placed the highest priority upon working toward Polish reunification. In changing over from an isolated Kashubian settlement to an important outpost of American Polonia, Winona’s Kashubian Polish community was following the trajectory set out by its greatest and most famous member, Hieronim Derdowski.