Beginnings

I n the year 1947, the Australian government signed an agreement to accept 170 000 displaced persons from the International Organisation for Refugees. Under the agreement, 66 000 Poles came to Australia between the years of 1947 to 1951. Newcomers found employment at the steelworks, local mines as well as road construction. The families of the newly arrived immigrants found accommodation across a range of hostels. As a rule, men were placed in hostels located close to their place of employment where they were obligated to work off a two-year employment contract. Their wives and children were placed in completely different locations, often kilometres away. Being away from loved ones was a burden on families therefore a fundamental goal was to bring the family together by building a house. Usually the land was the prime purchase in which families commenced building the garage. Once the garage was built, the rest of the family was brought in and together, the construction of the house began.

Poles did not live to work, embedded deep in their hearts was a hidden longing for their native country; holidays with the family, Polish customs and traditions. They hoped that their children would be able to learn their native language as well as Polish history.

Wollongong and Port Kembla in the 1950s was buzzing during the day. In the evening however, there was a dead silence; a contrast to Poland. Lack of knowledge of the English language, housing, weak transportation system and financial difficulties led to many problems for the Polish community. All these issues resulted in the shared agreement that a place was needed where Poles would be able to meet other Poles, share experiences and celebrate Polish customs and traditions.

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The initiatives of Fr. Arciszewski in 1955 resulted in the formation of Polish School. Initially, lessons were held at Catholic churches in Port Kembla and Corrimal as well as premises on Atchison Street, Wollongong and then at the Polish Association in Gwynneville.

Almost simultaneously a Youth Group was established. This group met once a week to learn Polish dances and over time evolved into the dance group now known as Wawel.

The Ladies Group was formed in order to assist in the upkeep of Polish school. Over the years the ladies have assisted not only at the school but also needs of the Polish Association demonstrating hard work, great organisation, and enthusiastic ideas as well as preparing meals for various occasions.

The need for unification was so strong that on 8 April 1956 in the Church Hall at Port Kembla the Independent Polish Association referred to as: “Ognisko Polskie, Okreg Illawarra” was established. Subsequently it was developed into the Polish Association Wollongong which merged with other Polish organisations throughout New South Wales.

From the very beginning, members of the Polish Association Wollongong set ambitious and noble goals, among other things such as:

  • tightening of contacts between Poles and other inhabitants of Polish origin.
  • Promotion and preservation of Polish tradition.
  • Conducting educational activities in order to maintain Polish cultural heritage.
  • Mutual assistance.
  • Leading journalistic activities.
  • Reviving contacts from a range of communities within Australia.

This was all necessary in order to pursue the construction and development of the Polish Association which ultimately became the centre of Polish identity in the Illawarra.

In the meantime, when the two-year work contract ended, many workers changed jobs meaning that they bought land and houses in surrounding suburbs. The communities which were originally in one area began to expand. Transport was still bad and not many people owned cars at the time.

It was at this point that the thought and progress of purchasing premises for a Polish Association began. A library has already been established consisting of donated and purchased books however it was located across private houses of different chairpersons. In the early 1960s, after several unsuccessful tries and loan taxation increasing to two pounds per person, the organisers were finally able begin after purchasing a lot, receiving a loan from the bank and the having construction plans approved.

Naturally the loan had to be paid off regularly. For that purpose, those who needed to pay off the loan were split into sixteen groups across the Illawarra. Each of these groups was headed by a leader whose task was to make sure that everyone in the group was paying off the credit rate in time.

Construction of the Millennium House

A fter full days at work, Poles would continue their hard work at the new site. They dug the foundations of the Centre and then worked on the majority of the brickwork and carpentry. They believed in the importance of a Polish Association and its significance because it would not only serve the 971 who lived in the Illawarra in 1961 but also their children and following generations. Their dreams were fulfilled because the Centre that we meet in to this day has room for everyone; over 1 400 Polish people who live in the Illawarra as well as those who have attachments to the Polish community are able to meet in a place which is spacious and compatible.
 

In June 1966 under the motto “Millennium” which commemorates the 1000 year commemoration since the Christianisation of Poland, resulted in the Bishop of Wollongong at the time Thomas McCabe, blessing the foundation stone of the building. The day is memorialised by a plaque which today, hangs in the entrance of the building. In December 1967, the official opening was celebrated by a Midnight Mass.

Apart from blessing the foundation, Bishop McCabe also helped the Polish community from the start of their settlement in the Illawarra.

Therefore when the Bishop celebrated his 40 year anniversary of priesthood, the Polish community funded and donated a beautiful stain glassed window depicting Mother Mary of Czestochowa. This window still remains at the historic Catholic cathedral in Wollongong which ultimately testifies the attitude of the local Polish community.

The new Polish Association was therefore able to provide a place for activities to continue over the years including:

  • Polish School
  • Polish Choir
  • Ladies Group
  • Football team
  • Scouts
  • Theatre Group
  • Dance group: Wawel
  • Culture Club
  • Vox FM Radio

Activities of Wollongong’s Polish community

T he Polish community actively participated in the celebrations organised in the newly built Association as well as a number of events in Wollongong such as:

Celebrating 150 years of settlement in Wollongong with a plaque at the Polish Association. During the celebration, the flags of Poland, Australia and the city of Wollongong were put up with pride. Both Polish Week and well as the Polish section of the annual Viva La Gong festival emphasise the existence and input of the Polish community and its involvement within Wollongong. The Polish Food Festival is another event which emphasises these points and has which has attracted large crowds.

The Poles who have immigrated to numerous parts of the world hold in their memory the monastery of Czestochowa: “Jasna Gora.” Jasna Gora is the most prominent Polish shrine to the Virgin Mary and the country’s greatest place of pilgrimage. Therefore, when the construction of the Shrine of Our Lady of Mercy at Penrose Park commences, many Poles rushed to the occasion to volunteer in assistance financially and through building.

Over 55 years the members of the Polish Association enriched their wealth with a number of investments. The first was the building of a tennis court in the 70s; tennis was used by association members as well as their children. It was available for use free of charge and was an attractive means of members spending time with their children.

In the years 1980 to 1981 the first wave of immigration following the political movement, ‘Solidarity.’ By that stage the Association had paid off all its debts and loans therefore resulting in the decision to expand the premises. Like the previous generation, members had a very significant contribution to the building. The Club which adjacent to the Hall was crucial, it provided financial security for many years. It has been thirty years since the Club was first built and it no longer exists but its new purpose still provides security for the Association. 

At the beginning of the 1990 the Association was buzzing with life. The result of the 1980s immigration resulted in growth of numbers. Therefore, the dance group Wawel grew in numbers as did the attendance of Polish school thus resulting in the construction of classrooms and library facilities. Again, there was support and assistance from the Polish community in the construction.

The history of the Polish Association Wollongong proves that Poles over the years have been able to unite and succeed for a common purpose.