Leelanau’s early Polish settlements

By Linda Beaty
Sun contributor

During the late 1800s, millions of people fled the Polish districts of Germany, Russia and Austria to come to the United States. Mostly peasants who lacked basic subsistence, they were attracted by ample job opportunities for unskilled labor in the United States. Many settled in cities such as Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee to earn a living in meatpacking, construction, steelwork and heavy industry.

But the dream for many of the agrarian Poles was to be a “gospodarz,” or landowner, and the immigrants saved their money to purchase land through the Homestead Act. By 1870, the first Polish families arrived in Centerville Township in Leelanau County to settle in three small communities: Schomberg, Bodus and Isadore, which was originally called Four Corners, but then changed in 1890 when the post office was established to honor Saint Isadore, the patron saint of farmers.

Life was difficult for the Polish pioneers. According to Holy Rosary School 1898-1998, a book published in conjunction with the school’s centennial celebration, “amid forested hills and valleys, pioneers cleared land for log cabins, wells, farms and roadways.” The book continues, “There were no floors to dirty, only hard-packed ground on which straw was used for bedding.” The farmers raised oats, wheat, corn, hay, cattle, pigs, chickens, vegetables and fruit to sustain the families. All members of the family who were old enough to work labored from dawn to dusk.

A decade after Centerville was settled, the railroad came to the area, with a stop in Bodus. This allowed the farmers an opportunity to produce cash crops, the largest of these being potatoes. Acres of spuds were grown, packed in 150-pound bags and loaded on the train in Bodus.

The center of life for the Polish immigrants — and what kept them going — was their faith; most were Roman Catholics. Lacking a church at first, they were visited by traveling missionaries, who brought the sacraments and celebrated Holy Eucharist in their homes. By 1882, the families had raised enough money for a church of their own, and they began building Holy Rosary Church at the intersection of Schomberg and French roads in Isadore. Over the next 10 years, priests from surrounding communities came monthly to celebrate Holy Eucharist, and in between, the parishioners gathered at the church to pray and sing hymns. The church was rebuilt in 1921 by church volunteers; it featured stained glass windows made in Munich, and field stones that farmers hauled from their land.

While many Polish immigrants around the country saw education as a luxury that they had little time for, the settlers in Isadore and the nearby Polish communities built a Catholic school at the site of the church in 1892, which burned down only two years later and was rebuilt in 1896. Classes were taught by Sisters of the Felician order, both academics and religious education as well as art and music. The children attended mass prior to each school day. A brick schoolhouse replaced the wooden one in 1905 and classes continued until the school closed in 1999.

Although work and religious activities were the most important aspects of life for the Polish settlers and their descendants, they also knew how to have fun. Some had brought instruments with them from the old country, and they gathered to play music and sing. One young man, Ed Fleis, who’d been taught violin by one of the nuns at the school, even established a musical group with Steve Pleva and Stanley Mikowski called the “Isadore Sodbusters.” Fleis played the treasured violin of his grandfather, Tomacz Fleis, who had brought the violin with him from Prussia.

Today, the post office, gas station, and small store that once stood at the Four Corners are gone. Many within the Polish community moved to Cedar, once called Cedar City, in Solon Township. The church remains an important part of Centerville Township, and has been featured in several books, most recently Isadore’s Secret by Mardi Link. The book is an investigative story about the 1907 disappearance of one of the Felician nuns, Sister Janina.

The whereabouts of Janina’s body were unknown until 1918, when her bones (including the remains of a fetus) were found in the church basement. Stella Lipczynska, the housekeeper for Rev. Andrew Bieniawski (who is said to have fathered the child), was tried for the murder, and found guilty. She had allegedly feuded with Sister Janina over the relationship between the nun and Bieniawski. She received a life sentence but was paroled in 1927.

The murder — and the book — is a sensitive topic in Centerville Township, most preferring it to be a part of the church’s history that is best left unspoken about. But it continues to be one of the most colorful parts of Isadore’s past; and is to be featured in an episode of the Discovery television series “Deadly Women” this summer.

Read more about Isadore in 100 Years in Leelanau by Edmund Littell, Holy Rosary School 1898-1998, published by the Holy Rosary Centennial Committee (part of Leelanau Historical Society’s collection), Ed and Irene Fleis by Ruth Ann Smith (Fleis) for the Ed and Irene Education Fund, Inc., and Isadore’s Secret by Mardi Link.