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Bellmawr's forgotten Polish Cemetary: A history by the NJDOT

Cemetary01Mark Matthews
CNBNews

If you went through the Bellmawr School system and it's Bell Oaks Middle School, you undoubtedly know of the small cemetery across the street from the school at the corner of Anderson Ave and Bell Rd..  No sign to identify the cemetery.  No office.  Simply a cemetery that on one hand seems forgotten, but on the other still has people visiting regularly and even a rare new burial.

The cemetery is the Resurrection of Christ Cemetery, established in the early 1900s by a Polish Catholic church in Camden, who established the cemetery in an area where Polish immigrants were establishing homes.

For the core information I present here, we have the State's massive road project to thank.  As part of the extensive research into all impacts of the state's massive road project, the NJDOT commissioned an extensive history of the area.  Amazingly, while so few know nothing about this quiet cemetery and those who are resting there, the state was able to put together a very interesting set of history.

NJDOT's "Historic Architectural Resources Technical Environmental Study (Volume I) - August 2006"

The City of Camden gained a sizeable Polish population beginning in the 1880s as this ethnic group migrated from Philadelphia to work in Camden’s growing leather and morocco industry, oilcloth works, iron foundries, and shipyards. At first, these newcomers settled among an already present German population and worshipped at Saints Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church, the local German-speaking congregation. As more Polish arrived, they migrated to a city neighborhood called Liberty Park and established Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church to serve the needs of the Polish communicants. The church incorporated in October 1892, following some occasional services held in private homes, and proceeded to erect a fitting edifice (Dorwart 2001:108-109). Nationally during this time period, the United States received an unprecedented influx of Polish émigrés, which added dramatically to the membership of the American Roman Catholic Church, making it the largest religious body in the country. Native Poles in America totaled 147,440 in 1890. Ten years later, the number more than doubled to 383,407. Friction surfaced rather quickly between the new Poles and the established church hierarchy predominated by Irishmen. Church leaders shunned the Polish due to language barriers and the Poles’ desire to retain old-world customs and religious practices. In response, the Poles repeatedly made requests for their own priests and bishops only to have the church ignore their petitions. American Catholic leaders thought the Poles should become “Americanized,” a stand the Polish ardently resisted (Wytrwal 1969:257-274).

As author Joseph Wytrwal stated:

The Catholic Poles in America thus found themselves in a dire predicament: to become accepted Americans, they would have to reject their Polish heritage; to become accepted Catholics in America, they would have to reject their own Catholic Polish heritage and adopt an American version of English culture together with the equally unfamiliar form of English Catholicism. The educational requirements in the United States also presented the Poles with a double threat. In the existing parochial schools, their children would forget the ancestral language; in the public schools they would have training in neither language nor religion (ibid.:261).

Faced with this paradox, three distinct groups emerged within the Polish community: many accepted becoming “Americanized” and remained true to the Roman Catholic Church; a second group deserted their faith entirely; and a third faction denounced the demands presented by the Irish Catholic prelates. After attempting the establishment of a separate Slavic diocese in certain urban centers, the third group of Poles discussed above rebelled and inaugurated independent Polish parishes. A schism began appearing in American Polish enclaves in Wisconsin, the coal regions of Pennsylvania, and Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalos, and Baltimore. Finally in 1897, the Reverend Francis Hodur organized an independent congregation. The parish maintained the Roman Catholic rites but reverted to the Polish language for all rituals. Hodur and the congregants adopted a church charter that specified joint church governance shared between the priests and the laity. Other parishes soon assumed the same charter; by September 1904, 24 parishes with over 20,000 faithful Poles in five states united to create a new denomination called the Polish National Catholic Church. At the denomination’s first national synod, the attendees elected Father Hodur as church Bishop (Wytrwal 1969:257-274).

Locally in Camden, New Jersey, it appears all was well at Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church for its first 20 years of existence. At some point, however, a renegade group of Catholic Poles faced the same paradox as others of their ethnicity around the country and split from the local parish in 1912 to form the Polish National Catholic Parish of the Resurrection of Christ.  Led by Maksymillian J. Lawnicki, known locally as “Iron Mike,” the parish’s first priest, a church committee proceeded to purchase land at the northwest corner of Mount Ephraim Avenue and Thurman Street from the Camden Safe Deposit & Trust Company in June 1912 (Camden County Deeds 368:112). Because the church acquired this property before becoming properly incorporated, the Camden Safe Deposit & Trust Company confirmed the sale to the church in January 1913. The church achieved its incorporation in July 1912 (Camden County Deeds 373:294). The congregants erected a neat brick edifice on the purchased land; the church building also acquired the moniker of “Iron Mike” due to the influence that Lawnicki held over his parish (Evans, personal communication 2003).

Presumably the congregation increased in size during the first few years of the church’s existence. With no land available immediately around the sanctuary for a cemetery, Lawnicki sought other arrangements to provide for his flock’s deceased loved ones. A growing Polish presence in suburban villages like Mount Ephraim and Bellmawr led Father Lawnicki and his parish faithful out into the countryside surrounding Camden. As a result, the congregation formed the “Cemetery Association of the Polish National Catholic Parish of Resurrection of Christ” and in October 1916, the new association purchased lots 70, 71, 72 and 73, each measuring 100 feet by 400 feet, from the Camden County Garden Farms Company, a local land development firm. Located at the northwest corner of Bell Road and Anderson Avenue, the combined lots provided the congregation with a ±4.0-acre cemetery (Camden County Deeds 412:145). According to a cemetery plan drawn by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in March 1938, the cemetery has a maximum capacity of 1,088 burials (Camden County Historical Society, map 89.96.40). The plan, drawn to record veterans’ graves, shows two military men buried at the time it was drafted: Leon Sochacki and Stanley Gontarski, both World War I soldiers. Gontarski died during the war in the Argonne offensive (Sheridan 1919:30). The cemetery received additional veteran burials from subsequent wars.

The congregation continued worshipping at their church in Camden until its membership dwindled below viability. In August 1989, the parish closed the church and sold the building for $1.00 to the Central Diocese, Polish National Catholic Church, located in Scranton, Pennsylvania (Camden County Deeds 4393:610). Exactly five months later, the Central Diocese sold the building to the Community Baptist Church of Camden for $50,000 (Camden County Deeds 4422:634). The Baptist church still used the edifice in 2003. Although the congregation is gone, the local parish still maintains the cemetery in Bellmawr. In the 2002 tax records for Bellmawr Borough, the contact person is listed as Reverend Drabik, residing at 1111 Thurman Street, Camden, New Jersey. This is the same house that Maksymillian Lawnicki lived in during 1916 according to a Camden city directory of that time (Boyd 1916:1273). It is unknown how many burials the cemetery currently contains or when the most recent interment took place.

Today the cemetary is still maintained, and there is clear evidence of regular visitors despite having infrequent new burials.   I toured the plots on Halloween Eve and saw a few dated from the 80s, one from 2003, and Cleary's Notebook does have an obituary for a burial in 2013. 

Cemetary01

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This is one of the oldest headstones, for Karol Szulo who passed away in 1918.

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The original Polish Church building still stands on Mt Ephraim Avenue in Camden, and as evidenced by Google Street Maps, it is also still regularly used...

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..but the Church has no association to the Bellmawr cemetary any longer.   Back in 2007 the "New Jersey Cemetary Board" approved a plan to merge the Ressurection of Christ Church Cemetery in Bellmawr with the larger Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey.

*NEW JERSEY CEMETERY BOARD*
SEPTEMBER 13, 2007
Board member Paul M. Desbiens conducted on-site inspections of both Harleigh Cemetery and the Polish National Catholic Parish of Resurrection of Christ Cemetery. Mr. Desbiens advises that Harleigh Cemetery features many developed monument sections, 1 old and 3 new mausoleums, 3 lakes, a crematory, a veteran’s section, and a few acres available for new development. The cemetery performs about 400 interments per year and about 1100 cremations per year. Resurrection Cemetery is located about 5 miles from Harleigh, in the town of Bellmawr, NJ. The cemetery is about 4-5 acres neighboring a municipal recreational field. Only about 2 acres is developed; it is well maintained and trimmed. There are no roads within the cemetery, no water system, no utilities. There appears to be roughly a few hundred interments with family headstones, various sizes and colors. No records exist of interment locations. There have been a few burials over the past several years and a rough physical map of existing headstones has been developed. The plan for this cemetery is to clear the undeveloped wooded area for new in ground/above ground interments. Louis Cicalese, President, Harleigh Cemetery has provided the Board with site and ariel photos of the Polish National Catholic Church Cemetery. Upon review and discussion of all of the documentation provided, a motion was made by William Nichols and seconded by Lawrence Colasurdo to approve the merger of the two cemeteries. A vote was taken and the motion was approved by a unanimous vote. This merger will benefit both cemeteries as well as the local communities. This matter is closed and removed from future Board meeting agendas. 

Another interesting piece of history connected to the Church, is back in 1914 Polish Immigrant Josef Zbieratzki had a plan to assist new arrivals to America.

He formed a small group and began working on plans for how to best assist his fellow Polish immigrants, and the place for those early meetings was the Polish National Catholic Church of the Resurrection of Christ... the same Church seen in the picture above.  In its first year they assisted 25 immigrants, and if you can believe this, the group still continues today as the Polish American Citizens Club of South Jersey, and still have regular meetings right in Runnemede NJ!   Head over to their webpage and read more about their history and the organization.

I've been meaning to right this for long time... one of the many stories I've researched and Googled and didnt get a change to write.  Well check this one off the list.  Ha.  More to come.  The NJDOT documents contain enough stories and leads to keep me busy for a long time.

I also have another reason for writting this story... a little closer to the heart.

Grandmon, Grandpop, and Great Grandpa.  

Cemetary04
Matyas?  The story is that when my Great Grandfather came through Ellis Island he said his name as Matyas, and the Immigration Officials would simply take their shot at coming up with an "Americanized" name.  Funny, we are still trying to get immigrants to forget where they came from.

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