To Our Polish Community and other supporters:
We live in contentious times in which one of the most commonly used words is “polarized.” It is true of our local, national, and international politics; and it is true of our Polish community surrounding the Orchard Lake Schools. It seems as though in order to be heard, people think they need to use extreme language and make personal accusations, which overshadows policy disagreements. Truth has become a rare commodity in public life, and it has fared no better in dealing with the issues at the Orchard Lake Schools. We can do better. In the past, there have been rumblings of discontent over decisions made at Orchard Lake Schools, but nothing compares to our decision to close the Seminary. Since then, the quantity and intensity of criticism have reached an unprecedented level. The point of this letter is not to persuade with our own internal bias. It is to create and continue to nurture an intelligent debate by presenting the facts.
Our decision to close the Seminary was a long and difficult one, punctuated with starts, stops, and multiple reversals of direction. The fact that we even reconsidered the initial decision to close the Seminary is the strongest indication of how difficult the decision was to make and how reluctant we were to bring to a conclusion to such a foundational component of the Orchard Lake Schools after more than 130 years. No one disagrees with the fact that the Seminary was the genesis of the Orchard Lake Schools and its principal reason for existence for the better part of a century. We all know and cherish the ideals and objectives of our founder, Father Dabrowski. But we could no longer ignore the facts and reality which clearly showed us that we could no longer attract, educate and bring to the Catholic Church in America the kinds of seminarians who would become the kinds of priests that Polonia has revered over our history. It is a sad reality and reflection of the drastic decrease in vocations caused by the stress faced by the Catholic Church and its difficulty in generating vocations all over the world, including Poland.
It is important to know that the Orchard Lake Schools has invested millions of dollars over just the past decade into the Seminary. We never charged our seminarians for anything and paid for all of their expenses (travel, obtaining visas, tuition, food, room, insurance, etc.). The only requirement we imposed was that the seminarian be a strong and faithful candidate to serve the Catholic Church. Despite having no financial barriers and covering all their costs, we were still not able to attract enough qualified seminarians to the Seminary.
One must remember that the Seminary was one of only two remaining independent seminaries in the United States, and was not a part of a diocese or religious order. Accordingly, the Seminary was not allocated priests from a diocese or and did not have the support of a religious order. Thus, we have had the added burden of trying to recruit seminarians from Poland and away from Polish seminaries which, unlike in the past, are now themselves seriously struggling with vocations. Of course, we certainly don’t want to “compete” for Polish seminarians with the Polish Church. The same goes with trying to recruit seminarians in the U.S. – we did not want to compete with struggling American seminaries.
Fr. Witek’s plan wisely proposed to avoid this dilemma by recruiting not only seminarians who were Polish or from Poland, but also to focus on men from Asia and Africa. However, when, just a few years ago, using the same strategy the Seminary recruited seminarians from Vietnam, there was an uproar from certain segments of Detroit’s Polonia who castigated us for diverging from Father Dabrowski’s purpose in setting up the Polish Seminary – to recruit Polish speaking seminarians to serve Polonia’s Catholics in America. Having heard once from those critics in Polonia, many Regents simply did not believe this aspect of the plan would be feasible.
Six years ago, the Orchard Lake Schools was nearly bankrupt, unable to pay its suppliers, and struggling to make payroll. All departments made significant sacrifices and for many years employees received no compensation increases. With the help and sacrifices of the Orchard Lake Schools community, employees and donors who provided additional financial support, we restructured our operations, greatly reduced our debt and turned things around. However, the Seminary was still struggling and, due to the lack of qualified seminarians which was exacerbated by the litigation and its poor reputation, it was obvious that at best the Seminary could not be turned around for several years.
While we do not want to present any false hopes, it is possible, God willing, that if circumstances change significantly the Polish Seminary could be revived sometime in the future if the Archdiocese and/or the Vatican approved its re-opening. For this reason the Orchard Lake Schools have retained the Seminary’s original charter. But, in all frankness, it will take some years to restore the reputation of the Seminary as envisioned by Father Dabrowski, and for there to be a new increase in vocations, as well as a substantial endowment for any such hope to be viable.
Despite the difficult decision to close the Seminary, the Board of Regents fully understands, appreciates and is committed to keeping the Catholic and Polish identity of the Orchard Lake Schools. Our Polish Institute of Culture & Research is doing remarkable work in renovating the Galeria, restoring the art and archive collections, holding conferences and events, and building a Polonia Research Center, which we wholeheartedly support. In addition, as explained below, we are constituting a new third division of the Orchard Lake Schools tentatively to be called the “St. John Paul II Liturgical Center”. In other words, contrary to what is being rumored, the Orchard Lake Schools is not weakening its Catholic and Polish foundations, but is enhancing them.
Some other details relating to the Board of Regents’ decision to close the Seminary, as well as other issues that have been raised by certain segments of Polonia, are discussed in the Questions and Answers below. But there is a greater issue than the decision to close or not close the Seminary. We need to talk about what the debates over these heartfelt issues should look like and how they should be conducted. It is time for us to say that we can disagree without somebody being branded a liar or cries that we are not Catholic “enough.”
Let us all consider Matthew 7:1-5 the next time we want to judge the faith or Catholicity of others. “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye”.
We, as fellow Catholics, should be able to discuss the closure of the library and the decisions to preserve our Polish book collection in digital form or reorganize without some falsely claiming that the Regents are secularists who seek to destroy Catholicism, Polish history, and Polish culture. Most importantly, it is time to construct a framework for answering legitimate questions about our past, present, and future in a truthful and candid way so that those in Polonia and elsewhere seeking clarity and information have a forum to gather this information.
Facts about the Orchard Lake Schools, including our book collection, the future of buildings on campus, and the factors that led us to our decisions about those things and the direction of the Polish Institute (formerly the Polish Mission), need to be openly available. The first step is with the questions and answers that are provided in this letter. We encourage responsible additional questions that legitimately probe these issues, and will endeavor to answer them with deference and respect for the rights of all concerned. Human nature is such that we will never satisfy everyone on all counts. The goal is to put accurate information into the hands of Polonia and let reasonable people make their own decisions about what they believe.
The best of the Orchard Lake Schools is still ahead of us. Our mission to create a cultural and Catholic spiritual and educational environment in harmony with the great Polish community that created the Orchard Lake Schools remains a central goal. We count on Polonia to be at the heart of these endeavors. Let us begin a constructive dialog with a discussion of some of the current issues causing such vocal discontent.
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS:
The Seminary had been through difficult times before and had always survived. Why couldn’t it be saved this time?
The answer, which was discussed in part above, is very simple but also complex, including multiple countries, the fall of communism, and a change in demographics only seen every couple hundred years. The most important factor was the difficulty in attracting good, faithful and qualified candidates for the priesthood in Poland. Vocations have also drastically fallen in Poland and the Polish Church is struggling with its own seminaries, with several having closed in the past couple of years.
Even the number of young people who regularly attend church in Poland or have any involvement in religious activities has plummeted over the past two decades. A website called Notes From Poland reports on a poll conducted last week by IBRiS for the Rzeczpospolita daily, which asked Poles: “How would you assess your attitude towards the Catholic church in Poland?” Respondents were evenly split between positive (35%), neutral (31%), and negative (32%). Only 2% did not have an opinion. However, among the youngest respondents (aged 18 to 29), only 9% had a positive view of the church, while 44% were neutral. Almost half of them, 47%, assess the church negatively.
The Reuters news service, in an online article published February 3, 2021 said: “Young adults in many countries are becoming less religious, according to research by the Pew Center. In Poland, a growing number of its 32 million Catholics are turning away. In 1989 when Communist rule ended, nearly 90% of Poles approved of the Church, according to the state-affiliated CBOS opinion poll. That figure is now 41% – the lowest since 1993.”
Not surprisingly, these factors explain a serious decline in vocations. This is from FSSPX News, a publication of the Priestly Society of St. Pius X: https://fsspx.news/en/news-events/news/poland-continuing-declinevocations-70359
On October 15, 2021, Fr. Piotr Kot, who has been president of the Conference of Rectors of Major Seminaries in Poland for a year, answered questions from the Polish Catholic agency KAI on the cause of the vocations crisis.
This year, 242 seminarians entered diocesan seminaries, and 114 candidates entered religious orders, for a total of 356 entries as opposed to 441 in 2020. This 20% drop recorded at the start of the academic year continues the trend of previous years.
For more than 12 years, the number of priestly vocations in Poland has shown a significant decrease. The entries were 498 in diocesan seminaries and religious orders in 2019, 828 in 2012, and 1078 in 2007. This is a decrease of two thirds in the last 15 years, as the Polish agency had already specified in 2020.
More than a vocation crisis, Fr. Kot is speaking about a crisis of the called, “for God has certainly not ceased to speak to the hearts of young people.” But those who hear the invitation to follow Him, “sometimes find themselves unworthy or incapable of such a life,” he explained.
The 46-year-old Polish priest points to a lack of suitable role models in the family home, early addictions, personality problems, as well as identity disorders. “Others hesitate to follow the call of a vocation because a negative image of the Church and the priesthood has been established around them.” In addition, he adds, young people in the modern world have strong individualistic tendencies. Career, self-realization, event culture, combined with hyper-individualism in the experience of faith makes it difficult to make the decision to sacrifice one’s life for others.
Poland’s success and prosperity since escaping communist control has also made Poland a far more attractive place for potential seminarians to stay. It is no longer necessary to flee Poland and come to America to enjoy freedom from religious repression or have a comfortable life. We had already reached a point where the clear majority of our seminarians were coming to us on the rebound from failing in other seminaries, never an auspicious history. We faced a choice of lowering our standards to unacceptable levels or acknowledging that not enough qualified candidates could be obtained to keep the Seminary populated. There were other factors too, including the declining demand for Polish speaking priests in American parishes. But the principal driver was the lack of qualified candidates, a problem plaguing seminaries everywhere and leading to many other seminary closures. The plan thoughtfully and sincerely conceived for saving the Seminary did not, in the view of the Regents, answer the question of how this daunting shortage of qualified applicants could be overcome in the foreseeable future – or ever.
Furthermore, even assuming that there was a supply of qualified candidates, the plan just did not provide for committed funding necessary to enable the Seminary to operate until it could be filled with seminarians, which in part was a result of the inability to truthfully tell potential donors that there was a source of qualified seminarians.
Why is the library being dismantled, and what is happening to the Polish book collection that is so important to our Polish heritage and historical record?
The first thing to recognize is that it is simply untrue that we are destroying, giving away, or otherwise disrespecting books of historical, religious, or monetary value. Thousands of dollars and hours have been invested over the years in protecting, curating, and maintaining our collections. But many of the books that people are concerned about are not part of the unique Polish heritage. They represent wholly out-of-date texts on secular subjects that have no remaining value in any context. Books and other written materials that reflect Polish history, culture, our religious traditions or that have collector value have been and are continuing to be preserved. The Polish Institute recently hired a new director with eminent qualifications with this as a primary goal. Accusations that the collection is being abused are just wrong. Pictures claiming to show the destruction of our collection date back more than a decade, a fact that was not disclosed by those circulating them.
The plan for our materials that do have value to our Polish community falls into three categories: materials useful for the education of priests and others, which have been donated to Sacred Heart and Madonna University; materials that do not have significant value as hardcopy material but that are being digitized so as to be preserved forever and made available to a wider audience over the Internet; and those materials that will be preserved in hardcopy form and maintained on-site by the Polish Institute.
In terms of the library itself, it was not a public library and has never been open for use by the public, Polish or not, to walk in and read or check out books. It was for the use of the seminarians, students at the Prep, and scholars that made advance appointments to use its resources. However, in the past ten years, the Prep students no longer used the library books, and the use by scholars dwindled to nothing. With the Seminary closed, the library would not have been used at all.
In fact, the library space will be fully used for the first time in years-the Polish Institute and the Prep will be sharing the facility and the Polish Institute will use it to host conferences, events, seminars and meetings.
Now you are destroying buildings that have been on campus for more than 100 years. Have you no respect for these historic buildings, or is it all about building a soulless prep building?
This new concern is for the “Victorian House”. The Orchard Lake Schools Board of Regents voted on June 22, 2022, to remove the abandoned Victorian House on the Orchard Lake Schools campus. We understand and empathize with those saddened by the removal of the home; in an abstract world with unlimited funds, a different decision might have been made. In reality, the Board of Regents was faced with a building that had not been used or occupied in over 50 years along with a crumbling and unrepairable infrastructure. Estimates from seven years ago to rehabilitate the building were far in excess of the cost to tear it down and build a new residence on the location-but then, as now, there is no valid need for this on campus. The lack of any potential use and the safety of our community and our 700+ students, as well as visitors, who occupy the campus daily, was at the forefront of our decision. Because those in charge 50 years ago when it was no longer used did not repurpose it (as we are doing with the library building) or arrange for it to be safely shuttered, the home had suffered from a damaged roof, partially collapsed interior floors, prolonged water damage, windows that did not work, animal infestation, and other significant structural issues that deemed the residence uninhabitable. The fact that this structure has been unused with no purpose or interest in rehabilitating it for five decades was a strong indication that the furtherance of our mission of educating youth, preserving our Polish heritage, culture and history, was not served by rehabilitating this building.
Are you making Orchard Lake less Polish?
The claim that the current Board of Regents is less Polish or does not care about the Orchard Lake School’s Polish history seems to be misinformation designed to cause a culture war between those that love Orchard Lake.
Since 2016, there have been 23 regents elected to the Board; of these, 15 of those are 100% Polish or were nominated by members of Polonia. For those of who that do not know or remember, our previous search for a Chancellor in 2016 had many turns and changes. In the end, a significant number of Polonia’s largest organizations and many influential individuals representing Polonia were invited by the Chairman to a special Board of Regents meeting. The Board patiently listened intently to their desires and reasoning and ultimately selected the candidate that those large Polonia organizations recommended.
At that same meeting, the Chairman invited members of Polonia to become board members and four new regents from Polonia were promptly elected without the customary interviews and vetting. Unfortunately, one of these regents ultimately had to be removed from the Board for cause.
As importantly, under the new leadership of Dr. John Radzilowski as Director and a new board led by Richard Walawender, the Polish Institute is finally supporting Polish culture and history as it was meant to do. After decades of inaction, the Galeria restoration, costing $1.5 million, is nearly complete, and the art and historical material is being both preserved and prepped for public viewing.
Are you making Orchard Lake less Catholic?
It is true that the Seminary has closed, but this does not make the Orchard Lake Schools less Catholic; it’s unfortunate when people make claims that are unquantifiable, however, that is often their intent.
We respect and recognize the concern for our Catholic identity. As a result of the Seminary closure, as noted above, a new division is being created, tentatively to be called the St. John Paul II Liturgical Center to ensure that the campus retains its deep Catholic spirituality while promoting further harmony in our faith. While the new entity has not yet been formally approved, we are already moving forward with its mission. Under the leadership of Fr. Witek, there are already more Masses said on campus than before (daily 7:00 Mass for example). Moreover, while some question the Catholicity of the Prep, the students there attend Mass more often than any other Catholic school in the area; most high schools have one Mass per month while our students are frequently attending Mass one to two times per week.
Every Prep student is also required to participate in religion class every day, and many other spiritual activities on and off campus are provided; the students spend over 20% of their educational time each week studying or actively engaging in the Catholic faith.
This strong commitment to the religious curriculum and weekly all-student masses is represented in the continuous rise of enrolled Catholics and is a key factor in our increased enrollment. However, we cannot and should not ignore non-Catholic youth. Our founder, Fr. Dabrowski, spent his early years as a priest witnessing and converting non-Catholic Native Americans in Wisconsin to the Catholic faith before coming to Detroit and founding the Orchard Lake Schools.
Why did the Orchard Lake Schools cancel the Polish Country fair?
Before the recent school tragedies, the Prep and the Moms and Dads Club would hire hundreds of Oakland County and Orchard Lake law enforcement personnel along with police dogs, horses, a mobile police command center, and fire and rescue services. We also had law enforcement officials monitoring social media for threats of violence which required investigations multiple times in recent years. Unfortunately, the fair was no longer a small family-friendly fundraising event for the school based on Polish traditions, but the largest school fair in the country. It would be nearly impossible to hold the fair without the 1,000+ student and family volunteers; requiring families to work the 20 mandated hours did not feel appropriate under the circumstances.
The decision to cancel the Fair reflected the recommendation and support of the Prep administration and Board of Trustees. Based on assessments with internal and external partners, such as local law enforcement and legal counsel, our evaluation was that the financial and safety risks had grown beyond acceptable levels. Regardless of the security measures, the risk of a shooting or other incident still existed, making it irresponsible to hold a large fair open to the public.
We recognize and sympathize with those attached to such a tradition for our local community; however, our first and driving priority is to do what is best for our students, their families and the Orchard Lake Schools communities.
This fall, we plan a new Polish Harvest event on October 1, 2022, and will welcome the Orchard Lake Schools’ families and supporters to campus to reinforce friendships and our commitment to our Polish heritage.
Please do not hesitate to let us know your questions and concerns. God bless you and thank for all you have done and still do for the Orchard Lake Schools.
THE ORCHARD LAKE SCHOOLS
Stephen M. Gross
Chairman, Board of Regents