If you drive south over the high-rise bridge in Milwaukee and look out over the neighborhood, you'll see a great forest of church spires dominating the landscape.
Seventeen of these churches were built by working class Polish immigrants almost a century ago -- including St. Stanislaus, St. Josaphat Basilica and the small church of St. Helen at 3307 S. 10th St., deep in the heart of the now ethnically complex near South Side.
According to St. Helen's pastor Father Mike Ignaszak, the Archdiocese called them to be a tri-parish in 2005 with neighbors St. Alexander and St. John Kanty -- making their aggregate population over 4,300 and strengthening their Polish and Latino numbers.
Like many area congregations, St. Helen has a summer weekend festival. It competes against Summerfest the first weekend in July and features much of what you'd come to expect from such an event: a beer tent with Miller beer (and a Polish brew called Tyskie), games like 'turkey shoot,' a fish fry, a rib dinner, and a chicken dinner on successive days. The silent auction has grown popular with increased item values, and the big $1.00 per ticket raffle offers a chance to win a $1,500 grand prize.
What's unique, however, is the musical roster and the Sunday mass. Cue the oompah bassline.
Some years ago, St. Helen had followed the lead of many parishes and secular community festivals by bringing in a few of the ubiquitous cover bands that now dominate beer tent lineups -- the Toys, Mt. Olive, and Chasin' Mason. But then attendees begged the festival committee to bring back the 2/4-time music, the accordions and unbridled happiness for the whole weekend.
And so it was. Gone were blasting sounds of guitar licks, smacking drums and poor-versions of "Sweet Home Alabama." Here to stay was "In Heaven, There Is No Beer" and "zing boom tararral."
"Sometimes change isn't good," says marketing director Diane Miderski. "Bigger is not always better. It's not the biggest church festival in Milwaukee, but it has a good family spirit. People feel welcome."
"We are never going to grow to be as large as some of the other parish festivals, but that is okay," says Father Ignaszak. "We have not lost that sense of community that says to everyone that this festival is rooted in the life of the parish. We are different and that is part of our appeal."
You have to travel at least halfway across the State of Wisconsin to get this much free summertime polka action. Even Polish Fest, which actually celebrates a wider swath of traditional and modern Polish culture two week prior, is only seen as "ramping up" St. Helen's family reunion-like Polka festival, says Miderski.
"My parents still live there, but for the generations that left...I see a lot of people at the festival that I went to Catholic grade school with. There's a lot of people who come back just for this," says Miderski.
The highlight that draws the biggest crowd is the Sunday morning Polka Mass, again this year with the Goodtime Dutchmen. When Father Ignaszak first celebrated this mass, the service was capped off with the placing of a flower lei around the statue of St. Helen in the sanctuary.
But then the crowds swelled -- in 2006 attendance topped 500 -- and the congregation had to move the service to a huge tent. Attendees still spill out the sides. Nowadays they present flowers to an icon of their patroness and to pictures of departed parish volunteers who made the festival the toe-tapping success it is today.
The polka festival is even getting the interest of the Latino population that comprises a large part of the South Side and tri-parish congregations in modern times. They read the notices after Sunday's Spanish-speaking mass at St. Alexander in the tri-parish bulletin -- which features associate pastor Father Norberto Sandoval's column in both languages -- and can find the song and dance style strangely familiar.
"When I first came here, the people would ask me, 'Father, do you know how to dance the polka?'" recalls Father Sandoval. The Venezuelan-born priest was assigned to St. Helen on July 1, 2005 and was immediately thrown into his first polka festival under a flurry of interest.
"Oh yeah, I said. And I would dance the polka. Everyone's like, 'How do you know?' But c'mon, that kind of music is universal."
Polka music has its beginnings as a 19th-century bohemian folk dance before it spread across ballrooms in Europe and the Americas. Tejano folk singers adopted the accordion and significant influences of polka into a form called "Norteño."
"There's a kind of singular rhythm or melody that's like, hey, that could be a polka," says Father Sandoval.
Another nod to the shared Hispanic culture is a featured booth run once again by Sofia Fuentes and her husband. She makes the guacamole and steak fajitas on Saturday from her own recipes, and she is constantly surrounded by all ethnicities seeking the highly-praised taste.
Later in the summer, on Aug. 5, the Latino devout get their own unique form of participation during a one-day festival celebrating St. John Kanty's, 966 W. Dakota St., 101-year parish anniversary. Inside the second church built in 1955, under mosaics of both the Polish icon Black Madonna of Czestochowa and Mexican icon Our Lady of Guadalupe, a mariachi band will perform the music at the mass. A summer festival then follows with a mix of bands (including polka), events, and foods.
For all the participants involved in a boisterous reel under the tent at St. Helen in July, Miderski jokes that it's the one place in summer not involving a wedding that you can hear polka music. But she also realizes the sentiment it brings.
"It reminds me of my grandfather, and my father. It's the first dance I learned, and the polka really is a memory that I can keep going."
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