JEFFERSON PARK — The Copernicus Foundation has been the epicenter of Chicago’s Polish community for half a century, honoring important Poles and launching a cultural center visited by two U.S. presidents and Pope John Paul II.
Now, two Polish Americans are cataloguing all of that history in a book to honor the people who created the city’s Polish community and help younger generations stay connected to their ancestral homeland.
“The Fulfillment of the Dream” by Joseph Barnas and Alina Bosak contains historical photos, old newspaper articles and testimonies from people from all over the United States who shared how the foundation and Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave., impacted their lives.
The book is being edited, and the authors hope it will be published in a few months.
“This book will be a testament to what can be done when a group of people with a common heritage and a common interest in sustaining their ethnic background can do when they get together and work towards that common goal,” Bosak said. “That’s why this was named ‘Fulfillment of a Dream,’ because that’s what it was back then — their dream in the ’70s was to sustain this culture and make sure that it stays for decades to come in Chicago.”
The Foundation’s History
The roots of the Copernicus Foundation start in 1970. City leaders offered to install a statue of Nicolaus Copernicus, a world-renowned Polish scientist and astronomer, at the entrance to the Adler Planetarium to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his birth.
The project raised more than $300,000. The statue was dedicated in 1973 at no cost to the city.
The Copernicus Foundation’s founding board members searched for a permanent site to house a Polish cultural center in Chicago, said local historian Susanna Ernst, president of the Northwest Chicago Historical Society.
In 1979, the foundation bought the old Gateway Theater building near Milwaukee and Lawrence avenues, where the Copernicus Center sits today. They used extra money from the funds raised for the statue.
The historical portion of the building housed the first movie theater in Chicago built exclusively for “talkies” — movies with sound that emerged in late 1927, Ernst said.
“It was kind of a new thing to build a theater that was specifically for sound movies,” Ernst said of the Gateway Theater’s start. “We want to commend the foundation for their preservation of the Gateway Theater and ensuring the community has that for all posterity.”
The 1,852-seat theater is now the Mitchell Kobelinski Theater, named for one the foundation’s original board members who spearheaded its modernization.
The historical theater is a stop on the Open House Chicago architectural tour and has hosted hundreds of cultural events, performances, lectures and shows. Former presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama hosted events at the theater. Members and neighbors fondly remember when Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pope, drove by the center from O’Hare airport in 1979.
At the time, Chicago was home to the largest Polish population in the world outside of Warsaw.
“When they found out he was coming to Chicago, the Polish community came out and was waiting at our central parking lot, and they painted a huge mural of the pope so that when he drove by, he would see it,” Bosak said.
The foundation and center have grown their traditions and celebrations over the years.
The group also hosts the hugely popular Taste of Polonia Festival, the annual celebration of the best of Polish cuisine and culture since 1980. It has grown to be the largest Polish festival in the country, with more than 35,000 attendees per year, and it is covered significantly in the book, its authors said.
Barnas and Bosak started gathering materials for the book last year, in hopes of having it finished in time for the foundation’s 50th anniversary this month. The pandemic delayed those plans.
The authors, who grew up Jefferson Park, said being history buffs who speak Polish was critical as they began their research.
Barnas, who is a freelance journalist and writer, said he did most of the writing while Bosak, who grew up attending events at the Copernicus Center and is a longtime member, interviewed current and former board members, dug through archives and managed the project. The two also used information from the city’s archival library when possible.
“We found old photos lying around and past events that no one had heard of and pictures of people that we didn’t even know who they were, so it took a lot of investigation,” Bosak said.
Kamila Sumelka, executive director of the Copernicus Foundation, said it’s been “amazing” to see the testimonies and photos received from all over the country that capture the spirit of the foundation.
“We have been really lucky to receive some great stuff,” Sumelka said. “Our archives are small, so we are trying to grow them” with the book.
Ernst said the foundation’s milestone anniversary is a reminder of how important the organization and center are for the Northwest Side.
“It’s a big draw, not only for the Polish community but for other communities, too. It’s great to have a huge cultural center here in Jefferson Park — there’s not a lot of things here,” she said.
Sumelka, who has been involved with the foundation for 10 years, said the center is her second home.
“For me, this place is a legacy,” she said. “I would like my daughter in 20 years to come here and say, ‘Yes, my mom used to work here.’ There is nothing else like the Copernicus Center.”
Barnas said he wants the book to serve as a cultural connection for newer generations who might not have strong ties to Poland, especially as Chicago’s Polish community has diminished over the past 50 years.
“There’s a certain sense in which passing on that history of the Polish community here in Chicago is really important,” he said. “But it’s also [about] showing future generations and the generation currently what a central impact this organization has had on the development of the community and the experiences of immigrants.”
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