Catholic Heritage Blog

Archive of the Month: Catholic Lay Support for Polish Exiles after the Second World War (Ushaw College Archives)

(The following is an abridged version of a recently published article by the author entitled 'Lay Catholic support for exiled Polish intellectuals in Britain, 1942-1962.', Downside Review, vol. 135 (4), pp. 199-222.)

In recent years, Durham University’s involvement in Ushaw College Library has included the acquisition of a number of twentieth-century Catholic lay society archives. Probably the most influential of these societies was (and still is) the Newman Association. This organisation was established as a graduate society for both laity and clergy, developing out of a student organisation, the University Catholic Societies Federation. It was heavily influenced by John Henry Newman’s concept of an educated laity and its active involvement in the Catholic Church and the wider society. The Newman Association’s work with Polish exiles illustrates the way in which the archives of Catholic lay societies tell the story of a largely forgotten chapter of Catholic history, as well as highlighting their potential as a rich resource for the development of a confident and active Catholic lay middle-class during the mid-twentieth century.

From the its very inception, international events were high on the agenda of the Newman Association, beginning with a meeting of an ‘international committee’ on 5 October 1941, formalised a year later in the drawing up of a constitution for the organisation. In February 1943, the Association responded to a request by the Government to set up ‘a body of voluntary organisations interested in material and moral relief in post-war Europe’. It was, however, the plight of Polish Catholic exiles, fleeing the persecution of the Soviet-controlled Communist regime in their home country, which became a major cause for international effort. The Association’s support for Polish exiles was influenced by a number of factors, including the role of Catholic social teaching in aiding migrants; an affinity towards the highly-educated and largely professional Polish Catholic migrant community; the Catholic Church’s historic antipathy towards Communism; and the influence of European federalism on post-war international relations and Christian thought. It was just one of several organisations, lay Catholic and non-Catholic, whose aim was to assist in post-war European reconstruction. With its influential backing and professional contacts, the Newman was often in the vanguard of co-operative initiatives in this regard. For example, it worked closely with the Anglo-Polish Catholic Society and the Catholic Council for Polish Welfare, in matters affecting Polish relief. The Association was also represented on governmental boards, such as the Central European Affairs Committee and actively assisted with the British Committee of the Assisted Displaced Persons adoption scheme, offering their services as translators.

It was the Newman Association’s own initiatives, however, which were particularly appreciated by the Polish community. Perhaps the most important of these was the establishment of the ‘Newman Centre’ in London. This Centre provided a focal point of support for exiled Central and Eastern Europeans, as well as an international hub for overseas visitors. Cultural activities centred around international lecture-discussion meetings and conferences which included a range of respected international speakers lecturing on a variety of topics, as well as monthly ‘parliamentary evening’ meetings, with lectures on the situation in Central and Eastern Europe, and particularly Poland, remaining a popular choice of topic throughout the late 1940s and 1950s. An essential element of life at the Newman Centre was its social aspect for exiles from different countries. These ‘casual meetings’ allowed the opportunity for people to form friendships and for networks to develop. In 1955, the ‘At Home’ aspect of the Sunday afternoon meetings was further expanded ‘to give Newman members and visitors from abroad the opportunity to meet one another’. This included the hosting of three large receptions during the year for members of Central and Eastern European countries, as well as students and graduates from Africa and Asia.

As well as providing a cultural hub for the Polish Catholic intellectual community, the Newman Association assisted those students unable to take their degrees in their home country because of the suppression of Polish universities by the communist government. In 1946, the Association decided to set up a programme to help fund scholarships for undergraduate and postgraduate students to undertake a course at a British university, as well as aiding Polish graduates seeking employment in Britain. This educational assistance programme faced notable difficulties from the outset in post-war Britain. British universities were overcrowded, and Central and Eastern European exiles were required to compete for university places with British servicemen returning from overseas, so the Association worked with influential figures within the universities to ring-fence places for Polish exiles. The initiative was particularly popular with Irish institutions, such as University College, Cork and University College, Dublin. Indeed, at one stage, 150 Polish students had been accepted onto courses at Irish universities alongside official grants totalling over £100,000.

By the late 1950s, the political situation in Eastern Europe was beginning to improve slowly and the Newman Association found other ways of supporting Polish intellectuals, such as facilitating tours to and from Poland, including a 3-week study tour of Britain for a Polish group, the Klub Intelligencji Katolickiej (Warsaw Club of Catholic Intellectuals). Similarly, the Association was instrumental in providing essential material gifts for the Catholic University of Lublin, including books and equipment for a canteen, equipment that would have been impossible to buy domestically in the Soviet-controlled State.

By the early 1960s, the Newman Association scaled back its aid programme to exiles. The international lay Catholic organisation, Pax Romana, gradually subsumed the Association’s work when it formed a co-ordinating committee of Pax Romana Exiles Federations in October 1961. The objects of this committee included ‘The extension of the work of each national exile federation within the framework of Pax Romana’. Although the Newman Association (and the Union of Catholic Students) was to have representation on this committee, the Association appeared to hand over direct responsibility to Pax Romana in this area of their work.

Jonathan Bush

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