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Dyngus Day celebrations combine religion and politics

Adriana Pratt | Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A day of indulgence takes over South Bend on Easter Monday, a celebration meant to both kick off the political season and mark the end of Lent. Polka music is played, kielbasa is eaten and Fr. Leonard Chrobot whips out his special multi-colored vest from Poland. Everybody is Polish on Dyngus Day.

“After Lent, it’s kind of a release, so everybody does crazy things,” Chrobot, pastor of St. Patrick’s and St. Hedwig’s Catholic churches in South Bend, said.

South Bend’s West Side Democratic and Civic Club will host the day’s primary event, which falls on April 9 this year. The club touts itself as the birthplace of Dyngus Day on its website. However, Dyngus celebrations date back more than a thousand years, commemorating the rise of Catholicism in Poland.

Traditionally, Dyngus Day celebrations involved boys dousing girls with water and rapping their legs with pussy willow branches to show their affection. Participants in Poland would attend Easter Monday Mass, then go out and feast.

Today in South Bend, the celebration is first and foremost centered on politics, not religion. However, Chrobot still plays an integral role in the day’s festivities, opening each year’s ceremony with a prayer.

“I believe people should have days for celebration,” Chrobot said. “It’s certainly part of our Catholic tradition, and certainly part of our Polish tradition. The Polish have a saying … ‘You should be able to dance and pray the rosary with equal zest.'”

South Bend celebrants often begin eating and drinking around 9 a.m., then gather to hear political speeches at the West Side Democratic and Civic Club at noon. Chrobot opens the ceremony with a Benedictionary prayer, then grabs a broom dipped in holy water to sprinkle attendees. He makes a point to hit the politicians and journalists, saying he wants to get rid of any devils in the room.

“I sprinkle them with the waters that we bless on Holy Saturday to chase out any evil spirits,” Chrobot said. “When President Clinton was involved with the sex scandal, I took some holy water to there and I think it was … [then-Indiana Sen.] Evan Bayh, I think said, ‘We’ll need much more water to bless the White House than this.'”

Chrobot also brings an Easter candle to the event and lights it, symbolically illuminating a world of darkness. After he opens the ceremony, candidates running for office are introduced. Governors and state officials attend, but the focus usually remains on those from northern Indiana and South Bend.

Other local celebrities are introduced and praised. Chrobot said the club especially enjoys acknowledging those who make the West Side proud.

“The West Side, it’s suffered a lot in the last 20 or 30 years, especially since the [1960s civil rights] riot. I mean, I grew up on the West Side, so I know it very well,” he said. “It was virtually all-Polish up until after the war. It was multi-ethnic, but the vast majority was Polish.

“All the stores down Western Avenue were Polish bakeries, Polish beauty shops, clothiers, all kinds of Polish shops. All of those are gone now.”

The West Side has a history of ethnic transition and tension, exemplified by the locations of the Irish St. Patrick’s parish founded in 1858 and the Polish St. Hedwig’s church built in 1877. Chrobot is pastor of both, and said their locations across the street from each other speak to a history of both pride and resentment.

“When [the Polish] came to this country, that language was so much a part of their identity,” Chrobot said. “Much more so than the Irish, who spoke English … They built their own churches. There are five Polish parishes in the area.

“There was antagonism between the [Polish and Irish]. The Irish looked down on the Poles because of the language. ‘Why don’t you speak English?’ ‘Well, because Polish is important to us.’ The separation, one priest used to refer to it as ‘the kielbasa curtain.'”

After World War II, Chrobot said Polish Americans returned home to find housing limited. New developments opened but quickly filled, resulting in a migration to the suburbs.  African Americans moved in and the demographic of the West Side shifted. It is once again in flux as the Hispanic community grows in the area.

A separation still exists between the various ethnicities around the city of South Bend. Chrobot said the West Side Democratic Club is shoulder-to-shoulder packed on Dyngus Day, but not usually with African Americans, who host their own event called “Solidarity Day.” Black clubs around the city open up and hold celebrations full of dancing.

“I went to the Solidarity Club,” Chrobot said. “And I walked in and I said, ‘Am I welcome here?’ Because there was a guy at the door, and he said, ‘About as welcome as I am in Mishawaka.'”

Chrobot said the comment was in jest, but there was truth to the sentiment. A folder sits in his office, stuffed with handwritten copies of Dyngus Day prayers. Usually, he said, they include words meant to relieve the ethnic tensions.

“There have been a lot of racial issues over the years,” Chrobot said. “Many of my prayers address that issue.”

A beacon of racial equality, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy once made a stop at South Bend’s Dyngus Day, putting it on the national map. The Easter Monday celebration became known for its politics and the day is now commonly associated with the Democratic Party of South Bend.

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Dyngus Day celebrations combine religion and politics

Marisa Iati | Wednesday, April 4, 2012

There is no St. Dyngus. But South Bend celebrates Dyngus Day the way the Irish observe St. Patrick’s Day, with crowds drawn to bars, restaurants and clubs for ethnic food, music and plenty of liquid refreshment.

Former St. Joseph County Democratic Chairman Owen D. “Butch” Morgan said South Bend’s Dyngus Day celebration on Easter Monday has been an opportunity for community members to meet candidates for local, state and national political offices since the 1930s.

“It allowed people who may not have access to the candidates an opportunity to [do so] now that they were going to be here at the [West Side Democratic and Civic] Club,” Morgan said. “I’m sure that the Club wasn’t the only place to have it, but if people wanted a chance to get out and see face-to-face the people that were running for office, then this was a chance to do that. It also gave a chance for people to wear buttons and show support for the candidates.”

Tim Hudak, president of the West Side Democratic and Civic Club, said Dyngus Day began as a Polish tradition to celebrate Easter Monday. Boys used to hit girls’ legs with pussy willow branches and splash water on them as ways of flirting.

“It was supposed to be fun, too … but it wasn’t fun for the girls, I guess,” Hudak said. “Here in the 1930s, we were having a little conflict with getting voters to the poll, and we decided there’s got to be some way how we can make this happen.”

Hudak said the Club’s staff decided to add political significance to Dyngus Day by inviting politicians to the Club to meet and speak to voters.

More than eight decades later, political candidates still visit the Club and other South Bend establishments on Dyngus Day to promote their platforms, Morgan said. He said the Club sells Polish food like kielbasa, as well as alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages to attendees.

Sophomore Kim Halstead, a South Bend native, said although she has never visited the Club on Dyngus Day, her Polish-American family celebrates the occasion like an extension of Easter.

“My mom’s side of the family is entirely Polish, so essentially all we do is eat more food,” Halstead said. “We always have a Polish-food Easter, with mashed potatoes and sausages and cabbage and green beans and other things. And we get dessert of paczkis from a Polish bakery downtown. Essentially for us, Dyngus Day is Easter’s second life.”

Morgan said candidates post campaign signs on the first floor of the Club, where they speak on Dyngus Day, as early as the morning of Good Friday. On the day of the event, he said most of the candidates and the media arrive at the Club around 11 a.m., but some arrive much earlier.

“One thing that’s really important is around 5 in the morning, some candidates and some media show up to watch Tim [Hudak] and the rest of his staff cook the food,” Morgan said.  

The political candidates speak on a small stage in front of a mural illustrating a 19th century Dyngus Day celebration. The Polish word “solidarnosc,” meaning “solidarity,” is inscribed at the top of the painting.

“We’re ‘solidarity’ on get out to vote,” Hudak said. “That’s our connection to ‘solidarnosc.'”

Morgan said political candidates know they will find the biggest Dyngus Day crowd in South Bend at the Club between 11 a.m. and 1:30 or 2 p.m.

“It’s just gospel,” he said. “There are 20 or 30 places in St. [Joseph] County that have really good Dyngus Day activities, but the mecca is right here.”

In the early 1970s, South Bend’s African-American community created Solidarity Day to interface with the Polish-American community, Morgan said. He said Solidarity Day is celebrated primarily at the South Bend Elks Lodge and is a different name for the same concept as Dyngus Day.

“It celebrates our diversity as a community and the fact that the black community works very hard with the rest of the community to promote good government and good candidates, and it has been a very big success since it started,” Morgan said.

Morgan said representatives from Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, including former President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea, came to the Club on Dyngus Day in 2008 while the candidates battled in Indiana’s Democratic primary. Several members of the Kennedy family also visited, some to support Clinton and others to support Obama.

“That particular Dyngus Day was a madhouse,” he said. “It gave a lot of publicity to the Club, but because of the Secret Service, it narrowed down the traffic that was coming through in buying food. It was great to have them here as far as building on the reputation and the aura of the Club, but that year we got hurt revenue-wise.”

Morgan said former U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy visited the Club on Dyngus Day in 1968 when he was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

“That crowd was unmatched,” Morgan said. “They always have a great crowd here, but that was just something totally different.”

Robert Kennedy was assassinated shortly after midnight June 5, 1968, less than two months after visiting the Club and less than one month after winning Indiana’s Democratic primary election.

This year, Morgan said gubernatorial candidate John Gregg, senatorial candidate Joe Donnelly and congressional candidate Brendan Mullen will be among the speakers at the April 9 event.

“While Dyngus Day is several months away from the fall [elections], you can start building momentum on Dyngus Day for the fall,” Morgan said. “It really serves multiple purposes for candidates to be here at the West Side.”

Morgan said Indiana’s right-to-work law, which Gov. Mitch Daniels signed in February, will be an important topic at this year’s Dyngus Day events. The law bans unions from collecting mandatory fees for representation.

“It’ll be like a ‘Remember the Alamo’ type thing,” Morgan said. “That’s how passionate the Democrats are to help enough people undo that law.”

Morgan said Republican political candidates can come to the Club on Dyngus Day if they pay the regular entrance fee.

“But this is the West Side Democratic Club,” he said. “They do not get access to the microphone … They don’t go up on stage and speak … They don’t put up signs.”

Dyngus Day is an opportunity to celebrate Christianity and give community members a chance to learn about candidates for political office, Morgan said.

“The Republicans usually have something at their headquarters,” he said. “Republicans and Democrats alike can get out and mingle with hundreds and thousands of voters … And I think economically for a lot of places, it’s a third or half of their budget that they can put together for the year.”