In 1988, Salem Maritime National Historic Site acquired St. Joseph Hall, and thus became the steward of an important piece of Salem’s Polish community history. Between 2007 and 2009, the site sponsored a study of Poles in Salem, with a particular focus on the Derby Street neighborhood that surrounds Salem Maritime.
The information on these pages is excerpted from oral history interviews with some members of the community and the final report from the project, In the Heart of Polish Salem: An Ethnohistorical Study of St. Joseph Hall and Its Neighborhood.
The St. Joseph Society and St. Joseph Hall
The Society was instrumental in the founding of a Polish Catholic Church in the city, as well as supporting cultural, political, and sports activities, providing space for meetings and social events, and renting apartments on the top floor to those in need of housing. As a mutual assistance organization, it also offered life insurance (and, in its early years, health benefits through the Society's doctor) to its members. The St. Joseph Society and its Hall thus played many roles in helping Polish immigrants and their children adjust to life in the United States and creating a shared sense of ethnic and community identity.
Derby Street: Salem’s Polish Neighborhood
Polish Salem was a much smaller settlement than those in the Midwest (particularly in Chicago), Boston, or other Massachusetts cities. But regional, national, and transnational politics and culture were reflected in Salem's local organizations, along with the specific culture of this small New England maritime city. Learn more about some of these organizations and institutions by visiting:
Among the early leaders and members of the St. Joseph Society were Teofil Bartnicki, Wladyslaw Sobocinski, and Herman Tyburc. Read more about their stories to learn where Poles were migrating from and why.
Next door to St. Joseph Hall was a store built and owned by Polish immigrant Joseph Kohn, who lived above the storefront with his family. Joseph and his wife Hedwiga, were among a new generation of leaders in Polish Salem in the 1920s and later. The neighbors also included the family of Mary Nowak, who came to Salem as a small child and lived here for nearly 100 years. Mary's story includes memories of the 1914 Salem fire, work in Salem's leather and textile industries, and Polish "high culture" in the Chopin Choral Society.
The End of an Era and a New Beginning
In the Heart of Polish Salem
Between 2007 and 2009, Salem Maritime National Historic Site sponsored a study of Poles in Salem, with a particular focus on the Derby Street neighborhood.
The study was designed to help the park better understand that history and to strengthen the ongoing connection with people for whom St. Joseph Hall and the Derby Street neighborhood are a part of their sense of cultural identity. With support from the National Park Service's Ethnography Program, researchers for the study interviewed community members about their memories of the neighborhood, studied materials in archives, museums, and library collections, and pieced together an ethnohistorical account of Polish Salem from the 1870s to the present day.
Last updated: February 17, 2021