Take a walk along the riverfront park in Little Rock. There are playgrounds, trails, benches. Here and there, you’ll come across a plaque commemorating something like the Union seizure of the city in the Civil War or the eponymous “little rock” jutting out into the Arkansas River. One thing that has always stuck out in this park is the bronze bust situated alongside the plaza explaining the history of Arkansas.
It’s of a man wearing a splendid 18th century military uniform. Adorned with epaulettes, the gentleman’s face conveys a sense of gravity and conviction, although his extraordinarily broad chest is no doubt a testament to personal strength. He is Casimir Pulaski: Polish nobleman, commander, soldier, father of American cavalry and namesake for Pulaski county.
Pulaski’s name is synonymous with the Polish immigrant community in America. In Illinois and parts of Wisconsin, where a day celebrating his legacy and that of the Polonia in the Midwest. What may surprise many, though, is that there is a small segment of the Polish diaspora here in Arkansas.
North of Little Rock, situated on the outskirts of Camp Robinson, sits Marche. An unincorporated community, it is the spiritual heart of the Polish community in Arkansas.
The story of Marche goes back to the immediate years following the Civil War. In the early 1870s, a federal judge named Liberty Bartlett tried to found a town adjacent to a railroad line that ran close to where AR 365 is today. The project never caught on, and the 11,000 acres was soon put up for sale again. When it was purchased again, it was by a Polish count, Timothy von Choinski who immediately named the area Marche, French for “market.” In May 1877, the first group of settlers arrived to settle the area along with von Choinski.
It was in 1878 that the most lasting vestige of the Polish influence, the Catholic Church, was built. Father Anthony Jaworski, a member of the Holy Ghost order of priests, established a wooden church on a hill that came to be called Jasna Gora, after one of the most famous shrines in Poland. The Church was replaced by a larger building in 1896, until it burned down in the 1930s. By the time its successor building was consecrated, World War II was looming on the horizon and the expansion of nearby Camp Robinson cut down on the population of Marche, forcing many to relocate to Little Rock proper.
Today, Marche still is the center of the Polish heart and soul in Arkansas. The Immaculate Heart of Mary Church still celebrates Karnawal, the Polish celebration of the beginning of the Lenten season, and has expanded over the years. A larger parochial school now serves the area, and the church itself is one of the more active portions of the Diocese of Little Rock. The Arkansas Polonia has put down long, lasting roots in the county named for the most famous Polish-American.
Image Credit: Diocese of Little Rock, 2009
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