In 1887, twenty-five year old Sister Maria Franciszka moved to the Polish city of Płock and with five other nuns formed a Roman Catholic religious order. She emerged as the leader of the little group, which performed works of charity and venerated the Eucharist.
Six years later, Sister Maria experienced a divine revelation. She claimed that the voice of Christ warned her of the sins of the clergy and that to rescue it and the world, she should establish a congregation called the Mariavites. The name comes from the Latin Maria Vitae, or Life of Mary. This movement was to venerate the Blessed Virgin and be under her protection.
Through her devotion and charisma, Sister Maria was able to recruit a large group of disaffected priests and nuns to her new order. One especially, Father Jan Kowalski, became her most trusted associate. The priests who visited Mateczka, or Little Mother, as the Sister came to be known, and accepted her Mariavite teachings, spread them to their parishes when they returned to them. In 1903, the Mariavites decided to seek formal recognition of their order by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. But Pope Pius X rejected their petitions and ordered the Mariavites to disband. They refused, were excommunicated and in 1906 formed their own separate denomination, the Mariavite Church.
This new Church was officially recognized by the Russian authorities in occupied Poland. Mariavite priests had taken their whole congregations with them and they numbered about 50,000 souls. In 1909, the Mariavites joined the Old Catholic Union of Utrecht in Holland, and Father Kowalski was consecrated a bishop. The Church grew rapidly, reaching 150,000 members within a few years. The Mariavites opened schools, a college, orphanages, a publishing house and businesses to employ and serve the poor. A temple, or cathedral, was built in Płock.
After the Little Mother's death in 1921, Bishop Kowalski became the leader of the Mariavites. At the time the denomination had 100,000 members, 150 churches and chapels and 25 schools. The Bishop made many changes within the Church that distinguished it from Roman Catholicism, such as communion for infants and de-emphasizing Lenten rituals. Already using the Polish liturgy, it began allowing the marriage of clergy and nuns, and ordination of women. These innovations caused dissension within the Church.
Bishop Kowalski wanted acceptance from other Christian denominations and to this end he sought cooperation with the American-born Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC). He even proposed a union between the two. But the PNCC ultimately could not accept many of the Mariavite practices, especially women clergy, and Bishop Kowalski was jealous of the PNCC's Prime Bishop Hodur, whom he saw as a rival. Female priests were not tolerated by the Old Catholic Union either, and the Mariavites were expelled from that group in 1924.
In 1930, at the suggestion of a former PNCC priest, two Mariavite bishops visited Philadelphia on missionary work to establish the Church in America. Neither of the bishops knew English and not much was accomplished. They met play wright Eugene O'Neill but apparently made no converts. They preached in Polish to puzzled African Americans and found a Negro boy who was willing to come back to Poland with them. But that plan fell through, spoiling their hopes for a showcase black Mariavite for the world to see.
After WW I when Poland gained independence, the Mariavites were a persecuted minority. The clergy and faithful were verbally and physically assaulted by other Poles, their property vandalized. But the real damage to the Church came from within.
Beginning in 1924, Bishop Kowalski sanctioned, encouraged and ordered secret mystical marriages between priests and nuns. He believed that these unions were literally made in heaven, and that children produced from them would be free of original sin and form the nucleus of a race that would be the salvation of the world. The Bishop personally chose wives for his clergymen and himself from among his nuns and female priests. He allowed polygamy, so some of the men had multiple wives. What's more, he ordered each prospective bride to be "initiated" by him before marrying. This was all an understanding between him and God, he piously told those involved.
It was not long before nasty rumors started circulating, especially after some of the priests and nuns involved in the mystical marriages became disillusioned and left the Mariavites. In 1928, Bishop Kowalski was put on trial and convicted of sexual offenses against underage girls. The sensational court proceedings drew international attention. A year later the Bishop was found guilty of blasphemy against the Roman Catholic Church, a civil crime in Poland at that time. He served eighteen months in prison.
By 1935, the Mariavites were thoroughly disillusioned by Kowalski. The revelations that had come out in court caused a split in the Church. He was removed as head and a new leader was installed at the Płock temple. Most of the changes instituted by the old bishop were rescinded. A small minority stayed loyal to Kowalski and retreated to a rural Mariavite compound in Felicjanów outside Płock.
Like most religious denominations in Poland, World War II was devastating to the Mariavites, and Bishop Kowalski was murdered by the Germans. Yet they survived that ordeal and communism as well. Today, the main denomination with its headquarters in Płock is called the Old Catholic Church of the Mariavites, having been reconciled with the Old Catholics. It has about 25,000 members and a 5,000 member branch in France. The Felicjanów group is called the Catholic Church of the Mariavites with about 2,000 adherents. There is a small Mariavite Church in Germany not affiliated with the Polish groups, and in the U.S. there is the unaffiliated Mariavite Old Catholic Church based in Wyandotte, Michigan, but not much is known about it.
In recent decades the Roman Catholic Church and Old Catholic Mariavites have reached out to each other in a spirit of reconciliation. The Little Mother has been recognized as a woman of great holiness by the Roman Church, and in the 1980s a Mariavite priest said a mass in Pope John Paul the Great's private chapel.
Written by Martin S. Nowak. The article was published originally in Polish-American Journal
Read more articles about sects/denominations history in Poland:
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Poland by Teresa Czerniewics-Umer, Malgorzata Omilanowska, Jerzy S. Majewski, DK Travel Writers
The Rough Guide to Poland by Mark Salter, Jonathan Bousfield