One hundred and seven years ago, a delegation of Amsterdam men, all of them natives of Poland, called on Father Anton Gorski the Pastor of St. Stanislaus, the city’s first Roman Catholic Church for people of Polish descent. It was not a social call. Quite the contrary, the men were there seeking Gorski’s permission and blessing to create a second church for the segment of Amsterdam’s Polish families who had congregated several blocks north of St. Stan’s, Reid Hill neighborhood. An angry Gorski gave them neither. Undeterred, the delegation then approached the Bishop of Albany, Thomas Burke, who was most gracious and receptive to their request. He did give them permission to begin the process of forming a new parish along with instructions on how to do so, but he also cautioned the men to proceed carefully and not get ahead of themselves.
Filled with enthusiasm, the delegation returned to Amsterdam and as Bishop Burke instructed, formed a committee to find a building site for the new church, a rectory and a school. They selected four lots on Van Derveer Street and proceeded with a fundraising campaign to build the new house of worship, which was to be christened St John the Baptist. A total of 48 families had expressed an interest in joining the new parish but back in 1909, the average salary in Amsterdam was only about $8 per week. Despite that, the first $1,600 was raised relatively quickly. But the antagonism from the parishioners of St. Stans proved to be an intimidating and divisive force and with no counterweight to the influential Father Gorski, the committees’s fundraising and recruitment efforts stalled. So in September of 1909, they went back to Albany and asked Bishop Burke to appoint a priest for their new church. The Bishop had none available to give them but he promised he would do so when a new group of young men were ordained the following June.
True to his word, on June 2, 1910, today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant was brought to Amsterdam by Burke’s assistant and introduced to the St. John’s committee as the new pastor of their new church. The Reverend Peter Nowak would spend the next half century, making St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church a spiritual bedrock of Amsterdam.
Born in Koscina, Poland on May 24, 1883, he studied for the priesthood in Belgium and was ordained on July 12, 1908, celebrating his first mass in his hometown parish. His older brother, Father Stanislaus Nowak was already a priest and already in New York and he had told Bishop Burke about his younger brother’s ordination. Burke quickly sent the younger Nowak an invitation to join the Albany Diocese. It was just as quickly accepted and Nowak boarded a ship and sailed for America. The young priest spent a few months getting acclimated to the US at a Schenectady parish. Burke then sent him to Granville, NY to organize a new church there. One year later he came to Amsterdam to begin his long and illustrious career at St. John’s.
The committee had been right. Their floundering church had needed a priest and leader to legitimize their efforts and Nowak would do much more than that. Within two years, the impressive white brick structure with its trademark double-steeples rising 137 feet above VanDerveer Street, opened its doors for the first time. A new rectory was finished by 1917. Both buildings were completely paid for by 1926. Nowak’s flock then built a convent on Milton Avenue for the parish’s Nuns and in 1929, purchased 16 acres of land and built a cemetery and a chapel off of Widow Susan Road.
He oversaw the formation of several societies for both the men and women of his parish and a church choir. He also served on the advisory board of St. Mary’s Hospital and for many years was also that health care facility’s chaplain. He truly did for St. John’s what Father Gorski had done for St. Stan’s and was rewarded for his effective stewardship by Pope Pius XII in 1955, when he was elevated to the position of Monsignor.
In early February of 1960, the then 76 year-old Nowak entered St. Mary’s Hospital and underwent abdominal surgery. He died one week later on February 17 just a few months shy of his 50th anniversary as pastor of his beloved St. John the Baptist. The Church would continue in operation until February 25, 2009, when it was closed by the Albany Diocese.