Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 11, 2005
Local Polish community mourns
Compatriots gather to pray in their beloved pope's own language
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
The death of Pope John Paul II has been felt deeply by all Catholics but has hit especially hard the late pontiff's local compatriots.
"Many people cried when he passed away, including me," said Oblate Father Roman Majek, pastor of Holy Rosary Parish. "Even though we knew this day would inevitably come, still it was a blow to us. Like all the faithful people of the world we are deeply saddened and feel like orphans for he was like a member of our family, someone so close to us and so important."
Members of the Polish Catholic community gathered at churches April 3 to pay homage to the extraordinary pope in their own language. People placed flowers in front of a large portrait of the pontiff at Holy Rosary.
Some members of the congregation sobbed openly when Majek spoke about the meaning of John Paul's pontificate to the Polish people and to the world.
Maria Wojcik dried tears from her eyes several times during the Mass. "This is so sad," she said following the celebration. "I was in Krakow in 1978 when he was chosen. Then I visited him again in Italy in 1989 and I held his hand. He blessed my son also. I was so close to him. I'll never forget that."
The people's pope
Unlike other popes in history, John Paul was the people's pope, Wojcik said. "He was an incredible human being. Before him we knew the pope was there but nobody had seen him. This one opened the Church to everybody."
Richard Bielecki only had a glimpse of the pope when he visited Edmonton in 1984 but he still cherishes the memory. "I was really touched by his charisma and his energy when he was here," he recalled. "His image will always be with me till the end."
Much like the rest of the world, Bielecki followed John Paul's agony on TV for the last two days "and finally when it happened I was tremendously shocked," he said. "I'll remember the pope as a very, very generous man who tried to help everybody, especially the poor people. He is the person that tried to bring everybody, every religion together. There were no barriers for him. I guess he was a real messenger from God."
"He was a great personality, a great father who took care of all people in the world," said Boleslan Holik as he arrived at Holy Rosary with his family for Mass.
"He made no distinction of race or nationality; the best picture of that are his travels all around the world to meet everybody. I'm just very, very proud he is one of us."
Janina and Walter Bereznicki, who arrived from Poland in 1957, met Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow in a private Edmonton home in the mid-1960s before he became Pope John Paul II. The Canadian Polish Congress had invited him to the city to help mark the millennium of Christianity in Poland.
"He was marvellous (during the visit)," recalled Janina. "He was joking. He was singing. He was just one of us. He was a wonderful man, very approachable and he loved children. We had lots of children in our family and he talked to every one of them."
Walter realized at the time he was in the presence of a "great man," although he never thought he would become pope. "There was something about him; he had an aura of holiness; he smiled for everybody and he cared for everybody."
When Wojtyla was chosen pope in 1978, the Bereznickis were elated. "You just can't describe the joy that you know this man, that you shook hands with him and he is a pope," Janina said. "The fact he was Polish was the greatest honour for us. And he was one of the people who brought the communists down in Poland; that was a big thing for us."
Ray and Jadwiga Pierzchajlo, who immigrated to Canada in 1949, also met Wojtyla during his mid-1960s visit to Edmonton. They recalled an evening Mass at St. Joseph's Basilica, where the cardinal blessed the Pierzchajlo family, and a reception at the Polish Hall where everybody mingled with the pope-to-be.
"He talked to us; we even took pictures together," noted Jadwiga, a retired teacher.
"When I look back at that time, he already looked to me like a holy man and when he became pope I thought he was the right person," said Ray, also a former teacher. "We as Polish people are absolutely proud of him. His death is a great loss to all of us."
Jadwiga said John Paul's greatest contribution to the Polish nation was liberating the country from communism and keeping the spirit of its people high. The pope also expanded the Church globally "by visiting not only the white people but also other races (and nations) in Africa and Asia," she noted. "I feel it's great he recognized the value of other races, not just the white race."
The Pierzchajlos went to Our Lady Queen of Poland Church early Sunday morning to pray for the repose of the pope's soul.
Helena Czarnecka, also a member of Our Lady Queen of Poland Parish, started mingling with the future pope 45 years ago in Zawoja, Poland, when he would visit the youth group she belonged to.
"For us he was like a wise man," Czarnecka recalls. "As young people we had many questions about life, about evangelization and we wanted to ask; and he tried to explain things to us. He gave direction to our lives. And he would always tell us the truth. We were convinced about it because we thought he had a direct connection with God."
When she learned Wojtyla had been elected pope, "It was the greatest feeling. We simply ran to the church and we started to pray and to sing. It was an incredible happiness."
Czarnecka, who came to Canada in 1987, visited the pope in Rome two years ago. "He not only helped Polish people to be liberated from communism but also from sin, like the sin of materialism," she said. "He helped the nation to understand that the most important thing is God and not materialist life on earth."
The pope's death made Czarnecka reflect on the reality of life and death. "It made me realize that life is not forever, even for the Holy Father," she said. "If we want to meet God in our future life we have to be awake right now. Pope John Paul is a model of life not only for Polish people but for everybody - how to live, how to pass away."
A great person
Majek, the Holy Rosary pastor, still remembers when Wojtyla would visit his parish in the Polish city of Koden. "You certainly noticed he was a great person, a great leader of the Church," he recalled. "However, we never envisioned he would become a pope."
When the cardinal was indeed chosen as pope in 1978, Majek was in his final years of studies for the priesthood. He and his fellow seminarians were having supper when they learned the news. "There was an explosion of joy among us," he recalled. "It was incredible."
Majek, who was ordained in 1979 and came to Canada in 1987, described John Paul as "a man of vision and a great spiritual leader who knew what was good for us and the Church."
While the priest takes great pride in the fact the pope is Polish he says his heritage is not that important. "What made him really great is the fact he was the pope for everybody."
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