by Veronica Szczygiel
“Father Jerzy Popiełuszko was a special man,” my grandmother said as she poured me tea. “He gave up his life for Poland. For our freedom.” She shook her head solemnly. “The way they murdered him was…” But she couldn’t finish her sentence. Her grief for Popiełuszko’s death is still fresh in her memory. And she isn’t alone. For my grandmother and her fellow parishioners at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, Greenpoint, Father Jerzy Popiełuszko was a living saint whose martyrdom helped make history.
Father Popiełuszko (1947-1984) faced many hardships in his life, including weakening health and a difficult military service, where he was beaten several times for being a Christian. But he was never deterred from living out the Gospel. He is most revered for his ministry to Polish workers, especially during the Solidarity movement, whose aim was to ensure the basic human rights of Polish citizens and to gain independence from the Soviet regime. He celebrated a Mass on the last Sunday of every month for the freedom of Poland, which became so popular that it drew crowds of 20,000 people. During the years of Solidarity, he cared for workers sent to Communist prison camps and for their children. He even sat in on hearings of workers who were being tried for protesting martial law. Truly, he was a priest for the regular, working-class citizen.
But being a people’s priest during the Communist regime had severe consequences. On Oct. 19, 1984, three agents of the secret police captured Popiełuszko as he was on the way home from celebrating Mass. They brutally beat him, strangled him, and, weighing his body down with a boulder, threw him into the Vistula River. The priest’s death shocked the nation. Many people like my grandmother believe that his death helped usher in the downfall of communism in Poland.
His martyrdom did not go unnoticed. He became Blessed Father Popiełuszko in 2000. And 10 years earlier, in 1990, a monument to the priest was erected here in Greenpoint. Not long after this dedication, an unknown person vandalized his statue, stealing the granite head. The original head was ultimately found, but instead of being placed back on the statue, it was given to St. Stanislaus Kostka parish. The artist created a duplicate head for the monument, proving that, just as Father Popiełuszko proclaimed, evil can only be overcome with good.
St. Stan’s not only houses the original statue head but also relics of the priest that inspire parishioners to turn to their beloved martyr in times of need. One parishioner prayed to him for healing within her divided family, and in fact, peace did come. Another parishioner believes he interceded to help her overcome alcoholism and find a job. These parishioners are hard-working laborers, the kind of people that Father Popiełuszko loved and cared for during his lifetime. Perhaps he has not stopped caring for them.
Recently, one of St. Stan’s priests, Father Lawrenz asked Father Popiełuszko for beautiful weather on the day of the parish picnic, for it had been thundering for several days beforehand. Despite the streak of rain, the sun appeared, making the picnic a success. Maybe it wasn’t a miracle, but it certainly was an answered prayer.