On the trail of Polish peacemaker

Saturday, April 29, 2017 - Updated: 9:00 am
By William Cone Editor

As a peace and justice advocate, Judith Kelly was drawn to the story of Father Jerzy Popieluszko. The priest preached nonviolence amid harassment and threats during the Solidarity freedom movement in Poland, but was kidnapped and killed by the secret police at age 37 in 1984.

What appealed to her most as an American — enough for her to undertake a book about Father Jerzy’s life — was his multiple trips to the United States and Canada. Many movies and books had been written about the priest-martyr, but she said no one had fully researched his connections to the U.S.

On Kelly’s first visit to Poland in 1995, during which she looked for members of her own family, she learned about Father Jerzy (YEH-zheh) Popieluszko (Poh-pyeh-WOOSH-koh) and his valiant struggle to lift up millions of Poles who were being weighed down by communist oppression.

"He did these ‘Masses for the Country’ that gave hope to people when they were crushed by martial law," said Kelly, who spoke recently about her book "Just Call Me Jerzy" at several parishes and other venues in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. "They just felt like we’re never going to get out from under this, and they’ve arrested all of these activists, and this isn’t going to be easy at all.

"He was the one who really put all of what they were thinking into words and spoke very, very clearly, and used the words of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal (Stefan) Wyszynski, another great Polish cleric — to say all of this suffering has to mean something. Keep on. We’re going to get there."

She learned that the main message of Father Jerzy — who was beatified as a martyr in 2010 in Warsaw — was "overcome evil with good."

"That message was one that jumped out at me when I first started studying him, and I felt like, I’m an activist, I’m a Polish-American and I never heard of this guy? There’s something wrong here and I’ve got to do something about that."

On subsequent journeys to Poland, Kelly, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, learned about and began researching Father Jerzy’s trips abroad. That work comprises the second half of her book, which was published in 2016; the book’s first half is a chronicle of his life in Poland.

Details about his travels from 1974-81 were gleaned from interviews, postcards to friends and relatives, and occasional entries in journals that Father Jerzy kept. His stops included Philadelphia, Connecticut, Chicago, Toronto, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia.

But Father Jerzy’s most frequent destination was Pittsburgh, where he stayed with family members and made many friends. He was related to the Kalinoski family that lived in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. Several members of the Kalinoski family who still reside in the Pittsburgh area attended Kelly’s recent talks.

Her book contains photographs of Father Jerzy relaxing in Upper St. Clair and after celebrating Mass at St. Anne Parish in Castle Shannon.

Father John Rushofsky, current pastor of St. Sebastian Parish in Ross Township, was a parochial vicar at St. Anne when Father Jerzy visited Castle Shannon. Kelly’s book includes the text of a June 2010 homily by Father Rushofsky that honored Father Jerzy’s sacrifice for the faith.

"He was a small man, very quiet, unassuming, and almost shy, so imagine my shock when he said he was a marked man and did not expect to live much longer," Father Rushofsky said in his homily. "Although he was afraid of what awaited him, he refused to betray his faithfulness to Christ in the Gospel. He simply would not deviate from the path he was called to take."

Kelly said she wanted to emphasize Father Jerzy’s commitment to nonviolence in the book because she "felt like everybody should know him as a great peacemaker and reconciler. He just really wanted the country to come together in a very difficult time."

It was beautiful that Father Jerzy’s mother, Marianna, in her 90s, was able to attend her son’s beatification Mass in Poland, said Kelly, who came back from the celebration and got serious about researching her book.

"When I started this process, I loved his story. It’s a very compelling story," she said. "He was martyred at a very young age, during that whole awful period of communist oppression."

Kelly continues to travel to learn more about Father Jerzy’s life and family. After departing Pittsburgh, she was to visit people connected with the Polish national hero in Ohio and Michigan before heading home to Virginia.

This summer, Kelly plans to speak at a conference in Krakow of the Polish Institute for Arts and Sciences in America and study the Polish language for three weeks in Lublin.

She feels that Father "Jerzy picked me out and said, ‘Here’s someone who’s going to take my story someplace else. I’m going to help her find her family, and she’s going to be so grateful that she’ll be on this for the rest of her life.’ He got his wish."

To buy copies of "Just Call Me Jerzy" for $10 plus postage, e-mail Kelly at jerzymail30@gmail.com. For more information on Blessed Jerzy, go to justcallmejerzy.com.


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