Did your Pittsburgh family help ‘Father George,’ the chaplain to Poland’s Solidarity movement?
Here’s something historically critically important. It involved Pittsburgh. And maybe you. It featured a courageous man and his cause; some of you may have contributed.
Father Jerzy Popieluszko was chaplain to Poland’s Solidarity movement, the trade union that was vital to the collapse of communism. With the backing of a Polish pope named John Paul II and an American president named Ronald Reagan, the banned Solidarity movement became the wedge that split the communist bloc.
Among those who inspired Solidarity was its stoic priest. The communists so feared Jerzy that they did what came naturally to them: On Oct. 19, 1984, they killed him. This stunning tragedy further fueled Solidarity, further inspired Poles to break their chains and helped kindle the Soviet collapse. Jerzy became a martyr. In fact, the Catholic Church has declared him just that and has beatified him, a step to possible canonization.
But how does it involve Pittsburgh?
Jerzy had three aunts, Amelia, Mary and Stella Kalinoski, who lived together in Castle Shannon. He met Mary when she visited Poland. Through Mary, he traveled to Pittsburgh on vacations several times beginning in the 1970s.
“Mary was especially good to him,” says Catherine Kalinoski, whose late husband, Matthew, was Jerzy’s cousin. “And he loved her, too.” Mary gave Jerzy the full tour: the incline, Mt. Washington, the Strip, the Gateway Clipper. She took him to Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Polish Hill and St. Anne Catholic Church in Castle Shannon, her parish, where he celebrated Mass.
Catherine and Matthew spent a lot of time with Jerzy, who asked to be called “Father George.” She vividly recalls a picnic at their house in Upper St. Clair, where Jerzy sat poolside. Matthew took him to a pub and gave him a hat with beer-can labels, which Catherine recalls with a laugh.
But no laughing matter was what Jerzy faced back in Poland. I asked Catherine if Jerzy was afraid he would be killed. “Yes,” she answered without hesitation. “Aunt Amelia tried to talk him out of it but he told her, ‘My people need me.’” His final visit to Pittsburgh in 1981 was especially significant. He came for Stella’s funeral. He was able to attend only through the intervention of the International Red Cross.
When he got here, he learned that his Aunt Mary was ill at Mercy Hospital. Some of the nuns, the Sisters of Mercy, learned of their famous visitor and supposedly gave him money for Solidarity. Jerzy also was given money by his relatives and other Pittsburghers and possibly from sympathetic friends in organized labor.
Catherine remembers that Jerzy arrived in Pittsburgh with only $10 but left with a wad of cash.
So, I ask: Did you or your family contribute to this noble cause of this noble priest? For Jerzy’s sake and history’s sake, it’s worth knowing.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His latest book is “11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.”