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To Poles, Church Is Wojtyla's Legacy

Prelate Waged Long Struggle To Build in Krakow Suburb

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page A13


Of all the memorials and monuments to Pope John Paul II's life and career in Poland, perhaps none is more politically symbolic than a discolored concrete building in the middle of what was designed to be a socialist worker's paradise.

The Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland was opened and consecrated in 1977 by Karol Wojtyla, then the local archbishop, but only after a two-decade struggle with Communist leaders who had fought vigorously to keep this centrally planned industrial suburb of Krakow free of organized religion. The conflict was a harbinger of the role Wojtyla would play as pope, when he gave encouragement to anti-communists in Poland and helped bring down the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe.

An estimated 200,000 Poles attended services at the Sanctuary of the Divine Mercy in an outlying district of Krakow, Poland, to mourn the death of a native son. (Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

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On Sunday, a day after the pope's death, a small but steady stream of working-class mourners from Nowa Huta filed slowly and somberly into the church to pray. Many gave thanks for the man who insisted on their right to practice their faith and who had the courage to take on a government controlled by unbelievers.

"When we say he is our Holy Father, we know what we say," said Adam Prokopik, a taxi driver who grew up here. "Without him, there would be no church here."

The scene in Nowa Huta was far more subdued and quiet than in neighboring Krakow, where an estimated 60,000 Poles gathered for an open-air Mass to celebrate the life of John Paul. In Warsaw, the capital, about 100,000 people filled the central square, nearly 26 years after John Paul first visited Poland as pope and made politically charged pronouncements in support of freedom for his countrymen.

"From the symbolic place where John Paul II lit the flame of freedom, dignity and solidarity, Warsaw is praying for mercy for the Holy Father," Bishop Piotr Jarecki declared.

Much has been made of how John Paul inspired the Solidarity labor union movement in Poland as pope in the 1980s and helped end authoritarian rule in Eastern Europe. Less well known is his history of standing up to the Communist government in Poland while serving as bishop and archbishop in Krakow in the three decades before that.

Nowa Huta was built in the 1950s as part of a project to bring a mammoth steel mill to the outskirts of Krakow. The factory was intended in part to undercut the influence of the Catholic Church and local universities in Krakow, the longtime religious and intellectual center of Poland. In keeping with that model, Polish authorities prohibited the presence of any churches in Nowa Huta.

The rule was resisted for more than 20 years by Wojtyla and other priests from Krakow, who visited Nowa Huta regularly to celebrate Mass in muddy fields and to reach out to workers outside the gates of the steel mill. In 1957, Catholics erected a cross on the site, where they asked to build a church but were repeatedly denied permission.

Wojtyla persisted in peaceful attempts to win permits to construct a church, winning small but cumulative victories over the next two decades. In 1965, he received the go-ahead to enlarge a small makeshift chapel in Nowa Huta. Two years later, he consecrated the construction site. The church took another 10 years to build, with the Polish government putting up a long succession of bureaucratic hurdles.

"Did it have to be done this way?" Wojtyla asked at the 1977 ceremony that marked the completion. "Couldn't it, and can't it still, go a different way for the building of churches that are so necessary for the Catholic population of Poland?"

The political symbolism of the Church of Our Lady grew after Wojtyla became pope. In June 1979, the Polish Communists prohibited him from visiting the church on his first visit to the country from Rome. Four years later, he returned to the site as more than 300,000 supporters chanted freedom slogans.

In an autobiography published last year, John Paul wrote that his experience in Nowa Huta shaped his outlook in dealing with authoritarian governments as pope.

"It was a constant, fierce struggle," he wrote. "In the long term the battle was won, but at the price of a long war of nerves."

Today, Nowa Huta has deteriorated into a ghetto, with endless rows of drab five- and 10-story concrete block housing that stand as a legacy of its socialist past. Most of the people who live here are either jobless or have been left behind by Poland's capitalist revolution. One of the few centers of vibrant activity is the 28-year-old Church of Our Lady.

"There is not much else left here," said Robert Sienkiewicz, 21. "The pope is gone now, but for this place, we are grateful."

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