Our Lady Queen of Poland and Blessed Maximilian Kolbe Roman Catholic parish in Silver Spring was incorrectly characterized in Tuesday's Washington Post. It should have been called the only Polish Roman Catholic Church in the Washington area.
When Pope John Paul II arrives at the White House on Saturday, Anne Szczepanski will be standing in Lafayette Park, waving a banner with the emblem of her Polish hometown of Wadowice high above the heads of fellow parishioners -- members of Washington's only Polish Catholic Church. $5Szezpanski, a tall first-generation immigrant in her 50s, hopes the pope will see it, because it is also his hometown. About 40 years ago, in the small, sooty industrial town of 15,000, before war and surging armies tore apart families and friends, she and Karol Wojtyla -- Pope John Pual II -- were childhood playmates, and everyone called the future pontiff "Lolek."
"As a boy, he was withdrawn and shy, and as pope, he has also manifested some very human sides," the Falls Church woman reflected recently. "He was always genuine, solid, understanding, patient. When I learned he'd become a priest and later a cardinal, I wasn't particularly surprised. He always had an open mind and an open heart."
She remembers him as a high school soccer star and altar boy, brainy, serious, a natural leader with a radiant smile who was gregarious but aloof, perhaps because he lost his mother at three and an older brother in his teens. But it was the combination of warmth and aloofness that gave him an aura of mystery and drew the others to him.
His father was a retired army sergeant who died when the boy was 21; hers was a high-ranking career officer who made it across the border to Romania after Hitler invaded Poland.
They sang in the school choir together.He was four years older, lived behind the church, two blocks from her house. At 9, her little sister had a crush on him. They were close in the sense that all youngsters from small towns are close.
If they flirted it was a matter of the flirting with him, confesses Szcezpanski, who married an officer in the Polish underground after the war and emigranted with him to the United States via Canada. "If I'd known he was going to be pope, I'd have written everything down."
As a student, she recalls, he seemed to achieve good grades with apparent ease, and when he addressed the school on national holidays, everyone noted his eloquence. A strapping teenager with an energetic stride, large feet and a penchant for knickers, he loved to stalk the Polish countryside. In a childhood photograph, they are standing with friends in a field, taking a breather from a long hike in the rolling hills around Wadowice. He's the boy wearing a knapsack and knickers.
"That was his trademark," recalls Szczepanski a Polish language teacher and mother of two grown daughters.
But Lolek was also known for his devotions, she says, and later, when he moved to Krakow -- a city gripped with the terror of police roundups, deportations to concentrations camps, public beatings, by SS men, public executions -- he took great risks to nuture his spirit.
He joined a Living Rosary group that met once a week to pray and mediate, taking a leadership role to convince young freedom fighters not to become infected with hate.
As World War II intensified, the prayer group evolved to discussions of rebuilding Poland. Polish history, poetry, art and to political and social dilemmas.Soon, there was an avant garde theater group and Wojtyla was indulging a passion for action by performing drama in private homes.
He studied for the priesthood at an underground seminary and survived the war by working in a chemical plant and a rock quarry.
After the war, he rose rapidly through the ranks of the church to become archbishop of Krakow, earning along the way a reputation as worldly and approachable, an outspoken anticommunist, a defender of Polish culture and human rights -- and an athlete who insisted on his right to ski.
Almost 30 years passed before Szczepanski saw him again when he visited Washington as a cardinal in 1969. She had lost touch after the Germans overran Poland and the Russians shipped her to Siberia with her family and thousands of other Poles.
Szczepanski saw her childhood friend when he stopped at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception before the 200 Polish-born Catholics who gathered once a month to hear mass in their native tongue. She hesitated, then pressed through the crowd.
"Do you remember me from Wadowice?" she asked.
He asked for a hint.
"Hanka," she said, which is Polish for "Anne."
"Where are your parents?" asked the cardinal. "How are George and Irene, your brother and sister?" He pulled her aside and greeted the daughters, hanging a medallion around the neck of Joanna, who had her leg in a cast. Until then, the girls had to be coerced into learning Polish. Since, they have visited Poland and have developed pride in Polish history.
Like Szczepanski, about half the members of the Silver Spring parish spent the war in concentration camps or in the underground or as deportees to Russia. Many say they feel especially close to the pope, not only because they share a common history as survivors, but because he interceded with Cardinal William Baum on a visit here in 1976 to help launch the parish. "If it weren't for the pope, we might not be here at all" says one grateful member.
The 236-family parish bears the name of Maximilian Kolbe, the leading Polish religions martyr of WWII. Kolbe, beatified in 1971, died on Augchwitz's Block of Death, as Cell Block II was known, after he volunteered to take the place of another Pole.
In Poland, where 90 percent of the 35 million population is Catholic, the Catholic Church is a powerful force, a symbol of national pride that dates back more than 10 centuries and has always rallied the people in the face of invaders. Today, despite communist rule, children flock to join the priesthood, and Catholics in Poland enjoy more religious freedom than any other Warsaw Pact country.
Nonetheless, since the communists recognize neither God nor man's right to vote, the church has come to symbolize not only religious freedom but freedom from political oppression.
Szczepanski says the prayer and determination helped her family survive two years of forced labor in Siberia -- shivering inside a mud hut, burning dried cow chips to stay warm, drinking the water from boiled potatoes for breakfast, eating the potatoes themselves for lunch and the peels for dinner -- as the family worked from dawn to dusk building a railroad around the Urals.
To escape, her mother bribed an engineer and the family bartered and begged, stole coal and cabbage, boarded a train full of brusk, mustached cossacks, heading south for Samarkand, joined the Polish army and finally found their father in England.
She married a soldier who was killed one month later during the Normandy invasion. She was 17 "when my hair turned gray."
At a dance in Paris after the war she met Charles Szczepanski, a young architect and painter, now 62, who works as a Housing and Urban Development community planner. They moved to Washington in 1960.
But what they found lacking, according to her husband, was a Polish Catholic parish to cultivate the religious traditions and cultural heritage that seems to "fulfill a psychological need" for first generation Polish-Americans. Once a month mass in Polish at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception wasn't enough.
"Newcomers often feel abandoned," said Father Joseph Smyczyk, pastor of the Silver Spring mission who left Poland in 1966 with the Society of Christ to minsiter to Poles overseas. "They need understanding and warmth -- and a parish whose purpose is to keep alive their ethnic identity."
On Easter, parish members don colorful native costumes and, on many Sundays, the ladies' auxiliary, which records Polish music and poetry for posterity, bakes up an oven full of makowiec, a favorite poppy seed pastry of the homeland.
Indeed, Polish tradition -- and a Polish pope -- has injected new life into their faith, say members.
"In Poland," says Voice of American broadcaster Helen Wasowski, the parish council president, "the faith penetrates into daily living to a greater extent than in this country."
So, it was understandable that Polish-Americans would surround Cardinal Wojtyla when he came to Washington in 1976 and asked for his help in establishing a parish. He wrote Baum, sources say, and within the year, Polish Catholics not only had a 100-year-old red granite church in Silver Spring -- on loan from St. John's, which outgrew it -- but Father Smyczyk, 64, a jolly priest with a thick accent who will be among the 1,600 priests giving Holy Communion to the masses on the Mall.
The Szczepanskis have achieved the classic immigrant's climb to a brick, split-level home in the suburbs, where her husband's abstract oil paintings adorn the walls. A 1965 Mustang and a 1970 Torino sit in the driveway.
"Who needs anything better?" asks Anne Szczepanski, who shrugs off any notion of having achieved the American Dream. "So many people here buy things they don't really use."
Her immigrant's journey has left her with one wish in life, she says: "To live in peace quiet.
"We are not martyrs," she said, "just an average family that has gone through the grind of war."
Contributing to this report was special correspondent Mackenzie Carpenter .