The stately wooden church that dominates this village overflows the first Sunday of every month, when the Rev. Mieczyslaw Nowak offers his "mass for the fatherland." Farmers find themselves surrounded by urban workers as the only street clogs with cars from Lodz and Warsaw.
Each month, Nowak removes a large wooden plaque from the wall behind the altar and carefully turns it around. Usually, it shows a bland emblem with the words "God, honor and fatherland." But on first Sundays, the plaque's back reveals the bright red logo of the banned union Solidarity, and Nowak's sermons turn from the Bible to nationalism, workers' rights and resistance to totalitarianism.
The show of political defiance has been alienating and even frightening for some of Nowak's quiet, rural parishioners. Yet the monthly patriotic masses are serving to preserve a community of Polish opposition that has survived despite the combined pressure of the communist authorities and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.
For Nowak, this ramshackle village of about 200 people is less a home than a place of exile from the Warsaw suburb of Ursus and the workers at its huge tractor factory, once a Solidarity stronghold. In April 1984, Cardinal Jozef Glemp ordered the young priest out of Ursus and assigned him here in a concession to communist authorities offended by the priest's open support of workers' resistance.
The move was seen as one government victory in what has become an enduring battle with activist priests, who embody the church's bond to the remnants and spirit of Solidarity. But Nowak has continued his militant work in this isolated community, attracted a hard core of his old followers to his new church and settled in to wait for a change of fortune.
Like much of Poland's political opposition, this short, ruddy-faced priest has found a cause in stubborn survival.
"We just have to live through this time," he said while preparing for mass. "The tide has gone down. But we are keeping up our ideals and conscience and waiting for the fruit that will come later. And we know that the more we are repressed, the quicker it will come."
Nowak's story suggests the complexity of the church's position in Poland at a time when a relatively strong government led by Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski coexists with a political opposition that looks to the church for sanctuary. The Catholic hierarchy, led by Glemp, has tended to follow the church's traditional strategy of seeking an accommodation with the communist authorities, in part by distancing itself from the political struggle.
At the same time, dozens of militant priests have committed the church in practice to nurturing such Solidarity legacies as independent cultural activities and human rights movements, and efforts by Glemp to control them have met stiff resistance.
"They are trying to silence priests, but it is a solution that can only work in the short term," Nowak said. "Even if some priests are silenced, others will arise in their place. The only real effect is that the church will alienate its own people."
The most recent confrontation of this kind erupted last month when the Rev. Adolf Chojnacki, a pro-Solidarity priest in the Krakow suburb of Biezanow, was ordered to a remote village in southern Poland by Krakow's archbishop, Cardinal Francisek Macharski. The move provoked strong protests by Chojnacki's parishioners, who last year carried out a hunger strike for political prisoners under his guidance.
Nowak's removal from Ursus was followed by a protest by 2,000 of his followers at Ursus and a boycott by contributors there.
Perhaps more remarkable has been the priest's continuing, tenacious activism since then. Nearly two years after his arrival in Leki Koscielne, hundreds of followers from Ursus still make a round trip of 120 miles to attend his monthly masses for the fatherland, which Nowak says draw crowds of 2,000 to 3,000. The priest has swelled his audience by visiting parishes in Lodz, the closest major city.
Nowak appears to relish the controversy he has ignited among the 3,600 parishioners he nominally serves in 22 nearby villages. Although about 1,000 are active in his church, Nowak says the local attendance drops on first Sundays, and there have been complaints from villagers about out-of-towners.
One supporter, an elderly woman, stopped a visitor on the street to praise the priest as "an angel." But tires of Warsaw-licensed cars have been slashed during masses, and fears have spread through the parish that cooperation with the church now might be dangerous.
"There were rumors, very widespread, that we would be bombed," Nowak said. "Some of my parishioners are afraid to talk to me. They think of me as a political man."
Nowak himself at times sounds ambivalent about the community to which he was sent. "The shift was not easy to accept. The work in such a well-organized, beautiful place like Ursus and the work here are like heaven and earth," he said. "The peasants tend to be isolated on their plots. They don't get involved in social problems."
Still, Nowak says he gradually is winning the battle of opinion among local farmers, in part because of his skirmishes with sometimes heavy-handed authorities. The biggest news in the area last year was the criminal investigation of Nowak by a local prosecutor because of an incident in which Nowak's car skidded off a rural road.
Eventually the priest was fined but not put on trial.
In the end, Nowak does not seem overly concerned about whether he is accepted by either parishioners or the church hierarchy. Rather, like many opposition activists, he is driven by the idea that it is his own adherence to his beliefs, rather than victory, that matters most.
"Years may be necessary for the people here to accept me and for me to achieve my work," Nowak said. "But I can't be a different person for them. It is necessary for me to live openly and show my connection to the fatherland. There is no other way."