Pittsburgh Connection to Murdered Polish Priest

by Paul C. Binotto

© 2019

The January stabbing death of Gdansk, Poland’s 53-year-old mayor and civil rights activist, Pawel Adamowicz, during a charity event has been likened to the 1984 murder of Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, the Polish national hero who had little known ties to Pittsburgh. 

“He was an ordinary guy who did extraordinary things.”, said Judith Kelly, author of, Just Call Me Jerzy Popieluszko in the United States and Canada, in a telephone interview.

Today, when the country is deeply divided, and when conservatives and progressives alike share great distrust and dissatisfaction in their government, but feel powerless to change it, everyone can learn an important lesson about and from Fr. Popieluszko.

The de-facto spiritual leader to the Solidary labor union, Popieluszko rose-up in opposition to Poland’s ruling Communist Party. And, each month thousands of people attended as he celebrated what he called, “Masses for the Fatherland.”.  The Solidarity movement would eventually play a pivotal role in bringing down the Polish government in 1989.

And, it may have been Popieluszko’s four visits to Pittsburgh during the decade leading up to his work with Solidarity that helped to shape and prepare him for the dangerous hard work of bringing freedom to Poland.

Kelly’s book chronicles Popieluszko’s trips to the United States between 1974 and 1981; each time included stays with his three elderly aunts, Stella, Mary, and Amelia Kalinoski, at the family home on Baldwin Street in Castle Shannon, just outside of Pittsburgh.

“Did his time in the West, in Pittsburgh, affect his work?”

“I want to think that it did. It was a completely different perception on what was possible, given how closed the Communist System in Poland was,” said Kelly.

Experiencing the City’s many cultural and entertainment attractions was part of Popieluszko’s time in Pittsburgh. And, being over 4000 miles from home didn’t prevent him from keeping track of his sport’s team.

[W]e knew that shortly after [Popieluszko] arrived in Pittsburgh, he attended a live-satellite broadcast of Poland’s match with Yugoslavia in the 1974 World Cup…[He] befriended a young African-American on a Gateway Clipper riverboat cruise. [And, his] Aunt Mary took him to Buhl Planetarium, the Aviary, and Phipps Conservatory…I believe that Jerzy’s enthusiastic immersion in a free society energized him to work for freedom in his homeland,” said Kelly.

The Solidarity union movement began in earnest in August 1980, with a strike in Gdansk, Poland. On Aug. 30, Popieluszko celebrated his first Mass for striking steelworkers in Warsaw. His last trip to Pittsburgh was in 1981, for the Oct. 17 funeral of his Aunt Stella. Three years later, on Oct. 19, 1984, 37-year-old Popieluszko was dead at the hands of government agents because he refused to stop his work with Solidarity; he was kidnapped, tortured, murdered, and his body thrown into a reservoir.

Similarly, Adamowicz’s murder may also have been, at least partly, because of his unwavering opposition to the national government’s policies. However, there hasn’t yet been credible evidence of government involvement.

Fr. John Rushofsky, a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, met Popieluskko at St. Anne Parish where he served in the early 1980s. 

“[He] did indeed present himself as just an ordinary guy, and I truly feel this is all he believed he was, Rushofsky said in an email about Popieluszko, “He was a very shy, soft-spoken man and his humility was considerable; he didn’t speak much about himself, so it was quite noticeable when he was so insistent that his days were numbered, and his enemies would eventually prevail.  Yet he never seemed afraid for himself, only for the people he was trying so hard to serve.”

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