From September 14th through the 23rd, 2011, we visited Poland on a Catholic Pilgrimage led by Steve Ray and his wife, Janet. It was a wonderful combination of prayerful contemplation mixed with experiences of Polish culture and history. It was great fun, the food was amazing, the people very friendly and the land was beautiful.
Day 1, 9/14/2011, was filled with travel from our home towns to JFK airport in New York. From there we boarded our Airbus 380 for our transatlantic flight to Frankfurt, Germany, where we had a short layover and then onto our destination city of Warsaw, Poland.
On Day 2, 9/15/2011, we arrived safely in Warsaw, luggage and all, and met up with our hosts Steve and Janet Ray and our Polish tour guide, Janusz. Our first stop was St. Stanislaw Kostka Church to visit the tomb of Verable Fr. Jerzeco Popieluszki, chaplain and martyr of the Solidarity movement. We visited the museum of Fr. Popieluszki and then had mas in St. Stanislaw Church. From there we went to Old Town Warsaw for lunch and then on to our hotel to check in and rest up a little before going to our "Welcome Dinner" at the Kresowa Hawird restaurant, a country Polish faire with lots of great food.
Day 3, 9/16/2011, was a busy day beginning with a trip to Niepokolanow (City of the Immaucate Mother of God) designed and built by St. Maximilian Kolbe. We visitied the shrine and museum, called "There Was a Man," and had mass in the St. Maximilian Chapel. Next to the chapel we were able to view the room of Fr. Kolbe. Just a short walk away, on the same grounds, is the Basilica of St. Mary Immaculate. After visiting the basilica, we drove back to Old Town Warsaw where we had lunch on our own. Ed and I had lunch at Zapiecke Polskie Pierogarnie, having pierogies, of course! After lunch our group met in Castle Square for a walking tour of Old Warsaw which took us past old city walls, the Warsaw Cathedral, through cobblestone streets with hanging lanterns and flower-filled balconies. We walked through Fountain Square where we saw the famous Mermaid Statue then through an ancient brick city fortification wall and past the birthplace of Madame Marie Cure. Next we went down a side street past the site of an old hospital where the Nazis removed 430 patients and staff, shooting them against the outside of the building. Bullet holes are still visible on the outside wall in front of the building. Next, we boarded our bus and went to downtown Warsaw to visit the Warsaw war memorial, memorializing the Warsaw uprising of 1944 lasting 63 days. 200,000 were killed in the uprising and 80-90% of Warsaw was destroyed. Next we drove past the Church of the Sacred Heart where the heart of the composer, Chopin, is kept and then onto the Lazienki Royal Gardens where we had a nice walk through the park and past the Royal Palace. The last Polish king to live here was Stanislaw. There is also a bronze statue dedicated to Chopin next to a small lake where there are concerts in the park. We then boarded our bus again, driving past the Warsaw memorial of the unknown soldier and into the area of the Jewish quarter. We were able to visit a section of the Jewish Ghetto wall where 450,000 Jews were imprisoned. 100,000 people starved to death, 300,000 were shipped to Treblinka and killed. After visiting the wall, we drove past the convent where Sister Faustina entered her religious order and back to our hotel. We had dinner on our own again tonight. Ed and I ate at the Blue Rooster where we ran into some of our fellow pilgrims.
Day 4, 9/17/11, found us on our bus again traveling towards Zakopane, a 7-8 hr drive to southern Poland and a favorite destination of John Paul II. We stopped along the way for a short break and were treated to a favorite Polish drink with Vodka and apple juice. Then on the bus again for another couple of hours before we arrived in Czestochowa, "The Holy Mountain" and home of the Jasna Gara Monastery. Czestochowa is considered the holiest place of Poland and is home of the famous "Black Madonna" which, ledgend says, was painted by St. John on a wooden table top use by the Holy Family. It is most probably a Byzantine Icon and is associated with numerous miracles. After lunch, (we had Bigos), we were given a tour of the church and were able to get withing a few feet of the famous icon. After the tour, we had mass in one of the chapels and then back to our bus for the remainder of the trip to Zakopane. We arrived in Zakopane in the early evening, checked into our hotel, found our rooms and settled in. We all had dinner as a group in a log cabin restaurant within walking distance close to the hotel. It's been a long day and everyone was ready for a good night's sleep!
Day 5, 9/18/2011, Sunday. On our way to mass, we stopped for a quick visit to the Church of Kazimierza where there is a painting of Christ crucified that was painted by an artist while he was a prisoner in Auschwitz. We arrived at the Shrine Our Lady of Fatima for mass in the chapel. During the war, people were not allowed to attend church services and often held masses in their homes in secret. The Lady of Fatima chapel was built in a room of a private home. It is beautifully decorated in carved wood with work and materials donated by local artists. After mass, we took a short tour of the new church consecrated by John Paul II in 1977. Inside the church is a side altar dedicated to JP II with his relic, and several stained glass windows depicting his inaguration as Pope and the assination attempt on his life. After leaving Our Lady of Fatima Church we stopped by St. Clements Church, the first church built in Zakopane. Next to the church is the old Zakopane cemetery of Peksowy Brzyzek, where lots of famous people are buried. Famous writers, Olympians, statesmen and artists have grave sites here that are unbelievably decorated with scluptures, paintings and plants. Next we visited the Zakopane market, a hodgepodge of various small vendors selling just about anything you would want. Next, we drove to the small wooden church of Jaszczurowak, "Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus." It was designed by the famous Polish artist, Satnislaw Witkiewicz, in Zakopane style and built in 1904-1907. On our way to the church we drove by the ski jumps, site of the Nortic World Ski Championships. On our way back into Zakopane we stopped for "Highlander Tea," a mixture of 198 proof vodka (called Espiritu) and hot tea - a favorite during cold winters in Zakopane where the snowfall can reach 12 ft. Needless to say, we were all pretty giddy by the time we got back on the bus!!! It was a good thing our next stop was lunch at Restauracja Czyrna! After lunch we had the afternoon off to explore Zakopane on our own, walking down the main street of Krupowki Street (shops, bars, inns,pubs and restaurants) and visiting the Holy Family Church. Ending up back at the Zakopane market, we did some shopping and then walked back to the hotel. Ed and I decided not to eat dinner this night since we had had a LARGE late lunch, so we sat in the lobby and visited with other members of our pilgramage, getting to know each other a little better and building memories.
Day 6, 9/19/2011, found us off through the market early (before 9 am) and arriving at the Gubalowka funicular railway ride to the top of Gubalowka Hill for a spectacular view of the Tatra Mountains, Gorce Mountains, Pieniny Mountains and Beskid Mountians. With our binoculars we could see downtown Zakopane and the large cross that sits on the top of the highest mountain across the valley. Down the mountian and back to the bus for a farewell to Zakopane and a ride to The Shrine of Kalwaria Zeprzydowska, Poland's "Little Jerusalem." Kalwaria Zebrzydowska includes a way of the cross whose layout is based on the topography of old Jerusalem. The complex includes the church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a Franciscan monastery and Mount Calvary itself with forty two chapels scattered over the hills. The Passion Path is laid out over the hills, each of the 42 tiny Baroque churches is different and represents a Jerusalem site prominent in the New Testament and/or the Christian tradition including the life of Mary. We had mass in the "Curcifixtion Chapel" and then toured the rest of the Shrine. Because the way of the cross is 12 miles long, we were not able to visit the littel chapels. The shrine is the home of Our Lady of Kalwaria, "the weeping madonna." Drops of blood flowing from the eyes were noticed on the painting given to the Bernardine Fathers in 1641. We ate lunch in the cafeteria at the shrine. Ed and I shared a plate of potato pancakes with goulash, yummy! After lunch, we traveled to the Wieliczka Salt Mines. The mine continuously produced table salt salt from the 13th century until 2007 as one of the world's oldest operating salt mines The mine's attractions include dozens of statues and an entire chapel that has been carved out of the rack salt by the miners. We walked down to over 400ft below the surface. We left the salt mines and made our way into Krakow. We arrived in the late afternoon and checked into our hotel. We enjoyed a welcome dinner at the hotel and then off to bed for a good night's rest.
Day 7, 9/20/2011 found us walking through the park on our way to Wawel Castle, home to Polish kings and czars. We entered Wawel Cathedral and made our way down into St. Leonard's Crypt Chapel for mass. We learn that this is the chapel where John Paul II said his first mass as Fr. Karol Wojtyla. After mass we took a tour of Wawel Castle and then a short walk down the street past the Warsaw Archdiocese Seminary to the Bascilica of St. Francis of Assisi. The Krakow Archdiocean Offices are across the street from the church and were home to John Paul II when he visited the city. He would often be found praying in the church. Next we traveled by bus back to Krakow Square for a tour of the Basilica of St. Mary and the opening of the main altar at noon. The great altar is a 3 story high altar piece consisteing of 200 sculptures and scenes from the life of the Holy Family and is opened in ceremony at noon each day. Lunch on our own agian. Ed and I ate at Zarah Restaurant, close by the church, and were joined by other members of our group. After lunch we traveled by bus to the John Paul II Center which is under construction. The main chapel is finished and is open to visitors. In the center of the chapel is an altar with a reliquary containing a vial of blood from John Paul II. In an adjoining room is the original burial stone of JP II given to the center by the Vatican. From here we traveled to visit the Shrine of Divine Mercy. We were able to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy with the sisters at 3 PM. In the chapel is the painting of the Divine Mercy and, below it, the relics of Sister Faustina. One of the sisters gave us a nice talk about the life of Sister Faustina. Then it's time to visit the gift shop and pick up a few things including a framed print of the Divine Mercy. It's back to the bus for the ride back to our hotel and dinner on our own. Ed and I found a small restaurant a block off of Krakow Square called CK Dezerter and had a nice quiet, delicious meal.
Day 8, 9/21/11 started with a visit to the Skalka Sanctuary/St. Stanislaw Church where the Bishop of Krakow, Stanislaw, was executed in 1079 by King Boleslav II the Bold. Stanislaw's body was chopped into pieces and thrown into the cistern next to the church. On the way to the Sanctuary we passed St. Augustine Church where our Sister Norberta used to play the organ! We had mass in St. Stanislaw Church at the main altar. After mass we drove to Nuwa Huta, the "perfect communist city" designed and built by Stalin and built without a church. Central business was a steel mill. The Polish people would not accept a city without a church and in 1957 erected a cross on a site close to the center of town where they asked the permission of the Communist government to build a church which, of course, was denied. But the Polish are persisent and would not take "no" for an answer. Bishop Karol Wojtyla (later to become Pope John Paul II) persisted in peaceful attempts to win permits to construct a church. In 1965 permit was given and in 1967 construction began but took 10 yrs to build due to successions of Polish govenrment bureaucratic hurdles. Today, the Church of Our Lady of Poland, also known as Ark of the Lord Church, is standing on the site. The Church was consecrated by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla in 1977, 30 yrs after the building of Nuva Huta. The atheist city finally had its church. Dominating the main church is a 27 ft steel crucifix constructed at the local steel mill. The furnishings were donated from all over the world including the 'Crystal of Rutile' which is a moon rock brought back by the crew of Appolo 11 astronauts. The foundation of the church contains over 2 million river stones brought from all over Poland by the people. The chuch also contains paintings depicting the way of the cross by artist, Mal. Mariusz F. Lipinski. In addition to the passion of christ, the paintings include Polish Peasants going about their daily routines in the midst of the passion. From Our Lady of Poland Church we drove to another church, St. Bartholomew, a church under the care of the Cistercian monks, built in the 18th century. To the left of the main altar is a side altar called the Crucifixion Chapel and contains a miraculous crucifix. We returned to the hotel for lunch on our own and then made the trip to Auschwitz and Auschwitz II - Birkenau. The Germans took over the town of Oswiecim, chosen because of its central European location, relocated all of the residents and built the concentration camps. We toured Auschwitz with a Polish guide who gave us a great tour of the camps. You could tell that she really had her heart in this place and said she had relatives that had been murdered in the camps. It is totally beyond my comprehension how cruel and evil humans can be toward each other, yet these things are still happening in our world today. We travel back to our hotel in quiet contemplation of the autrocities which occured in this place. Ed and I headed toward Krakow Square to find a place for dinner and met fellow pilgrims on the way. We all had dinner in a small Country Polish restaurant called Cheopskie Jadlo just off Krakow Square.
Day 9, 9/22/2011. After breakfast today we drove to Wadowice, hometown of Blessed John Paul II. We walked by John Paul II's home but it is under renovation and not able to be visited. We did visit the John Paul II museum and had mass at the Church of St. Mary in Wadowice (Wadowice Parish Church) in the Padre Pio Chapel. After mass we were treated by our Polish guide, Janusz, to Cream Cakes, also known as Pope's Cakes because they were a favorite treat of John Paul II. After leaving Wadowice we drove by the John Paul II Center again to see the original tombstone of John Paul II donated to the center by the vatican. We were unable to view the stone on our earlier trip to the center because of construction in the chapel. Now it's back to our hotel for the afternoon. On our own, we took one last walk to Krakow Square to do some last minute shopping, picking up little gifts for our grandchildren. Later that evening, we enjoyed our farewell dinner at Wierzynek Restaurant where kings and presidents have dined. On our walk back to the hotel, we paused for a few minutes to listen one last time to the trumpeteer in the tower of the cathedral.
Day 10, 9/23/2011. We leave our hotel for the trip to the Krakow airport. It is with saddened hearts that we leave this beautiful country. This trip, for us, has been much more than we ever expected. When we told people we were coming to Poland they always asked us, "why Poland, do you have family there"? Yes, we do have "family" here, a faith community that extends way beyond our home parish boundaries. In Poland we learned lessons about how faith sustains us and guides our lives, we learned of the mercy of God and his faithfulness towards his children. Everywhere we went the churches were filled with people of all ages; we were especially struck by the faith of the younger generation. The Polish people were always friendly and helpful, answering our questions and helping us navigate the menus! Would we go back? In a minute!! Steve and Janet Ray were wonderful hosts of this trip, our fellow pilgrims were great to get to know and we all got along well with each other. This is a trip we will never forget. Thank you Steve and Janet and thanks to our Polish guide, Janusz and all the wonderful people of Poland.