Dispatch, Poland 3: Returning to religious and family roots

KKPOLANDTravel Weekly's Kenneth Kiesnoski and family members visited Poland on a heritage trip. His third and final dispatch follows.

Nearly a week into our 10-day heritage trip to Poland, my mother, sister and I finally got into the nitty-gritty of this roots business -- first, on a religious level, with a visit to the city of Czestochowa.

Site of the Jasna Gora monastery and home to the famous Black Madonna icon, Czestochowa is a spiritual capital to the 89% of Poles who profess Roman Catholicism.

Second, we went back to our genealogical roots when we visited Mielec, my maternal grandmother’s hometown.

In six days, we did the standard, secular sightseeing routine of Warsaw, Krakow and Zakopane, with two nights in each. Now it was off to Jasna Gora.

Although I’m a lapsed Catholic and my sister is now Protestant, we both attended parochial schools and the Church loomed large in our childhoods, as it has in Polish national identity for more than a millennium.

I was intrigued to visit Czestochowa, where tens of thousands of Catholics, Polish and otherwise, visit each year. I’d been to Lisbon and skipped Fatima, southwest France but bypassed Lourdes and Mexico City without paying respects to Our Lady of Guadalupe. (Like I said, lapsed Catholic.)

And, I’d not stopped at Czestochowa on five previous trips to Poland. So now, in the company of my somewhat more devout mother, I at last had occasion to finally see the (literally) iconic Black Madonna of Czestochowa, reputedly painted by St. Luke and brought to Poland in 1382 by Pauline monks.

The icon is creditedPOL-3Communion1 in legend with saving the hilltop monastery from a 40-day siege in 1655 by marauding Swedish troops.

Housed in a beautiful, baroque chapel adorned with gifts -- as well as discarded crutches, canes and other medical aids -- from grateful and cured pilgrims, the Black Madonna was resplendent.

We were fortunate enough to arrive in time for her ceremonial veiling (a screen over the icon is raised and lowered a couple of times each day) to the sound of hymns played on trumpets by monks.

Pilgrims circled the altar on their knees, and adorable schoolchildren decked out in their First Communion finest posed for portraits. Mom, Tara and I purchased souvenir rosaries, which I managed (thanks to my broken Polish) to have blessed by a priest in a side chapel.

We spent a good three hours on aptly named Jasna Gora (it means "Bright Hill"), lolling outside in the brilliant sunshine, trawling the three museums and snapping photos of the marvelous, baroque basilica adjacent to the Black Madonna chapel. I even clambered halfway up the monastery’s 350-foot-high bell tower, one of Europe’s tallest.

Pilgrimage accomplished, we headed back to the hotel but then wondered what we were going to do for the rest of the afternoon. A mid-sized provincial city, Czestochowa is a church town and options for tourists beyond Jasna Gora are few.

There are some nice restaurants, cafes and small museums along the main pedestrianized thoroughfare, but everything is closed by early evening. Most tourists spend only a few hours in town.

After browsing a handicrafts store adjacent to our hotel, we thumbed through our guidebook over paczki (Polish doughnuts) and coffee at an outdoor café. It turned out that the ruins of a 14th century castle lay just a few kilometers away, on a limestone ridge outside the village of Olsztyn. So we drove there for more climbing.

We saw many teenagers among the ruined fortifications and surrounding white, rocky hills. They were enjoying the unseasonably warm weather and the thrillingly perilous peaks and precipices.

At 7 a.m. the next morning, we set course for Mielec. Although our ancestral hometown lies only 108 miles from Czestochowa, the drive takes about five hours because of Poland’s underdeveloped roadway system. The trip, mainly via two-lane local roads, was scenic but tiring.

Drivers must share one lane in each direction, not only with speeding Mercedes-Benzes and Ferraris but lumbering 18-wheelers and sputtering Trabants and Polski Fiats from the days of communist Poland.

My mother spent the drive with her heart in her mouth. Finally pulling into Mielec shortly after noon, we spotted the town’s calling card: a vintage Antonov AN-2 airplane bearing the slogan "Mielec Wita," or "Welcome to Mielec."

I already knew Mielec has long been a center of aircraft manufacturing, but I was nonetheless surprised at its size. With a population of almost 61,000, Mielec is actually a small city.

In my mind, I pictured the small farming village my grandmother described in tales of her childhood in Poland.

I’d written down the address of my second cousin (and childhood pen pal) Ewa, who invited us for lunch. But it appeared I would need a city map!

As I had no map, I pulled over in the old town market square and dialed her mobile. While we waited for her to retrieve us, I trawled surrounding streets in a panic searching for the requisite -- and forgotten -- bouquet of flowers you’re supposed to bring when invited into a Polish home.

The weekend was full of too many wonderful (and to non-relatives, boring) memories to detail in full here. We helped Ewa bread pork cutlets before lunch at the gorgeous second home she shares in Mielec with husband Boguslaw (goalie for the LKS Lodz soccer team) and their children, Veronica and Michael.

We first caught sight of my grandmother’s farm, outside Mielec in the tongue-twisting village of Rzedzianowice, population 1,289. ("Rzedzianowice? Grandma never mentioned Rzedzianowice. I thought we were from Mielec!")

Mom found piPOL-3HomeChurch3ctures of herself as a newlywed in our great-aunt’s photo album. We enjoyed a kielbasa barbecue in cousin Halina’s meticulously manicured yard. And Halina's fantastic, homemade strawberry sauce (made from homegrown berries) was served on that Polish favorite: lody (ice cream).

We attended Mass on Sunday morning at grandma’s quaint country parish church, St. Joseph’s, which now sports a high-tech electronic hymnal display.

During a private tour of nearby St. Clement’s Church, we found some of those 17th century Swedish invaders at rest in the crypt.

We lit candles at my great-grandparents’ graves.

Most of all, we enjoyed the warm, loving welcome of our extended family. That impressed me the most.

In Poland, there’s a saying: Gosc w dom, Bog w dom. (A guest in the house is God in the house.) We found God on mighty Jasna Gora and in humble Rzedzianowice, as well.

We also found our family. Our heritage, our history. And new friends. We found our roots.

Then it was time to go home.

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