Father Sylvester Kwaitkowski grew up in the small town of Rebow in central Poland as a grassroots movement by the Polish people effectively eradicated communism from the country.
But it was a Polish saint with a special devotion to the Divine Mercy of God who would be the inspiration that shaped his life.
Today Father Kwaitkowski shares that devotion with members of the Polish Catholic community who gather for Mass, religious education and other activities at the Our Lady of Czestochowa Polonian Cultural and Pastoral Center in Sacramento, where he serves as chaplain.
Born in 1961, the youngest of five children, he was raised Catholic. As was the case in many Polish families at the time, several of his relatives suffered persecution in one form or another. Father Kwaitkowski’s father, who was a farmer, was sentenced by the communist government to work for a year without pay in a coal mine as punishment “for being too rich,” he said.
He will not forget painful stories of family members permanently separated from one another during World War II.
“I remember these facts as a child,” said Father Kwaitkowski, who grew up in the 1960s and 70s. “I was looking for something that could be a strength, a rock, not only for me but for my family.”
His search ended when he was 16 and was told by a friend about a devotion to God that carried with it a message of hope and love for future generations. The messenger was St. Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun born in 1905 who started a movement dedicated to God’s healing mercy.
She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1993 and canonized in 2000.
“Her main message is about God’s love, that when Christ forgives our sins, our life can be pure,” Father Kwaitkowski said. “I didn’t want a God who was judging me or wanted to punish me, but loved me very much.”
The next milestone in his life came when he went with 30,000 people on a walking pilgrimage from Warsaw to Czestochowa, a city in southern Poland where the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa is located. He visited the shrine, Poland’s most important pilgrimage site, which houses the icon of Mary holding the baby Jesus, believed to be painted by St. Luke the Evangelist.
“I began to seriously think of dedicating my life to God, to work with people and help them solve their problems,” he said.
Father Kwaitkowski studied for the priesthood with the Discalced Carmelite Fathers in Krakow, where he was ordained in 1989. One of his first homilies as a young priest working in parishes in the former Soviet Union was about St. Faustina’s vision in 1931 of the image of Divine Mercy. The image, reported in her diary, was of Jesus with a hand raised in blessing and red and pale rays of light emanating from his heart.
“It was later when I saw how God was really merciful to people...when I had a chance to say Masses and hear confessions in churches where people hadn’t seen a priest for 40 or 50 years,” Father Kwaitkowski said. “I realized that the message of Divine Mercy was very meaningful for me, for them, and for the whole world.”
In 1995 he arrived in the United States, and following a three-year assignment at a Carmelite monastery in Koran, Fla., began his ministry with the Polish community in the diocese. When Father Kwaitkowski arrived at Our Lady of Czestochowa Center and found about 30 people were attending Mass, he set about planning ways to bring them together.
“The biggest challenge was our people are from different parts of the country, from different generations, some have lived here a long time and some are new arrivals,” he said. “Everybody has different needs and different points of view.”
It is a church community in which pastoring means fulfilling the spiritual needs of people to pray in their native language.
“If someone learns the Our Father in Polish, he can say it in English but will not pray in English,” Father Kwaitkowski said.
Marianna Samlik, who left her native Poland for the United States in 1989, is a case in point. Samlik was a student at the University of Nicolaus Copernicus in Torun in 1981 when the communist government installed marshal law. An activist in the Solidarity movement, she spent one year in prison for speaking out for human rights.
After living in Poland for 30 years, she immigrated to the United States and moved to Sacramento a year later. Becoming a member of Our Lady of Czestochowa, Samlik said, reunites her with the faith of her childhood.
“To attend Mass in a small chapel with a Polish priest where we can pray in Polish is important,” Samlik said. “When that is missing, I feel isolated from God.”
Father Kwaitkowski said efforts to reach out to new families with children arriving in Sacramento has made Our Lady of Czestochowa Center, which now includes about 100 families, more alive. The church has started a special children’s Mass which is celebrated every two months, religious education classes and Polish language classes, and sponsors a Boy Scout troop.
Andrew Dymarczyk, his wife, Anna, and their three sons first began commuting from their home in the San Francisco Bay Area to attend Mass at Our Lady of Czestochowa 10 years ago.
When they moved to Sacramento last year, the whole family became actively involved in the church. His sons are altar servers and have joined the Boy Scout troop their father started. Troop activities include Polish language classes, history, geography and religious instruction.
“Our tradition is our heart,” Andrew Dymarczyk said. “We want our children to learn why people come to America, to learn about their family tree. It’s very important.”
Father Kwaitkowski said the Disciples in Mission evangelization program the church began last year is a positive way to ensure what is preached during Mass may be lived throughout the week.
“It’s an excellent opportunity for people to know each other better and to share their experience of faith,” he said.
For many members of Our Lady of Czestochowa Center, the Lenten season is enriched spiritually by a meditation outlined by St. Faustina in her diary. She left instructions for people to pray a novena beginning on Good Friday and ending on Divine Mercy Sunday, the second Sunday of Easter, with specific prayers and intentions for each day.
“For Christians, after Easter is the beginning of new life with a forgiving Jesus, a message those in the 21st century need to hear,” Father Kwaitkowski said.
Our Lady of Czestochowa Polonian Cultural and Pastoral Center is located at 1601 South Ave. (corner of South Ave. and Marysville Blvd.) in Sacramento. For a schedule of Masses and other activities, call (916) 452-4136, ext. 6.
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