Vickroy: Palos Hills carpenter builds shrine for St. Blase pope relic
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy May 2, 2014 9:48PM
The Rev. Wojciech Kwiecien, pastor of St. Blase, who goes by the nickname “Father Al,” says there is a special connection between the Polish people and Pope John Paul II. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 5, 2014 6:52AM
As Pope John Paul II was being canonized on April 27, the members of St. Blase Church in Summit were rejoicing over having their prayers answered.
With a large Hispanic and Polish congregation, St. Blase has supported efforts to bestow the Catholic Church’s highest honor upon the pontiff, who died in 2005.
Among the more passionate followers are Jan and Zofia Slodyczka. The Palos Hills couple met and chatted with the popular Polish pope on two occasions many years ago in Rome.
They always have been devoted to John Paul II because he hailed from Krakow, which is near their hometowns, and because “he changed the world,” Jan said.
Last fall, when St. Blase received a relic of the longtime church leader, Jan offered to build a shrine to display the holy keepsake.
Today, the relic, a small piece of cloth stained with a drop of the pontiff’s blood, is exhibited at the church in a Highlander-style chapel that Jan designed and built in less than six weeks.
The style, which incorporates art nouveau and folk architecture, is marked by inlaid woodwork and carved detailing and is reminiscent of Swiss and Austro-Hungarian chaletwork.
Jan knows a bit about the style because he built his Palos Hills home in that fashion. Inside and out, the house transports Jan and Zofia, as well as their three grown children and nine grandchildren, back to Zacopana, in the Highland region of Poland, where a then-young Zofia was confirmed by then-Bishop Karol Wojtyla, who would go on to become Pope John Paul II.
Jan, who earned a degree in building engineering before immigrating to the United States, pretty much taught himself the intricacies of carving and detailing, working off a 1901 textbook on the style, said his daughter, Christine Sojka.
Translating for her parents, Christine said her father was very moved by John Paul’s willingness to “take the Vatican to the people.” He not only traveled a great deal but, as the first non-Italian pope in four centuries, he bravely stood up to Communist regimes.
The Rev. Wojciech Kwiecien, pastor of St. Blase, who goes by the nickname “Father Al,” said John Paul II realized that it was difficult and expensive for many followers to come to the Vatican, “so he went to the people.”
Kwiecien said John Paul II’s work for the poor and powerless endeared him to many around the world.
During the pontiff’s first visit to Poland, Kwiecien said, “He sat in Warsaw Square in front of a Communist-owned hotel named Victoria and put a big cross in front of it, so the word ‘Victory’ was visible to everyone. Then he said, ‘Let the Holy Spirit come and change the face of this soil.’
“I knew then that change was going to come,” Kwiecien said.
Kwiecien grew up in Poland. He recalled both the suffering and the resistance of the Polish people under the communists.
“The government always told us everything was good, that we were better than the Western world,” he said. “But we’d go to the store and there would be no food, nothing.”
When the government issued a curfew, forbidding the people of Lubrin from walking the streets after 7 p.m., the residents reacted by facing their television sets in their picture windows during newscasts while the people walked up and down the streets holding umbrellas to protect them “from the spit that was being spewed on them,” he said.
John Paul II also touched the hearts of many Mexicans and inadvertently connected the two cultures by sympathizing with both nations’ long history of suffering, Kwiecien said.
He told the Mexican people during his first visit that they too have suffered, perhaps even more than Poland, Kwiecien said.
“Because of that, Mexico loves the pope and feels a connection to Poland,” he said.
John Paul II had originally intended to study theater and poetry but after Jagiellonian University was closed by the Nazis, he went to work in a factory and secretly attended a seminary run the archbishop of Krakow. He was ordained after the war ended.
Having watched his people suffer, first at the hands of Nazi Germany and then by the Soviets, he became an advocate for human rights, Kwiecien said.
Though he has been criticized for not doing more to stop priest abuse within the Catholic Church, John Paul II was embraced by many for his work to end government-imposed suffering.
“Pope John Paul always spoke against the Communist regime; he always emphasized that family was more important,” he said. “He reignited values and faith in every country.”
It was that compassion that endeared him to so many, including the Slodyczkas.
Jan recalled advice the pope once gave to the Highlander people.
“He said, ‘If you go to America and become rich financially, do not become poor spiritually or culturally. Pass on the culture and traditions to your children and grandchildren,’ ” Christine said.
Jan and Zofia have tried to do just that. Not only do they live in a Highlander-style home, they have traditional Highlander garb and participate in area folk festivals.
A few years ago, Jan was able to buy a carriage that Pope John Paul II used to ride in. Jan keeps it with other carriages, sleds and hay wagons in his backyard barn, which also houses two horses.
“My mother and father love John Paul. They have been to the Holy Land and to Rome twice,” Christine said. “They also love Poland and want to keep the traditions alive.”
In 2002, Jan received the Oskara Kolberga award and medal from the Polish consulate for keeping Polish culture, arts and tradition alive.
At 72, Jan is as busy as ever. In addition to the John Paul II shrine, he built a shrine to Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, which is located near the St. Blase altar. He’s also built shrines and frames for St. Constance and Holy Trinity churches in Chicago; St. Maximilian Kolbe in Macomb, Mich.; as well as for chapels in Merrillville and Munster, Ind.; Lyndon Station, Wis.; and a youth camp in Yorkville, Ill.
When St. Blase received the pope relic, with blood that was collected while the pontiff was hospitalized before his death and which was donated by Stanislaw Dziwisz, former secretary to John Paul and current archbishop of Krakow, Jan volunteered to build a traditional Polish display for it.
“My goal was to keep with the Highlander theme as a tribute and honor to the pope,” Jan said.
“Archbishop Dziwisz knew John Paul would become a saint,” Kwiecien said. “He said it all along. So I wrote to him and he had a man bring us a sample.”
The church received the relic last fall and blessed it during three separate Masses, in Polish, English and Spanish.
Last Sunday, St. Blase celebrated the canonization of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Saint John XXIII with special Masses, as well. The event marked the first time in church history that two popes were made saints at the same time.
St. Blase Church is at 6101 S. 75th Ave., Summit; (708) 458-0007; stblasechurch.org.