Raising a Martyr

Interview With the Mother of Polish Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko

Rome, (Zenit.org) | 1973 hits

Here is the first part of an interview with Marianna Popiełuszko, the mother of Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko. She was interviewed (in Polish) by Włodzimierz Redzioch. ZENIT will publish a translation of the interview in parts over the coming days.

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Marianna’s eyes are weary; weary with her 92 years, with more than 70 years of hard work in the fields and at home; weary with the tears shed for her departed loved ones (the Russians killed her youngest brother during the Second World War; her little daughter Edvige died in her arms at the age of two; the secret services of the communist regime killed her son, a priest, in 1984; her young daughter-in-law too died unexpectedly, leaving three children, whom she raised as a second mother; her husband died after 60 years of marriage in 2002).

Yet, in the eyes of this minute, apparentlyn fragile, but strong spirited woman there is no despair. On the contrary there is peace and serenity originating from the conviction that – as she says with resolution – joy and pain are allowed by God and He knows what is best for us. Despite her old age she is not afraid of death because with death, “life does not end, but is transformed.” This simple peasant has lived her long life and faced all her personal dramas and problems with the extraordinary evangelical wisdom coming from her deep faith. She has lived as though she had adopted as her motto a nursery rhyme she learned in her childhood: “Loving your neighbour, loving God: this is the way that leads straight to Heaven. Love with your heart, love with your works: this way you will be like the angels of Heaven.” (these lines rhyme in Polish).

To meet this woman, nowadays most known as the mother of Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, one has to travel to a remote corner of Poland, close to the Lithuanian border, about 200 kilometres from Warsaw. Marianne Gniedziejko, this is her maiden name, was born there, in a small village called Grodzisko, situated in the boundless plain in Central  Europe (this is where cartographers have located the geographical centre of our continent). The Gniedziejkos were patriots, deeply religious and devoted to the Church and their traditions. Even when attending elementary school, Marianna had to help her family in the fields. She married Władysław Popiełuszko in 1942 and went to live with him in the nearby village of Okopy. The Popiełuszkos were farmers. Unfortunately, when the communist regime was established at the end of the Second World War, the life of farmers became difficult: the communists forced each family to hand part of their land to the state, so, as Marianna says, even though the Popiełuszkos did not suffer hunger, they had to reduce their requirements to the bare minimum.

Their third child, the future Blessed Jerzy, was born in his father’s house at Okopy in 1947 (Teresa was their first born and Józef their second born child). It is just from this memory that my conversation with Marianna begins.

Do you remember how Fr. Jerzy was born?

Certainly, I do. Childbirth started when on 14 September in the evening – it was Sunday of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross – I went to milk the cows. However, I managed to return home on time and, luckily, my mum, who had arrived in order to deliver the baby, was at my home. The childbirth was not hard, but afterward I had a bad headache and I lost my eyesight for a few days. Therefore I could not go to church for my baby's baptism.

In the baptism book of the parish church in Suchowola there is a registration which says that the future Father Jerzy was given the name Alfons at the baptism…

It was me who had chosen this name for him. During my pregnancy, I started looking for a name for my baby so that he would have a good patron. I had chosen this name in May when we were having the May divine service at home and in one of the reflections, it described the life of a saint-priest Alfons Liguori. My son used this name till the first years of seminary and at home this is what we called him, using his diminutive name – Alek.

Why did your son as a cleric changed his name into Jerzy?

In Warsaw, where he studied, the name Alfons was badly associated – the word ‘alfons’ was used to define a person who deals with procurement, prostitution. Therefore, with the permission of superiors of the seminary, he changed his name to Jerzy. I did not protest either, because he was an adult. 

However, let’s move back to childhood. What was Alek like in his youth?

He was a slim and delicate boy. I did not have any troubles with him, because he was obedient, hard-working and patient. He liked people and he was open-hearted. He preferred reading to working in a field (our children attended school and had to do homework, but they also helped us with housework). He was a good student and brought prizes from school. Once a parish priest said to me: ‘Mother, this boy may grow up to be the best or the worst man. Everything depends on your upbringing’. Therefore I was trying to bring him up as best as possible. Besides, the most important thing in life is to give God to children.

How was the vocation to the priesthood born in him?

We are a very religious family. Every morning, after waking up, and in the evening, before going to bed, we would say prayers on our knees. Besides, in our house we had a small chapel, where the whole family prayed. On Wednesday we prayed to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, on Friday we prayed to the Heart of Jesus Christ, and on Saturday we prayed to Our Lady of Częstochowa. In May we all used to sing the Litany of Loreto, in July we used to sing the Litany to the Sacred Blood of Christ, and in October we used to say the rosary. Three times a week, on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, I cooked Lent meals, without meat, because man must know from childhood that renunciations are necessary in life, that not everything is like one wants. He grew up in this atmosphere but I knew that he also took care of himself, too. He went to confession and Holy Communion, and when he was older he prayed by himself. Later he became an altar boy – he got up early to be at seven o’clock sharp in church and everyday he walked five kilometers through a forest. No matter what season it was, whether it was raining or snowing or cold. And it was like this from his first years of the primary school to his last year of secondary school.