Nowa Huta: A Story of Catholic Culture and Courage

Shortly after the Nazis were driven from Poland by the Soviets, the communist masters of the new People’s Republic of Poland commenced construction of an industrial city outside of Krakow, Poland’s cultural and intellectual capital.  It was to be a tribute to the socialist ideal of order and perfection, as the proletariat and farmer were to flock there to enjoy the state-provided parks, apartment buildings and employment at the factory.  The name given the town by the typically imaginative communists:  The New Steel Mill, or in Polish Nowa Huta.  Through a combination of curiosity, perceived opportunity and a bit of forced migration, Poles indeed moved in began living and working there.

The attractiveness of Nowa Huta was short-lived, however, as Poles realized the utopia lacked the one feature that, by and large, they expected and needed:  a Catholic Church.  Thus began a decades-long struggle between state and church, communism and Catholicism, Polish bureaucrats and Bishop Karol Wojtyla.  Beginning in the early 1960’s the bishop petitioned and lobbied for permission to build a church, and was fiercely resisted by the state.  In 1977, the soon-to-be-pontiff Cardinal Wojtyla finally consecrated Nowa Huta’s first church as The Church of Mary Queen of Poland.  Those intervening years were a testament to Poland’s Catholic fortitude as personified by the future St. John Paul II.

Crosses were put in the designated area and then pulled down at night only to mysteriously reappear weeks later. Meanwhile, Bishop Wojtyla and other priests gave sermons in the open field, winter and summer, under a burning sun, in freezing rain and snow. Year after year, Bishop Wojtyla celebrated Christmas Mass at the site where the church was supposed to be built. Thousands peacefully lined up for communion, but tension was building.    John Paul II and the Fall of Communism, Jane Barnes and Helen Whitney, 1999 [part of a PBS Frontline program]

Along the way there were negotiations, periods of detente, and violent clashes over Nowa Huta; it became a literal rallying point for the Solidarity movement that would signal the end of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe.  The resolve and courage of the Polish people and our Polish pope can hardly be overstated.

But the revolution launched by John Paul’s return to Poland is one that conjures roads lined with weeping pilgrims, meadows of peaceful souls singing hymns, and most of all, of people swaying forward as one–reaching for the extraordinary man in white as he is borne through their midst. thout the Pope.”) It was not just the Pope’s hagiographers who told us that his first pilgrimage was the turning point. Skeptics who felt Wojtyla was never a part of the resistance said everything changed as John Paul II brought his message across country to the Poles. And revolutionaries, jealous of their own, also look to the trip as the beginning of the end of Soviet rule… it took several more trips in 1983 and 1987. But the flame was lit. It would smolder and flicker before it burned from one end of Poland to the other. Millions of people spread the revolution, but it began with the Pope’s trip home in 1979. As General Jaruzelski said, ‘That was the detonator.’   Ibid

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