PULASKI — When the Rev. Jozef Mucha arrived in the United States in 2007 for a five-year commitment to serve as a parish priest for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, little did he realize that he would become a vital link for Polish Americans in the region to connect to their heritage in Poland and meet up with “lost” relatives.
But the Polish citizen who has for three years served as administrator of Christ Our Light church here ended up organizing four annual trips to religious, cultural and political sites in Poland while arranging side trips using his friends in Poland to transport several Polish-Americans from Northern and Central New York to areas of the country from which their family members had emigrated.
Father Mucha (pronounced MOO-ha) and his friends drove these Americans to churches, village offices, residences and cemeteries, where the Polish-speaking friends checked records of births, deaths and marriages, helping the pilgrims to discover their personal heritages and, in several cases, meet relatives or even neighbors who remembered their parents and grandparents.
Having done work on his own family tree years ago, Father Mucha wanted others to experience the joy of finding their origins. “I understand that reconnecting people is very fascinating,” he said. “You cannot compare anything else to those feelings when you find relatives.”
It all started in 2009, while he was associate pastor at Holy Family Church in Syracuse. A parishioner, Stella Bednarczyk, suggested that Father Mucha lead a tour of Polish-American parishioners to sites in Poland. Father Mucha already had met many people in Central New York with Polish roots while living in Syracuse.
From that innocent query, a tradition was started and the 36-year-old Polish priest has taken between 20 and 25 people yearly on four different bus tours in the country, all of which have included visits to the historic cities of Krakow and Warsaw, as well as Zakopane, a skiing, hiking and vacation resort in the picturesque Tatra Mountains that border Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Each year, the priest invited those on the tour to let him know if there were special areas they wanted to visit or places where their ancestors had lived.
Here are some of the personal success stories that were made possible by Father Mucha and his friends in Poland:
■ On the first year of the tour, Gerald Syrocki, Syracuse, was driven by Jerzy Skoczek, of Rzeszow, Poland, to the Polish town of Rakszawa, the birthplace of his father.
Mr. Syrocki and his wife, Bernadette, saw the Polish church where his relatives had worshipped and a cemetery where they recognized the surnames of others who had immigrated to Auburn around the time his father arrived in 1905. Unfortunately, the parish record books had been destroyed years earlier by the Communists so they were unable to learn more about other family members and names.
But just being in the village of his heritage meant a lot. “It was very rewarding,” Mr. Syrocki said.
■ During the second pilgrimage, among those who explored their roots individually were Sister Catherine Bresnock, a religious sister from the congregation of St. Cyryl and Methodius in Danville, Pa., who spent four months teaching Father Mucha to speak and understand English before he began working in churches in the Central New York diocese.
While the tour group was traveling in southern Poland in 2010, Father Mucha's former colleague Ewa Watroba split off from the group to take Sister Catherine for a drive across the border to Slovakia to the town where her grandparents had lived. There, Sister Catherine was able to see the family church, cemetery and other village buildings. A Polish elementary teacher and assistant principal who had worked with Father Mucha when he was a new priest, Miss Watroba has helped him with travel arrangements and driven several of the pilgrims on independent day trips.
■ That same year, Christine Jones, then a parishioner in Pulaski, had taken boxes of letters and records of her late parents to Father Mucha, who translated them and determined contacts and addresses of many of Ms. Jones's cousins and revealed to Ms. Jones some of the family's history. Father Mucha made phone calls and wrote letters to relatives and arrangements were made for Ms. Jones to break off from the tour at various stops to spend the day or overnight with family members who she had not seen in years. Greeting her at the airport, her relatives were overjoyed to see Ms. Jones, who returned in 2011 and met even more of her many Polish relatives.
■ Also that year, Watertown resident Ann Sudduth signed up for the Poland pilgrimage and met with Father Mucha, taking to him notes and the war diary of her prisoner-of-war father, the late Capt. Tony Lumpkin, a British Army officer who escaped the Nazis, and, along with three other officers, was hidden in a house by a Polish farm family who risked being killed if German soldiers discovered them.
By writing a letter to a 35-year-old address of the farmer, Father Mucha was able to link Mrs. Sudduth with the family of the man who saved her father's life. She visited his gravesite with the man's granddaughter, who drove Mrs. Sudduth on a tour of the places Capt. Lumpkin had been, including the camp in Szubin where he was imprisoned. And it was revealed at the gravesite that Capt. Lumpkin had purchased a plaque honoring his hero. “In memory of Michael Jarosz, from an American soldier whom he befriended during the Great Patriotic War,” it reads.
■ On the 2011 trip, Liverpool residents E. Michael and Karen Holy spent a full day of driving and exploring, seeking to find any evidence about Mr. Holy's grandfather, who in 1922 left his wife and children in the Buffalo area and returned to Poland.
Before the trip, Mr. Holy had Father Mucha translate family letters he hoped would lead them to the grave of his grandfather. A couple, Jerzy and Renata Skoczek, friends of Father Mucha who spoke very little English, happily escorted the couple, refusing to accept gas money and telling them, “Any friend of Father Jozef's is a friend of mine.”
The all-day excursion to Radgoscz, about 4 ½ hours drive from the city of Rzeszow, took them on many stops with dead-ends, as the rectory was closed and the priest was celebrating Mass. They asked for directions to the cemetery and were able to communicate to a father and daughter who recognized the family name but were unable to find the grave. Other people in the village helped them locate the homestead and they found a person who knew of Mr. Holy's grandfather.
“He knew personal details of their lives and how many children he had,” Mrs. Holy said. They learned that his grandfather had remarried in Poland and had a child who died of polio. They found that grave.
Their happy ending created some furor, unfortunately, after an older man told them where the grandfather's house was located. They drove to the house and began taking photos. “But the lady who lived there wasn't too happy,” Mr. Holy said. “She came out and started yelling.”
But standing on the soil where his grandfather had lived was a spiritual experience for Mr. Holy. “I was almost brought to tears, really,” he said.
And during their trip, which lasted beyond midnight including the return drive to the group's hotel, Mr. Holy said his driver kept getting cellphone interruptions. “On the way back, Father (Mucha) kept calling him maybe every 40 minutes,” Mr. Holy said. “'Father Jozef keeps calling ... Like a mother,' he said.”
■ Syracuse residents Wieslaw and Mary Ann Zalewski, on their second pilgrimage to Poland with Father Mucha in 2011, stayed with relatives Mr. Wieslaw hadn't seen in 40 years and got to visit the house and farm where he grew up.
An ill uncle whom they were anxious to meet again died just two weeks after their return to the United States. “We're so happy we saw him,” Mrs. Zalewski said. “Wesley said it was like he had waited for him.”
The bedridden uncle had been barely moving or talking but sat up and reminisced during their visit. “It was bittersweet but it was wonderful,” Mrs. Zalewski said.
Miss Watroba, Father Mucha's friend, drove the Zalewski's to the train station, then their relatives drove them to the next tour stop to rejoin the group two days later.
Mr. Zalewski is fluent in Polish, so he often served as an additional interpreter for the group during their two pilgrimages.
■ Jeanne Ferman of Pulaski is another pilgrim who has cherished her Polish traditions and heritage, so last year she went on the trip and asked Father Mucha to take her to the place where her grandfather had lived.
“He died when I was just born,” she said. “He came to the United States in 1909. We had no information. All I knew was his name.”
Mrs. Ferman and her sister looked up information from Ellis Island to find out his name (which was listed incorrectly), the town he was born in and date of birth.
Once she had found the name of the village for Father Mucha, she said he told her, “We're going to go there when we go to Poland.”
Father Mucha borrowed a friend's car and escorted Mrs. Ferman to Pysznica in southeastern Poland. He had never traveled there.
“Father Jozef found the town on a map. When we got to the town we found the rectory. We thought the best place to start was the baptism records of the church,” she said. “The priest wasn't there (at the church) so we had to ask people for directions to get to the rectory.”
“We walked into a room and all the parish record books were sitting on a table like they were waiting for us,” she said.
The dates didn't match up and the names were all in Latin but the parish priest was able to translate the Polish name to the Latin name in the book.
Mrs. Ferman learned the former address of her grandfather, the date of his baptism and birth and the names of both of his parents, his godparents and his grandparents.
“I found out that the godparent was my great uncle,” she said.
After visiting the church and uncovering the family history, Mrs. Ferman said she wasn't alone in her elation. Father Mucha was all smiles. “I even think he was almost as excited as I was when we found out the information.” she said.
■ Sisters Virginia R. Cox of Lubbock, Texas, and Janet Dufore Butkins, Liverpool, reconnected with their family relatives in Warsaw and Zabin, Poland, during the 2010 trip. “Father Jozef didn't organize it but he got in touch with the families,” explained Mrs. Cox. They stayed with the niece of their maternal grandmother and her son and they met with many relatives. The visits took more than five hours because as soon as they arrived at each relative's residence, the guests were immediately fed. There was almost no end to the Polish food, fancy cakes and vodka salutes.
On the way to the niece's home, they stopped at the church where their grandmother and grandfather were married. “Just as we pulled into the parking area, the priest was walking out of the rectory.” The church was closed but the priest said as long as they were from America, he would open the church for them.
At the farmhouse of their grandfather's nephew, who was 88, they spent four hours at the table, eating salads, soups, sliced meats, lamb, cakes, chicken and vodka. “We went to bed at 1 o'clock. Then we got up at breakfast and did it all over again,” a smiling Mrs. Cox said.
“They gave us homemade kielbasa, honey from their hives, mushrooms they had picked,”
“They treated us like queens,” Mrs. Cox said. “They even had pajamas for us.”
“It was like they were trying to absorb us into them,” Mrs. Butkins said. “They couldn't get enough of us.”
Their Polish relativesshowed them all of the family photos their mother had sent them years ago. “They kept saying 'This is you and you're here! This is you and you're here!' It was hard for them to believe,” she said.
■ Lowville resident Mary Demko joined the 2011 pilgrimage to rediscover the country she hadn't visited in decades. While she didn't go to sites of her ancestors, the retired music teacher at Lowville Academy and Central School had one special request for Father Mucha. She wanted to attend a concert in the city of Warsaw. So Father Mucha checked around and while the rest of the group was touring the city, Father Mucha escorted Mrs. Demko to a piano concert of concertos composed by the beloved Polish pianist Fredric Chopin.
■ Earlier this month, Ronald Asafaylo, Watertown, who went on the 2011 trip, joined the pilgrimage again with plans to find the roots of his grandmother in Slovakia.Two friends of Father Mucha, Wieslaw Szydelko, and his daughter Joanna Szydelko, met the couple at the airport in the city of Rzeszow, and drove about two hours to a Slovak town.
Using an old house number, Mr. Szydelko knocked on a door but learned that the address had changed. The elderly man there said maybe his aunt could help them. Next, a police officer, having noticed their Poland license plate, stopped at the residence and asked the strangers what they were doing in Slovakia. After the officer left, the man took them to his aunt's residence.
“I put five pictures on the table and her face just lit right up! She recognized four of the five people,' Mr. Asafaylo said. “The aunt then took us to the cemetery where two of the people were buried. Took us right to the graves. Next to them was my grandmother's sisters.”
The woman knew two sons who were second cousins of Mr. Asafaylo and gave them directions to a cousin's house in another town. But they had no luck even with directions from a postal carrier on a bicycle. So Mr. Szydelko knocked on a door at random and an elderly man came out. He drew them a map in the dirt and they learned he was the grandfather of Mr. Asafaylo's cousin's son. “His grandson came over and took us to his father's house,” Mr. Asafaylo said. And the cousins met each other.
“It could never happen again in a thousand years,” said Mr. Asafaylo. “It just happened everybody was there at the right time.”
The Slovakian cousin had no idea he had any relatives alive in the United States. Mr. Asafaylo, through his interpreters, was able to learn more dates for his genealogy.
Their final stop was at a nearby village where they wanted to see the Catholic Church his grandmother had attended. A priest in athletic clothes and slippers answered the rectory door and eagerly opened the church for them. They also visited the graveyard but all the headstones had been stolen, allegedly by gypsies.
“I have to thank Father Mucha very much,” he said of his experience. “And they (Mr. Mucha's friends) wouldn't take any money for anything. The gas was paid and the hotel room was paid.”
■ Ronald F. Hojnacki, Parish, during this year's trip decided he would like to step on the soil where his Polish ancestors had resided and asked Father Mucha if he could hire a driver for this unexpected excursion. Father Mucha expressed doubts and said it would be expensive, then two days later his friend Jerzy Skoczek showed up, driving three hours to meet them and escorting Mr. Hojnacki on a day trip where he was able to walk in the village of Dabie and see the church and graveyard in the community where his relatives had lived.
Father Mucha, who will leave Pulaski and return to the Diocese of Rzeszow, Poland, in late June, is awaiting his next assignment in his home country but says, if possible, he would like to continue the pilgrimages, helping Americans to discover their Polish roots.
“It's always exciting to see people who have found their relatives. Their joy is priceless.” he said.
If interested in joining future trips, email him at email@example.com.