Two days after spring commencement, a group of fourteen TU Catholics had the tremendous opportunity to spend twelve days on the ground in Poland (“Polonia”). For many, it was their first time out of the country and without English as the native language. It was also a moment for realization that the Catholic faith is far larger than the United States and rooted way beyond the present age.
The witness of the Polish people – a people who have been conquered again and again, but rebuild with determination each time – gave our hearts courage to face the challenges that we encounter at home. Furthermore, the particularly amazing examples of Polish heros such as Blessed John Paul II, St. Faustina, St. Andrew Bobola, and St. Maximilian Kolbe inspire us to serve Christ with all of our lives. We would like to give our sincere gratitude to all who supported our students to make this trip possible.
Day 1 (May 14) – arrival in Krawkow, shuttle to Zakopane
Our expedition began the morning of Monday, May 13, with Mass in Tulsa and and a short briefing before trekking to Tulsa International Airport. We connected through Chicago O’Hare and took Lufthansa for the hop over the pond.
Upon arrival in Krakow, we discovered that our luggage had been lost somewhere between Frankfurt and Krakow. The luggage would arrive the next morning, but the separation from our luggage set the tone for the trip that detachement from worldly possessions can help bring our souls closer to Christ, as religious brothers and sisters have practiced for centuries.
Despite not having luggage, the accommodations in Zakopane were divine. We lodged at the Centrum Rekreacyjno-Szkoleniowe “Księżówka” in the Tatra Mountains, a favorite destination of Blessed John Paul II when he visited the mountains of southern Poland.
Day 2 – Krzeptowki and Dunajec River
Our first full day on the ground began with a bountiful breakfast in the Tatra Mountains and then Mass at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima in Krzeptowki.
This shrine was built shortly after the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II in 1981, as a votive offering from the community for the intercession and prayers of Our Lady of Fatima to save the Pope’s life. It was here that we first noticed a peculiar addition to many sanctuaries: small golden hearts, Rosaries, and other tokens adorning the walls. These tokens of gratitude represent a miraculous event attributed to God’s grace that answered prayers from that particular sanctuary. Later in the trip, such as at the Shrine of the Jasna Góra, we noticed crutches and prosthetic limbs on the sanctuary walls.
Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, Krzeptowki
The day continued with a raft trip down the Dunajec River, along the border with Slovakia and through the Pieniny Mountains. Our guide was a bona fide Polish Highlander, chartering a raft of four dugout pine trees.
Day 3 – Jaszczurówka, Gubalowka Mountains
Our third day began early with Mass in a small, chilly wooden chapel called Jaszczurówka in the highlands above Zakopane. We continued the day with a ride up the Gubalowka Mountains north of Zakopane, complete with stunning views and a ski lift ride down. The mountain day concluded with an authentic Highlander meal in the home of a lady named Sophia. We experienced genuine Highlander dancing, singing, and music, plus characteristic cuisine such as bread and “Highlander butter” (bacon and lard) and “tea with electricity” (hot tea with mineral spirits).
Day 4 – Krakow and the Divine Mercy Shrine of Jesus
We began the day with goodbyes for Zakopane and the mountain retreat center, including farewell to the priests with whom we had shared the facility for the past few days. Before leaving, though, the caretaker gave us a tour of the quarters of Blessed John Paul II. The rooms included a personal prayer chapel, where his hours of prayer literally left a mark in the form of indentations on the leather of the kneeler. His example of prayer brings no surprise that he has become a national hero for the people of Poland, with images and statues of him at literally ever destination of our journey.
We bussed to Krakow and went directly to the Divine Mercy Shrine of Jesus, the site of the revelation of Divine Mercy to St. Faustina in 1931. This message of love and hope is one of the greatest gifts that God has given to us, His children, in the midst of a corrupt age of war and unrest in Eastern Europe.
Day 5 – Salt mine, Wawel Cathedral, The Old Town Market
By now everyone was recovered from jetlag and was really soaking up the entire experience of Poland. We spent the morning 300 feet below Krakow in the Wieliczka salt mine, which includes the world’s largest underground chapel. The mine’s chapel is actually a full-fledged parish with worshippers descending the mine shaft elevators for weekly Sunday Mass. We continued the tour of Krakow with Wawel Castle/Cathedral and a relaxing afternoon in the Old Town Market. “Lody” (ice cream) was becoming a daily treat for many of us, and the market square featured quite a bit sweets.
Day 6 – Auschwitz and Wadowice
“The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” wrote the 2nd-century Church Father Tertullian on the conversion of many hearts in the face of great persecution. Our hearts were convinced of this when we visited Auschwitz and witnessed the bunkers, gas chambers, and crematories that murdered so many innocent lives. In the face of such horror arose the relient spirit of the Polish people, producing the likes of St. Maximilian Kolbe and Blessed John Paul II.
After a heart wrenching morning, we shuttled to Wadowice, the hometown of Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II. We had the privilege of visiting his local parish church and tasting “kremowki,” the favorite dessert of the Pope and the local people.
Day 7 – Częstochowa, Lichen
It was the day of Our Lady as we visited the Jasna Gora, “Black Madonna,” a painting by St. Luke the Apostle and considered Poland’s holiest icon, then Our Lady of Lichen, one of the 10 largest churches in Europe and just completed in 2004.
Shrine of Our Lady of Lichen
Day 8 – Niepokalanów and Żelazowa Wola
Although we had seen the stunning beauty of shrines and chapels across the Polish countryside thus far, it was a striking reminder that God works through both the marvelous and the simple. At the small town of Niepokalanów where St. Maximilian Kolbe founded his Franciscan monastery, the chapel of the monks was quite homely and stagnant. Nonetheless, God’s grace flows abundantly through this place as evidenced by the five monks from this very place who gave their lives in Auschwitz.
In the evening, we witnessed that things do change. The home of Chopin, which used to be Fr. Kerry’s third favorite site in Poland, experienced the changes of a new art director and has been relegated to a disappointing stop, lacking even the hot cocoa that once made this one of Father’s favorites.
Day 9 – Warsaw
Especially in contrast to the vibrance of the southern countryside of Zakopane, the richness of Krakow, and the simple beauty of Wadowice, Warsaw’s dreariness leftover from communism gone-by leaves a bland taste in the heart. Although the city rebuilt quickly after complete destruction in World War II, the drab architecture was apparent.
We finished the day with a somber visit to the Sanctuary of St. Andrew Bobola, where 15 Jesuits and 25 lay people were martyred during Nazi occupation.
Day 10 – Torun
We spent a day in the college town of Torun, the hometown of Copernicus. We enjoyed a relaxing day and then a fountain show followed by an unexpected fireworks show across the Vistula River.
Day 11 – Malbork Castle, Gdansk
We began the day touring the countless chambers and hallways of Malbork Castle, a medieval castle fortress built by the Teutonic Knights in the 12th century.
The best memory from the day was definitely on the streets of Gdansk on the Friday night. Our group was approached by a few well-dressed twenty-somethings who invited us to their 50s dance later in the evening. Most of us were disinterested, but Fr. Kerry immediately took an interest. Later in our downtown night walk, we went past the same spot of the dance. With a few minutes of bargaining, Fr. Kerry waved us in and said that we had 15 minutes to get the dance started, without paying a dime of the 15 zloty cover charge. The only people dancing both when we arrived and when we left, it was surely a sight for the locals to see a baker’s dozen of very casually dressed “Americanskys” dancing it up.
Day 12 – Gdansk, Sopot, and the Baltic Sea
Our last full day in Poland was another spiritually stimulating and physically relaxing day. We toured downtown Gdansk and spent an extended period of time in St. Mary’s Church, the hallmark of Gdansk. Our tour guide, a Gdansk native, said that a tour of the town wouldn’t be complete without a stop at St. Mary’s. We even went to a local cathedral for a live organ performance. In the afternoon, we shuttled to Sopot and enjoyed an afternoon on the shores of the Baltic Sea.
Day 13 – return to Tulsa
Needless to say, we had a phenomenal pilgrimage to Poland. Our hearts will be forever changed by the love and tenacity so powerfully displayed by these people. Our journey was truly unforgettable, unrepeatable, and undeniably amazing.