Father Lucjan KROLIKOWSKI
The Early Years
I was born on the 7th of September 1919 in Nowe Kramsko, Poland. My father Stanislaw owned a bakery and confectionary, mother Wiktoria was a grocer, and my siblings were Wladyslawa, Czeslaw, and younger brother Marian. My uncles had fought in the Uprising leading to the unification of the Great Poland region with the motherland just after the end of World War I. My father had been drafted into the German Army during WWI, and had joined the Polish Army under General Jozef Haller at Verdun. This steadfast tradition was cherished in our home, and my siblings were all embedded in the strong patriotic ethos of our parents.
Soon after the end of WWI, father sold the bakery and we moved to Krotoszyn in order to get away from the German secret police, which continually harassed my father as a result of his participation in the liberation of Poland. The family’s economic situation worsened considerably, as a result of the currency devaluation that occurred at that time.
Ours was a very loving family, and I have always been grateful for the care and tenderness with which I was raised. I remember with great fondness the family outings that we frequently went on together. I attended schools in Krotoszyn and later in Poznan, where father once more opened a bakery and mother, a grocery store. They both worked very hard, yet times were often very difficult. Even with this difficult economic situation, I had a very pleasant childhood; I enjoyed going to school, being an altar boy, and participating in scouting and sports. I was 15 when I told my mother that I had always wanted to be a priest. To my surprise, she cried with joy, and my father gave me his blessing.
I very much wanted to follow in the footsteps of the Rev. Maximilian Kolbe, the rector at the Franciscan seminary of Niepokalanow, who had been a missionary in Japan. Father Kolbe was a sick man, who had tuberculosis, but exuded such strength of faith, as though he were supported by God and the angels. He was also very self-effacing, and there was something other-worldly about him. Father Kolbe became a martyr who volunteered to take the place of a condemned prisoner in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz and was killed on the 14th of August1941, and later canonized by Pope John Paul II.
My uncle arranged for me to join the Franciscan Minor Seminary in Niepokalanow, and I began my novitiate in the Franciscan Order 4 years later. Niepokalanow was a very large monastery, with 700 friars. We were about 130 boys in the seminary, besides the 700 friars. I made my vows three days before the outbreak of the war in Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Father Kolbe was at the ceremony of the vows.
With war underway, I set out to join the Polish Army, evacuate to Romania with them and go on to fight for Poland from abroad. About 100 miles into the trip, I was awakened by a Russian bayonet, and a Russian soldier was screaming words I did not understand. The Russians were searching for weapons within the monastery where I had stopped for the night. Seeing that the Russians were invading all parts of the borderlands, I decided to change course and head for our farm in Halicz. The Ukrainians soon arrived there, and started to steal everything they could get their hands on. I proceeded to the nearest Polish village, and stayed there for a while, until my superiors sent word that, now that the Germans had handed the city over to the Russians, I should return to Lwow. I then began my studies in Philosophy, and was to continue my theological studies at an accelerated paste, so as to be ordained as quickly as possible, but this plan was interrupted by the Russians.
From Deportation to the Polish 2nd Corps
In January 1940, I was arrested and sentenced to 10 years for an unknown crime. In April 1940, I was thrown into a crowded cattle car on a train heading for a Soviet concentration camp near Tarza, in the Archangelsk region of Siberia. Hunger, disease, dirt and exhaustion decimated the exiles along the way. Most of the victims were among the weakest: the elderly, but little children also died in huge numbers during these lengthy journeys. In Archangelsk, for a period of 19 months, I worked at cutting trees, while trying to encourage everyone, spiritually and emotionally.
Life in the camp was hard. We were given a ladle full of porridge at noon, and a watery soup with some cabbage leaves in the evening, along with 600 grams of bread. There were no fats, meats, or potatoes. We worked in the forest from 7 am to 7 pm, and would get no rest at night because the barracks were infested with millions of bedbugs.
When ‘amnesty’ was declared for Polish prisoners, I headed south to join the Polish Army in Uzbekistan, completed Artillery School for cadet-officers in Kirgizstan, and was evacuated with the Army to Iran. Polish women and children had travelled across the USSR to find the Polish Army, in the hopes of coming under their protection. Consequently, the army shared what meagre provisions it had with these hordes of civilians. When the evacuations began, General Anders issued an order that we must take as many of the children as possible, even those who were sick, so the ships were spilling over with human cargo!
In the Middle East, I served as a cadet-officer until the Army opened up theological studies for those whose studies had been interrupted by the outbreak of war. My temporary vows had expired in the forests of Siberia, and I was a layman again. The Army needed chaplains, so I signed up, and completed my Licentiate of Sacred Theology (S.T.L.), at St. Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon and was ordained in 1946. These studies gave me not only a theological education and spiritual formation, but also a fluency in French. Now I had to decide whether I would be under a bishop or Jesuits or Franciscans. St. Maximilian Kolbe pulled me back to the Franciscans — although I didn’t know yet that he had died.
When I was ordained, and professed my permanent monastic vows, I think I may be the only Franciscan in history who made his monastic profession of obedience, chastity and poverty to a Jesuit, since my vows took place at the French Jesuits Seminary in Beirut. My family didn’t even know I was alive, much less that I had been ordained; they thought I was still in the Soviet Union. I had no contact with them, as they had been expelled from our house by the Nazis.
After ordination, I ministered to wounded Polish soldiers as Chaplain at the Polish VII Military Hospital in El Kantara, Egypt. I remember this as a time when I said many funeral masses and celebrated no baptisms.
Africa and the Orphans
In 1947, after the Polish 2nd Corps was demobilized, I was assigned as Catechist to the Polish settlement in Tengeru, Tanzania, where many orphans from Siberia had been sent. In addition to seeing to their spiritual well-being, I also accompanied them on safaris, on camping trips, and on climbing excursions at nearby Mount Kilimanjaro. When the settlement was about to be closed, a war of arguments, bargaining, diplomatic maneuvering, and press articles raged. The question was: who is going to be in charge of the children – communist Poland or one of the free countries of the West.
No western country was willing to take the children, as they were experiencing good relations with the Soviets and did not want to upset the apple cart. The situation was turned around when the future Pope Paul VI asked the Archbishop of Montreal, Joseph Charbonneau, to accept the children. With their help, I managed to find a home in Canada for 145 of them. We sailed on the ship “Jerusalem” to Bari in Italy, then by train to Salerno. There we stayed in metal barracks that had been vacated by the American Army. The Communist Government in Poland sent their agents to interview the children and try to convince them to return to Poland. To this, all the children – even the youngest – replied that their Poland, in the Eastern Borderlands, had been given away to the Russians. The same people who are responsible for the deaths of their loved ones, their expulsion from their homes, and their current exile!
The Communist government then ordered the Italians to turn the Polish children over to them, so we were quickly spirited away to Germany, on a special train reserved for this purpose. We were stopped at the Austrian border, because we did not have transit visas, but were eventually allowed to carry on to Bremen in the American-controlled sector of Germany. Because of this covert escape, the Communist Government in Poland called me “a kidnapper on an international scale.”
Canada granted 150 visas, to be issued at the discretion of the Canadian consul and medical staff in Breman - the Canadians accepted 145 of the children. On the 29th of August 1949, they left Bremerhaven on board the IRO transport USAT General Stuart Hienzelman bound for Canada.
The sailing of the ship was delayed for two hours as the Captain waited for three additional passengers. The communists had obtained Canadian visas for three passengers, with the expectation that they would take over the management of the orphans when on board. They did not show up and the ship sailed without them. As the anchor was raised, the children sang the Polish national anthem. “As long as we live, Poland has not perished”.
We arrived in Canada on the 7th of September 1949 – my 30th birthday. It was the best birthday present ever, to have found a home for my precious children. It was first suggested that they all be put up for adoption by Canadian families, but I fought to keep them together. They had been together for 7 years, and this was the only family they knew. I did not want them to be separated and lose this ‘family’. In the end, however, they were sent to different schools, and ended up being scattered all over Montreal, but they did spend holidays and vacations together, and continue to have reunions to the present day. Over the years we have attended many weddings, baptisms and funerals together.
I continued to be the legal and spiritual custodian of these orphans until 1956. I took care of their education, religious and social formation, and even summer vacations. I also helped them to find their places in their adult life. I strove to be their adviser, pastor, and, indeed, their loving father. I also gradually associated myself with Canadian Polonia.
In 1956, I was appointed Vicar at Holy Trinity Parish in Montreal. Three years later, I was appointed Vicar and then Pastor at Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish in Montreal. In 1967, I became Secretary at the Father Justin Rosary Hour radio program in Buffalo, NY where I remained until 1998, when I moved to St. Stanislaus Basilica in Chipokee, MA. I continue to be useful; preaching, celebrating Mass, and hearing confessions.
One of my favorite memories was the time in Montreal when the orphans and I were celebrating our 25th anniversary of coming to Canada. Cardinal Wojtyla was visiting Montreal at that time. His secretary told him that Father Krolikowski was celebrating the Silver Jubilee with the orphans, and Cardinal Wojtyla said, “Let’s go to the children.” The secretary said, “It’s 8 pm. We’re late for another appointment and have no time to go.” But the Cardinal said, “Let’s go see the orphans.” I didn’t know Cardinal Wojtyla was an orphan too: his entire family had died by the time he was age 20. So he came to our celebration unannounced. The door opened, and I saw a red cassock. He came up to the microphone, and spoke to the children for about 10 minutes. Years later, I had the honour of a private audience with him when he was Pope.
After being deported, I never again saw my parents. As long as the Communist regime was in power in Poland, it was impossible for me to visit. I returned to the Poland of my youth some 40 years after I had left, accompanying my sister and brothers to the places where we had spent our childhood.
I harbor no animosity toward my captors for the punishment they inflicted upon me. They forgot they were humans and they acted like beasts. We tried to tell them that we are children of God, but they were not prepared to hear us. I can honestly say that rather than being demoralized by my experiences, I was enriched by them. They made me a braver man, and I have been able to help more people as a result of that experience.
I have published two books that cover these events: Stolen Childhood (Skradzione dziecinstwo) and Memories of a Siberia Prisoner and an Exile (Pamietnik Sybiraka i tulacza). I have also published a prayer book. It is my hope that these publications will continue to help people deal with any hardships they encounter in their lives.