by Moira Cullings
OLATHE — Father Michael Hermes, pastor of St. Paul Parish here, has a new hero.
They’ve never met, and the man is 5,000 miles away.
But Father Jan Golembiewski, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Otwock, Poland, a city 17 miles outside of Warsaw, has earned the affection of his fellow priest.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Father Golembiewski has taken dozens of refugees into his rectory, opening his home to women and children fleeing war.
“Looking at Poland opening its doors like this is quite amazing,” said Father Hermes. “Then, when I found out this priest opened his rectory, that really touched my heart.
“I respect this priest and that he opened his doors. I said, ‘We have to help.’”
A Polish connection
Helena Anderson, a St. Paul parishioner and native of Poland, couldn’t sit idly by while friends and relatives in her home country sacrificed to help Ukrainian refugees.
“I just felt it on my heart [to do something],” she said. “They’re helping so much back there. Why can we not help here?”
“I messaged all my cousins,” she said, and asked, “Do you guys know what’s going on? Do you know somebody that needs more help than the others?”
Her cousin Milena Makarewicz, who is a therapist, knew a Polish woman named Hanna Litwin, who is the wife of a Polish ambassador in Ukraine.
Litwin has become the first point of contact for refugees who arrive in Otwock. She welcomes them to an elementary school that’s serving as a temporary shelter.
Then, she works with the city to find the individuals and families more permanent places to stay.
One of the places she’s been able to recommend is Father Golembiewski’s rectory.
His home was vital for a single mom and her daughter Wiktoria, who has Down syndrome and autism.
“Polish people are super-generous,” said Anderson. “[The refugees are] getting a lot of help from Polish people, like apartments and places to stay with [local] families.
“But whenever there’s somebody with challenges, it’s harder to find a place that is wheelchair accessible for a family like that.”
Yet Father Golembiewski welcomed the mom and daughter with open arms, and his hospitality made it difficult for them to leave.
But they ultimately received an offer from another generous person — an apartment free of rent for an entire year and close to where she can receive therapy — and couldn’t say no.
The more Anderson learned about similar stories, the more determined she became to get involved.
And she knew exactly who to turn to for help.
‘The Breakfast Club’
After Mass one Sunday, Anderson approached Father Agustin Martinez, associate pastor of St. Paul, asking if he knew how she could help Poland.
She eventually received a phone call from Father Hermes, who was wondering what she knew about the situation in her native country.
When she told him about Father Golembiewski, Father Hermes was moved.
“That touched my heart,” he said, “because I’ve got a rectory.”
Father Hermes imagined what it would be like for him to open his home to refugees.
He asked Anderson how they could help.
She got in touch with Father Golembiewski and discovered his greatest need was financial aid for the gas bill.
With up to 15 people at a time staying at the rectory, the bill skyrocketed.
Father Hermes raised the issue with his informal men’s group, a handful of parishioners who call themselves “The Breakfast Club.”
“Two of them pulled out their checkbooks right at the breakfast,” said Father Hermes.
Between the group and a few parishioners who approached Father Hermes after he spoke about the rectory during a Spanish Mass, the parish quickly raised more than $1,300 for the Polish rectory’s heating bill.
Home away from home
When Father Golembiewski heard the St. Paul community wanted to help his parish, he was humbled.
He believes his rectory was destined to be a shelter from the war.
“In January this year, part of the rectory, which had been in a raw state for over 30 years, was finished,” he said. “The completion of the renovation work coincided with the outbreak of war in Ukraine.
“I took it as a hint from God, and with the consent of my bishop ordinary, I decided to open the door of the rectory to refugees from Ukraine.”
With help from parishioners, Father Golembiewski equipped the newly renovated rooms with furniture and appliances.
On March 11, he welcomed his first five families.
His home offers five bedrooms, three bathrooms and a kitchen.
“I tried to provide [the refugees] with a sense of security, privacy [and] create a substitute for a home,” said Father Golembiewski.
At the time of this publication, the priest was housing 15 people — including a pregnant mother with two kids.
Having the additional guests hasn’t been too stressful for him.
“I come from a large family,” he said, “so I do not get tired of contact with many people under one roof.”
Father Golembiewski gives his guests privacy. They have their own entrance into the rectory, and when he does talk to them, he uses a Vasco electronic translator device.
Although the guests are cheerful, the priest said the experiences they’ve had in recent weeks have been daunting.
“They came to Poland from places where fighting continues,” he said. “Their homes are being bombed, [and] they are fleeing the war to ensure the safety of their children.”
Some of the families have come and gone, moving on to more permanent apartments in Poland and other European countries. But others, he said, are wary to move farther from the Ukraine border.
“Everyone misses and wants to go home to their families and friends,” said Father Golembiewski.
“For my part,” he continued, “I will do everything to facilitate their acclimatization in Poland, so that they can become independent and lead a safe and peaceful life.”
A daunting journey
So far, Poland has welcomed more than 2.3 million Ukrainian refugees.
But Anderson worries that helping them in the long run will become tricky.
“I think the Polish people did the first part,” she said. “They were really welcoming. But we have to think outside the box.”
She and her colleague Anna Karasinska recently started their own business in Kansas City, helping individuals — the majority of them refugees — learn to drive, find employment and become acclimated to American society.
Karasinska said that as an immigrant herself who works with refugees, it’s easy to understand the fear the Ukrainian people must be facing.
“For somebody from a small town with a sick child to go all the way to France, [where they] don’t speak the language — it’s terrifying,” she said.
The refugees are mostly women and children, as the majority of Ukrainian men were required to stay behind and fight.
The Otwock school has housed single mothers, as well as a grandmother whose husband couldn’t make the trip because of a handicap. She had to leave him behind.
“For me being a mom,” said Anderson, “and trying to imagine that I have to leave my husband behind . . .”
The thought left her speechless.
The women often don’t know who to trust and face the additional danger of human trafficking on their journey, Anderson explained.
Father Hermes, overwhelmed by the personal stories he’s heard, stressed the importance of people like Father Golembiewski.
“For a long-term stay, [the refugees] have to be integrated to get work, to be able to drive [and have] kids in school,” he said. “It’s a lot.”
Father Hermes hopes his parish’s interest in the Polish rectory will spark a sense of solidarity in other parishes around the archdiocese.
He calls to mind St. John Paul II’s encyclical “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis” (‘On Social Concern’), written in 1987.
The pope emphasized that neighbors are “the living image of God the Father.”
“One’s neighbor must therefore be loved,” the pope wrote, “even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her; and for that person’s sake, one must be ready for sacrifice, even the ultimate one: to lay down one’s life for the brethren (1 Jn 3:16).”
“I’m very proud of our parishioners for wanting to help,” said Father Hermes. “This is a huge issue, and we’re responding with solidarity, which is a Christian virtue.
“And that means treating people, even people you don’t know, as your neighbor. This parish, this priest, this rectory, the people there — they’re our neighbors.
“We’re going to help. That’s our attitude.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the Polish rectory and how you can help, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. All donations will go toward Father Golembiewski’s parish for refugee assistance.