Tony Krawczak recalled driving along Imperial Highway in Yorba Linda “on a beautiful September Sunday afternoon” in 1987.
Months earlier, Krawczak and his wife Barbara moved to Orange County from their longtime home in Michigan, where they had been actively involved in community of devout Polish Catholics.
The couple was concerned about whether there would be a Polish faith community in Orange County similar to the one they left behind.
With his wife back in Michigan for a wedding, Krawczak, 87, was out exploring the neighborhood.
“When I got to the corner of Rose Drive and Imperial Highway, I could hear this Polish Polka music,” Krawczak recalled.
As he got closer and the music got louder, he saw Polish flags flying in front of a building.
Krawczak, who lives in Placentia, had stumbled upon the St. John Paul II Polish Center in Yorba Linda which, at the time, was celebrating the Dożynki Harvest Festival, a centuries-old Polish festival celebrated with food, dance and culture.
He called his wife to share the great news.
“I told her I found a church,” Krawczak said. “She said, ‘Well I hope it’s Catholic’ and I said, it’s even better than that. It’s Polish.”
Within a short time, the center became their home, as it has been for thousands of other Polish Catholics over the past four decades.
Now the spiritual home to about 1,800 families, most of Polish decent, the center is celebrating its 40th anniversary with an array of activities on April 29 and 30.
Masses will be celebrated in English, Latin and Polish. Parishioners will share testimonials and a special anniversary luncheon is taking place April 30.
The first official Mass at the Polish Center was celebrated on January 16, 1983. In October 1986, the center dedicated a plaque in memory of the Polish martyr of faith, Father Jerzy Popieluszko.
A bell tower with three bells as a symbol of unity of the community calling the members to worship was also erected.
The bells were cast in Poland in 1987 and the tower was dedicated on November 26, 1989, the Feast of Christ the King.
“The Center has truly become a gathering place for Polish activities such a continuing to foster those Polish language classes, traditional events and entertainment, speakers and various club meetings,” said Deacon Jim Merle, who has been serving at the center since 2018 and was officially assigned there by Bishop Kevin Vann in 2020.
Their largest event is the annual Harvest Dozynki Festival celebrated on the third weekend of September which gathers more than 5,000 visitors to celebrate with Polish folk dancing, singing and ethnic food.
Teresa Wyszomirski, 86, of Anaheim Hills is one of the center’s original members. She came to the U.S. from Poland in 1960 at age 25, first settling in Chicago before moving to Southern California.
Prior to the center’s opening, Wyszomirski was among other Polish Catholics in the area who traveled to Our Lady of the Bright Mount Polish Parish in Los Angeles to celebrate Mass.
Polish Catholics also attended once-weekly services at Anthony Claret and St. Justin Martyr in Anaheim a funeral chapel in Anaheim Rosary High School in Fullerton.
“It was very important because I came from Poland,” Wyszomirski said. “I knew how to pray in English too, but not as good as in Polish. “That is what made me very proud.
Wyszomirski recently commissioned an artist to create a tapestry of the painting, “Our Lady of Częstochowa” which was installed in Christ Cathedral in January.
The venerated painting represents to the people of Poland what Marian apparitions such as Our Lady of Guadalupe represents to Catholics of Mexico and Our Lady of La Vang to Vietnamese Catholics.
Conrad Wyszomirski, Teresa’s son, was in junior high school when the center opened, and recalled being involved in volunteer projects and connecting with other kids around his same age who were also immersed in Polish culture.
“It was just a place to congregate,” he said. “A place to pray. It’s our home. It’s our own place.”
One memory that stands out for Conrad Wyszomirski is the September day in 1987, when he skipped college classes for the day at Cal State Fullerton and boarded a bus with other parishioners from the Polish Center. They traveled to downtown Los Angeles to get a glimpse of Pope John Paul II.
“It was very emotional,” he recalled. When the Diocese of Orange was formed in 1976, Bishop William Johnson appointed Reverend Joseph A. Karp the spiritual director for the Polish community in Orange County.
Rev. Karp was then appointed as the Polish Center’s director, the first of five directors. The current director is Fr. Zbigniew Fraszczak.
Along with the celebrating customs, fellowshipping and worshiping, the center has also taken up different causes over the years.
Most recently the center and its members have fundraised and helped provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine in the wake of the Russian invasion of the nation.
The center still has the sense of community that drew the first wave of members 40 years ago, Deacon Merle said.
“It’s a community that works together,” the deacon said. “I appreciate that, and I know Fr. Fraszczak appreciates it. That is a wonderful thing to have.”
Original story at OC Catholic.