By Ron Leir
Above normal snowfalls are predicted by weather experts for the Northeast this winter which typically means a lot of snow shoveling but that’s not worrying one local cleric at all. That’s because he’s been blessed in a very particular way. Through the miracle of modern technology, whenever the temperature falls below freezing and there’s plenty of white stuff covering his church’s front steps, an electric pulse will be activated to melt the snow.
For the Rev. Pawel Molewski, pastor of Our Lady of Czestochowa Church, South Third and Jersey Streets, this a comforting feature, indeed, since it’s sure to eliminate a potential safety hazard, especially for female congregants in heels, he points out.
And it’s also the latest in a series of impressive, almost-completed renovations to a church with a 102-year legacy in Harrison.
Our Lady of Czestochowa, a Catholic house of worship founded by Polish immigrants to the United States, is enjoying a revitalization of spirit reflected, in part, by its congregants’ investment in improvements to their spiritual home.
Under the stewardship of Pastor Molewski and the parish’s president, Joseph Wnorowski, the church committed to a $60,000 capital campaign that got underway about two years ago with the installation of a central air-conditioning system in the worship space.
Initially, ventilation units were installed toward the church’s front entrance, above the organ/choir loft, but after discovering that the air wasn’t fully circulating, the church arranged for the contractor to mount two additional units on opposite walls of the worship hall and that did the trick, Rev. Molewski said.
Once inside the church’s main entrance, parishioners ascend an abbreviated series of steps now done over in marble and, from there, proceed down the sanctuary’s main aisle which has been transformed to a sparkling new marble and porcelain floor.
Under the wooden pews are new cloth-covered kneelers.
A balcony just past the lobby of the church hall was remodeled for the choir loft with wood paneling and clock in the center and the old organ, dating from 1929, was replaced with a brand new Italian-made Viscount.
In opposite corners, just outside the main sanctuary area, new rooms were created: One was dedicated as the Blessed John Paul Chapel, in memory of the Polish-born Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005. It seats up to 13 and is equipped with its own heating and air-conditioning system.
“We use it to conduct Masses for small groups when we don’t need to use the main sanctuary which would, otherwise, become very costly to heat or cool,” Rev. Molewski explained.
Inside the small chapel is a portrait of the late pope and a unique addition – three locks of the pontiff’s hair – sealed in a cross-shaped receptacle designed and fashioned by parishioner Thomas Kowalski.
Rev. Molewski recalled that two other parishioners, Dr. Slawomir Magier and his wife, Dr. Anna Magier, who – through a contact with a Vatican religious order – were able to secure a few of the treasured hairs.
It is an accepted custom for the Vatican barber to collect locks of the pope’s hair to be presented, from time to time, as gifts intended for devoted Catholics around the globe, according to Rev. Molewski.
In May 2011, the pastor said, the Magiers presented the locks to the parish as a gift and so they were installed in the chapel.
In the other corner, the parish installed a new lavatory, equipped with a baby changing station, for the convenience of worshipers, and a closet space to accommodate religious vestments.
Still to come, as the final piece of the interior renovations, is a new set of church entrance doors which, to comply with the current fire codes, will be designed to open from the inside out, the pastor said.
This past Saturday, the parish marked the progress made in its capital campaign with a celebratory Feast Day, featuring a performance by Echo Sacrosongu, a group of university students from Poland, touring the United States.
So far, of the $60,000 required for the capital work, “we have raised $38,000,” Rev. Molewski said. “We expect, slowly, to the end of the year, we will pay for everything.”
An interesting historical parallel: An official church history mentions that when the Rev. Francis Stefanski – who was pastor when the first service was held Jan. 1, 1910 – resigned in June 1921, the parish was left with a debt of $63,275 which “was practically paid in full by 1927.”
The church originally stood at the southeast corner of North Second Street and Cleveland Avenue. In 1916 the parish acquired the old St. Pius School at Third and Jersey streets for $22,500, remodeled the building for use as a church and school and transferred the old site to the Polish Sokol (Falcons) Society – a move that caused a rift within the parish.
On the night after Christmas 1927, a fire destroyed the church and school which were subsequently rebuilt by May 1929. A rectory was added at South Third and Warren streets in January 1931.
In the mid-‘70s, the parish was dealt another hurdle when the state began building an extension of Rt. 280 that ran through the parish parking lot, causing “noise and vibrations of the church,” according to the official OLC history. But, turning a negative into a positive, then-pastor, the Rev. John Olszewski got the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey to pay for “new noise-cancelling windows,” along with air-conditioning, for the parish school and central heating for the church.
In 1986 the parish school took a hit when the Sisters of the Order of Daughters of Mary of the Immaculate Conception – who had taught there since 1931 – were reassigned back to their mother-house in Connecticut.
Some 10 years later, as the parish’s spiritual life gradually rebounded, the then-pastor, the Rev. Rudolf Zubik arranged for the replacement of three furnaces and windows in the church, convent and rectory.
Today, the restoration and rejuvenation of the parish continues under Rev. Molewski, who, in September 2011, presided over the opening of a Polish school on the fourth floor above the church for children in kindergarten through grade 8 operating during the regular school year on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and focusing on Polish language, culture and music. Nearly 50 youngsters enrolled for the first year and the parish is hoping to build on that number from among its 400 families.
Born in Poznan, a city of 700,000 in the western part of Poland, Rev. Molewski was ordained a priest at the University of Poznan in 1986 and was assigned as a missionary cleric to South America.
“I went from Poland by cargo ship with a fellow priest and it took 29 days to reach Brazil,” he recalled.
He served in Brazil, from 1989 to 1992, managing to learn enough Portuguese to get by, and then moved on to Argentina for the next seven years. In 1999 he came to the United States and studied at Seton Hall University through 2001 before taking on assignments in heavily Spanishspeaking parishes in Newark (Our Lady of Good Counsel) and Elizabeth (St. Mary and Blessed Sacrament) before being shifted to St. Cassien parish in Upper Montclair.
Two years ago, Rev. Molewski, 52, undertook his newest mission as pastor of OLC.