Typically Polish:
Catholic Worship in Rzeszow in 1994–95

By Sylvia M. Meloche

There are 159,011 people in the city of Rzeszow in southeastern Poland, according to the wojewodship office, and 149,975 Catholics according to the numbers listed in the Schematyzm Diecezji Rzeszowskiej 1993 [data about the Rzeszow diocese in 1993]. Furthermore, according to this publication, 95.3% of the people in Poland are Catholic.

Within the city limits of Rzeszow, there are twenty-four Catholic churches and the average number of Saturday and Sunday masses per church is eight. The churches are usually very crowded, no matter what their size, and people occupy not only every available seat, but fill the aisles and also stand outside, no matter what the weather.

At masses, prayer books are not in evidence; none are provided by the churches, and the people do not have their own with them, except when carried by a child on the occasion of First Communion or by an elderly woman, seen clutching an old, tattered missal. Before the advent of the vernacular mass, prayer books were supplied by the parishes. Now they are seldom used since language interpretation is not needed. Nor are rosaries often seen at masses; sometimes a woman will be seen saying the rosary before mass, but more likely they are used during private church visits on weekdays.

People of all ages attend church, babies and babcias, adolescents and students, children and parents, the elderly, and they are generally well-dressed. Very few wear jeans and at many masses no one is wearing them. Even on a very hot day at an evening mass in an outdoor church, with about 500 people in attendance, they were nicely dressed for the most part as if especially for the service. The temperature had been close to 90 degrees one day, but most were not dressed in play clothes. Only one young girl had her shoulders uncovered, wearing a sundress. One man wore no socks and several small children wore shorts or jeans, otherwise, the people were all dressed for church. The parishioners seem very devout, everyone kneeling at appropriate times, whether they were standing in the aisles or outside the doors at an overcrowded mass - including the young men dressed in very stylish punk clothing. During cold weather, of course, more slacks are in evidence on women and hats adorn the heads. This is because few people drive to church, most walk to their neighborhood churches with family or friends.

When people genuflect on entering the church, they stay on their knees in prayer for a minute or two. They arrive early; often, twenty minutes before mass is to start, the seats are full and people begin to stand in the aisles.

When mass begins, almost everyone raises his or her voice, singing strongly. The churches swell with the sounds of song. Only on Easter were printed hymns used; a folded one-page mimeographed songbook was provided. "Piesni Wielkanocne" contained words to several songs: Wesoly nam dzi dzien nastal, Zwycizca smierci, Otrzyjcie ju lzy, Wesel sie krolowo, Wstal Pan Chrystus, Alleluja Jezus zyje, Zmartwychwstal Pan, Alleluja, O dniu radosny, Zlozcie troski zalujacy, Nie zna smierci Pan Zywota and Chrystus zmartwychwstan jest. Most people did not even touch the papers, knowing everything from memory. At Pasterka [Christmas midnight Mass], many koldy [carols] were sung: among them were: Gdy sliczna Panna, Dzisiaj w Betlejem, Bog sie rodzi, Jezus malusienki, Lulajze Jezuniu, Cicha noc, Gdy sie Chrystus rodzi, and Przybiezeli do Betlejem. There was no song book, as the koledy are familiar from earliest childhood. Although a projection screen is present in most sanctuaries, it is only used occasionally to display the words of the songs and responses for litanies.

Monetary contributions are made by less than half of the people. About every third or fourth person drops something in the collection basket and there are no collection envelopes. The amount varies, but the average contribution appears to be about 50 groszy or l new zloty, an equivalent of $.20 to $.40. The basket is usually passed by priests or seminarians, sometimes by altar boys, and less frequently by nuns. In one church, the priest making the collection places his hand on the head of each small child and utters a blessing.

With the exception of the masses of the Christmas and Easter season, not many people receive communion. At Pasterka, most of those old enough to do so, took communion. All ten priests distributed the hosts in different parts of the church and the corridors connecting it to other buildings which were also full of people. By three weeks after these celebrations, the number of communicants subsides to about one-quarter of the attendees. Even the little children still dressed in their First Communion clothing do not take communion. Of those who do take communion most do not go up to the front of the church, but into the aisles where the priests go with the chalices. People kneel to receive the host which is placed on their tongues, not in their hands. When they return to their places, they do not have their hands folded, but hanging freely at their sides.

The partial explanation given for the paucity of communicants is that the Easter confession is required by the Church and people go to it dutifully. They feel that this confession is good for about a months worth of communions. There are regular confessions, but people do not frequent them. There seems to be a stigma against being too devout, especially among the intelligentsia. Although they believe in the church and attend regularly, they do not wish to appear holier than their neighbors.

At the end of mass, most people stay through the singing of the last hymn before they leave, although a few depart right after the communion.

On Palm Sunday, about half of the faithful carried "palms" made of dried straw flowers, dyed pussy willows, and dyed fronds of grasses and wheat. Characteristic colors for the "palms" are red, green, fuschia, and bright yellow. The flowers and grasses are tied together with ribbons around a piece of bamboo and are anywhere from eight inches to a foot and a half in length. Most are purchased at the markets and kiosks in the days before Palm Sunday. Some are home-made of natural pussy willows, evergreen twigs, flowers, and ribbons. About ten minutes before the beginning of mass, people with palms were called to a side corridor. About twenty minutes later, they appeared at the back of the church, walking with the priests, twelve altar boys carrying palms, and seminarians. The procession continued down the aisle commemorating the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem. The church was very crowded, with people standing in every available spot. A highlight of the mass was the role-reading of the Gospel. Three people took part, reading the various voices and the narrator's parts.

Beginning in late winter, First Communion clothing is on display in store windows - white dresses for the girls, white or navy blue suits for the boys. (In Krakow and Warsaw, boys sometimes wear short surplices, but not in Rzeszow.) Throughout the month of May the ceremony takes place on Sunday mornings. In some churches, the girls wear short, white dresses but in others, they wear miniature versions of bridal gowns and headpieces. The gowns, long , white, and satiny, may be caught up with white roses at the hemline. Some have hoop skirts. The headpieces vary from tufts of white netting with pearls to wreaths of fresh flowers. In one church, the priest and acolytes went down the aisle crowded with people, met the children, and conducted them to the head of the church. Throughout the mass, the children took part - in the readings, the prayers and the singing, sometimes with solo voices. During the service, there was many a tear-dimmed eye, undoubtedly as people remember their own first communions, or those of their children. Every evening for a week, the children don their special dresses and suits and attend mass in a group.

On another May Sunday, five very young boys were in the procession at the beginning of the mass, along with the priest and a seminarian in a white cassock. Five baptismal parties were standing in the aisle - parents, godparents, and babies, each baby lying on a white pillow, some with green leaves attached. They were greeted by the clerical procession and followed it up to benches in front of the altar. The baptisms took place during the mass, each group going forward for the ceremony. No baby cried until very near the end of mass. In another church, the ceremony was identical, with only one baby being baptized during the mass.

On a July afternoon, a bride and groom strolled about outside the church, talking to guests before their wedding. The bride wore a traditional white gown with pink and white satin roses at the neckline and no veil. The groom wore a dark suit. Inside the church, the couple went down the aisle together following the altar boys and two priests. They, in turn, were followed by their witnesses, a woman wearing a yellow skirt and a black and green blouse and a man in a gray suit. Wedding guests do not dress up any more than they would for a regular Sunday mass. The mothers and fathers of the wedding couple also follow this tradition. The mothers of this couple wore skirts and overblouses. Afterward, on the church porch, the guests presented bouquets of flowers to the bride, a very lovely custom. Some flowers were given to the church. A few people gave gifts. A bus took most guests to a restaurant reception. It should be noted that while flowers play a very important role in everyday life and are a necessary accoutrement to all occasions, they are not very much in evidence at regular masses.

A June wedding at the cathedral began with folk dancers in Rzeszowian costumes celebrating the wedding couple in front of the church. An accordionist played and they all danced, taking turns with the wedding couple. In the church, the bride and groom stood at the back of the church and walked down the aisle together, with no other attendants. The witnesses joined them at the altar. The bride wore a traditional white gown with veil and the groom, a tuxedo. The maid of honor was in a white suit and carried red roses. The wedding couple sat during the mass, or stood or knelt at appropriate times. Two best men and two bridesmaids carried the gifts to the altar including bread and salt. Ave Maria was played on the trumpet with organ accompaniment. Later, a flute soloist played another version of Ave Maria with organ accompaniment. The bride delivered her flowers to the statue of the Blessed Virgin, accompanied by the witnesses and the groom.

In another wedding, observed later in the cathedral in Lezajsk, there were two female and two male attendants. The females wore matching red satin dresses and the men wore tuxedos. This was considered to be a very rich wedding.

As for the church buildings themselves, they vary in age from the tiny sixteenth century Sw. Trojcy [Holy Trinity] surrounded by its old cemetery, to the soaring Katedra dedicated in 1992, to those still being built today. Some of them are detailed below.

Sw. Trojcy Church was actually built in the eighteenth century but on old sixteenth-century walls and foundations, and radically reconstructed in the nineteenth century, when it was renovated and augmented in the classical style. It was originally a cemetary chapel but is used as a regular church today. It seats only about 1,200 people, but at masses, people crowd the aisles, and also sit on the benches in the surrounding cemetery, where the ceremony can be heard through a speaker system.

Sw. Krzyza [Holy Cross] Church was built in 1645 along with a monastery and a college building. In 1654, the monastery buildings were turned over to the Piarist order of monks, who in 1658 founded their famous college. In the former cloister, there are interesting paintings from the end of the seventeenth century. The Austrian government closed the monastic order in the second half of the eighteenth century. century, and the building was appropriated for secular uses. It is now a regional museum. The Baroque college building was rebuilt in the eighteenth century on the walls and foundations of the original building. Established in 1785, it now functions as a high school and is the oldest school building in Rzeszow. It schooled the famous Poles: Ignacy Lukasiewicz (1822-1882), the inventor of the oil lamp and of crude oil processing, and who also constructed the first oil well in Krosno; Wladyslaw Sikorski, the charismatic general who perished in murky circumstances in a British-controlled airplane in 1943; and Julian Przybos, a modernist poet. The church has valuable stucco decorations, tombstones of the Lubomirski family, and furnishings of the eighteenth century. Today the church is undergoing refurbishing. Many of the decorations are newly covered in shiny gold leaf. On the occasion of baptism, the church was decorated with streamers of blue and white, yellow and white, and red and white ribbon hanging from the very high ceiling and looped to the side walls.

Kosciol Parafialny or Fara [Old Parish Church] is dedicated to Saints Stanislaw and Wojciech. Massive, three-aisled, it was built with a Gothic chancel at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Devastated by fire in 1612, it was rebuilt in 1623. The church underwent its last restoration in 1754, when it was dramatically reconstructed and augmented through the addition of the aisles. Inside are Renaissance monuments of Rzeszow families from the turn of the sixteenth century, as well as interesting furnishings originating mainly in the seventeenth century. It also houses a painting of the Black Madonna which has many strings of coral beads hung about it, as gifts for prayers answered. A separate bell tower was erected in the seventeenth century.

At Kaplica Parafialna Opatrznosci Bozej [Chapel of God's Providence], the services are held in a small corrugated metal building with a corrugated red roof and a metal cross at its top front. A tall thin wooden cross stands off to the right side. Inside is a tabernacle bearing the eye of Providence, which is directly in line with the entrance door. A simple altar is off to the right of the entrance, and there are pews for about twenty worshipers at each long side of the rectangular church. Paintings adorn the walls, including one each of Frs. Jerzy Popieluszko and Maximilian Kolbe. The bulk of the congregation worship from outside where thirty-four long benches are placed on either side of an aisle. They hold about eight people each. By looking in through the open doorway, the worshipers can see the tabernacle. People also stand behind the benches, and others sit along the stacks of wood at the sides of the structure. Some bring their own folding chairs. A church is being built of brick, to the left of the chapel. It is being erected through the cooperative labor of parishioners.

Sw. Michala [St. Michael's] Church, constructed in 1981, looks small from the outside, but inside has more space for the congregation than some of the larger and older churches in town. There are about forty pews on either side of the aisle with a break halfway back. It is faced with a shellacked white pine on the inside. The roof is peaked and the beams exposed. It has the look of an older church because of the wooden walls and the shape, but the rounded brick wall behind the altar and the yellow glass in all the windows belie this. On one wall is a portrait of the Black Madonna surrounded by golden hearts of various sizes. Pews line both side walls, making seating space for about 300 people, but still people stand in all open spaces. At a summer mass, a parishioner read the Epistle, and all of the singing was done a cappella.

Chrystusa Krola [Christ the King] Church has 11,000 parishioners and was built in 1935 and renovated in 1989. The style is Romanesque with a central dome and rounded arches. In addition to the pictures painted on the walls, high above eye level, there are sets of three electric candles on each wall between arches. The stained glass windows are interspersed with plain glass windows. There is one very contemporary window in reds and yellows just to the left of a side altar. Obviously a more recent addition to the church, its message seems cryptic to me. One of the windows has a fallen priest at the bottom, perhaps Fr. Popieluszko. The walls are plain white up to the point where the paintings begin. The Stations of the Cross are painted on the walls of the outer aisles. On the inner walls are two plaques of professors and alumni of the Catholic Seminary in Rzeszow, who were officers killed at Katyn or in the Warsaw Rising. Another is simply titled "war dead" and the bottom part is a list of men "killed by Hitler." It is stated that they gave their lives for the fatherland. In this church, there are song books on the front of the pews, containing a warning not to take them because they belong to the church.

Matki Boskiej Krolowej Polski [Mary, Queen of Poland] Church was first built in 1712 along with a monastery. The order was closed by Austrian rule in 1787 and the monastery was torn down. The church was reconstructed in the early twentieth century and its original style was completely changed. The nearby park is all that is left of the monastery gardens. To the left of the church entrance is a statue of Mary standing on a pedestal; a small stone canopy on columns protects her from the elements. A rose garden surrounds the pedestal. Inside, the church gives an impression of lightness because the dominant color is ivory. The high walls are ivory with only a few paintings of saints here and there. The Stations of the Cross are situated between stained glass windows. Each window is highlighted by a brightly colored, solid border and is made up of simple repeated flower patterns. The floor is a white and black square tile pattern. The altars are ivory-painted wood guilded with gold leaf; one of them has an image of the Black Madonna as its centerpiece. Behind the main altar is a beautiful circular stained glass window depicting the Trinity. It is worked primarily in powerfully radiant reds and blues. The Baroque vaulted ceiling is also of an ivory color. Over the nave is a painting of Mary and her heavenly retinue, in subdued reds, blues, and grays.

Facing each other on the two walls at the front of the church are murals depicting the history of the Catholic Church in Poland. Created for the 1000th anniversary of the Polish peoples baptism, the dates 966 and 1966 are prominently displayed on the right hand wall. Many knights, noblemen and peasants are depicted, as is a modern working man. The sanctuary is carpeted in red.

Many chairs are set up in what was originally the altar area surrounded by a communion rail. About 70 people can sit in that area. The pews in the main part of the church can seat about 130 worshipers. Extra chairs at the outside ends of each pew bring the number to about 160. People also stand along the aisles, in the back, or outside the church. Two priests occupy confessionals from the beginning of mass until after the homily.

Kosciol parafialny Sw. Jozefa [St. Josephs Parish Church] is neo-Gothic, and was built in 1900 as indicated on the outside of the building, just over the arched doorway. Above the double doors, a huge statue of St. Joseph holding the infant Jesus dominates the dark brick faade. One pointed steeple bears a crown much like the one on Kosciol Mariacki in Krakw. Simple butresses fortify the outside walls. This church is in a suburban section of Rzeszw, and is set back from the street above two flights of stairs. Its steeple dominates the area. To the left of the church is a stone sculpture of a very young Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. The statue is surrounded by a planting of blooming roses. To the right is a similar sculpture of the mature Christ.

The church has pointed Gothic cathedral arches, but low rounded arches separating the side aisles from the main one. The small rounded top stained glass windows along the wall are busily medieval looking and depict the twelve Apostles. The Stations of the Cross are unusual in that the graphic representations are incised into blocks of stone and set into the ivory painted walls at regular intervals between the windows. Adjacent to each station is its description written on the wall in pseudo-Greek lettering, as if scrawled by an unartistic hand. The walls on the inside of the rounded arches, those facing the main aisle, are covered in simple paintings depicting scenes from the Bible, done in pastel Mediterranean hues of blues and oranges.

Behind the main altar are three very tall stained glass windows dominated by a deep blue color and illustrating the Trinity. They are more contemporary in feeling than the wall decorations. Ascending in well-spaced pyramid formation about the altar are several white sculptures; the base has Moses on one side and John the Baptist on the other, with the four Evangelists between them; four other saints from the sides of the triangle, ending with two angels at the top. The arch above the main altar is veined with wood painted a dusky orange.

Side altars are extremely decorative and are dedicated to St. Catherine, with a large painting of St. Theresa of Lisieux on the altar, and to St. Francis, with a similarly large painting of St. Joseph on the altar. Another altar, against the left outside wall is dedicated to Mary and has a huge icon of her with the Infant. Many rosaries and other offerings adorn the walls on either side. A painting of Fr. Jan Balicki hangs on the wall perpendicular to this altar. Facing the altar across the church is another side altar, dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament.

An unusual touch is a large grandfather clock at an angle to St. Theresa’s altar. It keeps perfect time and the pendulum swings constantly. The year 1904 is set into the floor before the red carpeting of the main altar. In contrast to the more traditional type in most churches, confessionals are simple in structure: a kneeler on each side of a cubicle formed only by two short swinging doors, and a chair for the priest. They are open to all. It should be stated that the kneelers at the pews in all churches are slanted so that one cannot put one's weight on them, but must sit on the pew and put one's knees against them. Kneelers are not padded, but are wooden. Benches and wall pews do not have kneelers.

The Bernardine monastery was erected in the first half of the the seventeenth century and restored at the end of the eighteenth century. The attached Wniebowziecia [the Assumption] Church is built on the plan of a Latin cross with two chapels at the sides and it houses a late Gothic statue of the Madonna from the early sixteenth century; the stature is considered to be miraculous. The church is a late Renaissance structure with Baroque accents. Interior fittings are from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with polychromes from the eighteenth century. In the chancel are alabaster statues of the Ligeza family dating from the seventeenth century.

During Pasterka, this church was crowded with people of all ages. Shortly before mass began, thirteen adolescent girls (novices in the convent), dressed in long white skirts, white blouses, and gold shawls entered and stood in a line before the altar, where they stayed throughout the proceedings. As the bells chimed the midnight hour, there entered five altar boys, twelve seminarians, and ten priests who walked the length of the church, struggling through the packed aisles, and then to the altar. Mass began with incense wafting from a thurible behind an altar decked with greens and poinsettias. Two very large fir trees, hung with garlands and ornaments of golden hue, were on either side of the back altar. On the same altar, four small trees were aglow with lights. The left chapel was completely filled by a szopka [creche] with its village scene of Bethlehem and local scenery of Poland. The painted background suggested the Bethlehem sky on which a huge silver paper star was superimposed with its streams of light descending across open space directly to the manger. Stylized palm trees and buildings of the Near East completed the setting. The left side of the scene was taken up with shepherds in graduated sizes descending the slant of a hill, leading their sheep to the adoration. Also on that side were three camels and an elephant and the Magi. The center was focused upon the manger itself, with four angels rotating around the crib of the Christ Child. Against the back wall of the manger was a large golden starburst and a bright light was shining over all. Mary and Joseph knelt in the foreground. The right section of the display was filled by characters of local color: Lajkonik and folk dancers moved in a circle in front of a wooden building from which more people in Cracovian dress descended while another Cracovian man restrained a dragon. Swans and cygnets swam on a mirrored lake behind which a Franciscan rang the church bell. Before the church stood a young gora [highlander] holding a lighted turning star. Two animated gral smiths pounded out smoldering metal and a woman prepared holiday food in the kitchen behind them. There was a highlander standing in adoration near the crib with a windmill behind him, and another doing woodworking nearby. In the very front of the scene, where young hands would reach out and touch it, was a small angel with a trumpet, encased in a transparent dome.

The Rzeszow Cathedral of The Sacred Heart of Jesus was begun in 1982 and dedicated in 1992. It is a very large contemporary building of light grey moulded walls, surmounted by a simple cross sweeping its architectural wings onto the surrounding landscape. It is the seat of the Bishop, Kazimierz Gorny, and until recently was also his residence. The interior is all of molded walls and contemporary design. A focal point of the sanctuary is the huge and beautiful stained glass window behind the altar depicting the Sacred Heart in flames. A simple, ascetic cross is also included in the glass and its clean lines contrast with the undulating curves of the red, blue, and orange flames, which splash the surrounding walls with iridescent hues when lit from behind by the sun. A statue of Mary, Mother of God, dominates the left foreground. In addition to the many main pews, a raised area on the right wall seats many more worshippers on benches. The balcony also offers additional seating. There, too, a fine organ is in the loft and often concerts are held in the church featuring this contemporary instrument.

The churches of Rzeszow are many and varied, large and small, attractive yet serviceable, and beloved and appreciated by the overwhelmingly Catholic population of the city. The piety of the people worshiping in churches leaves no doubt. A separate study needs to be written on the influence of that piety on secular customs and mores.

Sylvia M. Meloche is Assistant to the President of the Rzeszow Pedagogical University and Editor of the University of Rzeszow Press.

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The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 12/20/96