Some people joke, that Polish city Bialystok in Podlasie it is Byelorussia. For local Polish majority it is very painful, because the main reason of such rumors is eastern accent of local people. They were in 19-Th and even in 20-th centuries under deep Russification process. Many of them, because of belonging to Greek-catholic church were "converted" by force to Orthodoxy. All the priesthood especially monks and diocesan priests of Suprasl diocese were exterminated and removed to Siberia if not agree to "convert". It happened in 3 waves: under Catherine the Great 1768, under Nicolas I 1838 and after January Insurrection1863, especially 1871 was significant in many martyrs so called "Podlasie martyrs". Simple villagers were sitting in their church like in fortress defending form Cossacks and gendarmerie, which was trying to give to Parish to Orthodox priest.13 of them died. It happened 100km south from Bialystok in Podlasie village Pratulin. The people from the last wave of persecutions were happier because they were living under different regime of so called Warsaw Government. It was also under Russia but has more liberal rules. These "lucky people" was avoiding visiting churches forcedly made Orthodox and all sacraments getting in the forests thanks to underground priests from Austria, especially Jesuits. After 30 years of such underground Nicolas II in 1905 proclaimed Law of religious Tolerance permitting everybody to have "own" religion, not to be forced belonging to state Orthodoxy. Most of Warsaw government Greek-Catholics moved to Roman-Catholic church to have never risk again of such religious terror. In case of Bialystok, repressions started 100 years before and the number of Greek Catholics with deep wish to return to own roots was rather smaller and actually we have about 60.000 people in 300.000 city Bialystok which still declare to be Orthodox. Communist country does nothing to explain them that their ancestors were "converted" by force. Few Greek-catholic missions established in 1918-1939, were too weak and worked to short to be able attract them back. Greek-Catholic priest in Dojlidy was killed by soviet Army which entered Bialystok in 1939, many others send again to Siberia. In times of Russian Empire all the memory about polish roots were destroyed, even family names with polish characteristic suffix "-ski" were forbidden. From now local people were forced to change also names using suffix "-uk" or "-ov". Kowalski became Kowaluk, or Kowalov. Nowakowski became Novichuk or Novikov.
In times of Soviet empire the most part of Bialystok Province was incorporated forcedly to Byelorussia and polish language in all the schools was cancelled. Surprisingly in place of Polish children was studying Russian but not Byelorussian, as some "local patriots" of Belarus culture were expecting for. They also were under repressions.
I will tell you one thing from my personal experience. Traveling to Byelorussia or even Lithuania, I was having deep impressing like I was still in Poland but Poland from school books of Mickiewicz or Orzeszkowa. I had feeling of being home even the people around was talking Russian or very strong eastern accent Polish. Phenomena of these places still impress, in my case more than Krakow. The watch of developing culture or civilization, stopped here on date 1795 and everything what happened later it was devastation and destroying wonderful many centuries old nicely mix of three: polish, Lithuanian and Belarus cultures.
I was sent to Indura fro practicing as deacon by Archbishop Kondrusiewicz. He was these days ruling church in Byelorussia with theoretical Bishop Sea in Minsk. In practice there was nothing to do these days in Minsk, most ob Byelorussian Catholics were living in former polish territories especially in Grodno Region. He lived in small wooden house on left side of the river Nemunas in Franciscan Church. There were also none life conditions or any Bishop Office but the things were just this way after so many years of Soviet repressions and persecutions in most Catholic Soviet country except Baltic countries.
I was traveling together with my classmate Peter and Bishop wished us to stay in Indura which was under Lithuanian Jesuit father Kazimiras Zylis. Bishop was asking us to sing daily Exequias and to make daily homilies in polish, because Zylis was talking very broken Polish-Russian pidgin and people were perhaps missing nice talks.
Zylis was kind of reporter making video tapes about all Archbishops numerous travels in all Byelorussia parishes. It was enthusiastic time of giving back hundreds of buildings back to church. Bishop was celebrating nice liturgies. In many cases people was not seeing bishop for 50 years, many was never seeing priest at all. It was important to make some document. Zylis was also driving in these daily travels. They were classmates with bishop from same Lithuanian Kaunas seminary and they liked each other very much.
In Indura church was about 20 altar boys and I got idea to make for them kind of meetings with plays and prayers same like I was doing in children retreats or in native Skrwilno in "Swedish hill".
I trained them all the funny songs from polish kindergartens and they were very happy.
Very soon Zylis came telling us that Bishop needs one deacon to assist in his travels and help organize liturgy in important ceremonies. Peter has gone and I stayed alone with my children. Later Peter told me about his wonderful missionary travels with Bishop and Fr. Zylis showed films about it.
One year passed and I came back making retreats for children. Such invitation I got from fr. Krzysztof Karolewski. One of his three parishes was in Plebanowce near Wolkowysk. I got invitation during st. Anthony Patron day. We came four people all my classmates: I, Peter, Krzysztof and Boguslaw. It was good place and occasion to pray there one of our first celebrations in priesthood. Very famous priest from Podlasie fr. Fordon.
Retreats were planned in August but I was working these days as vicar priest in Dolistowo. It was my first duty in priesthood. I was trying to have good start, but people were not very interested in visiting church. Village was small most of villagers busy in harvest time in their farms so I decided find some priest to change me and to go in Byelorussia. It was not very wise from my side, but surprisingly some Salezian priest which I knew from Rozanystok pilgrimage agree to come from Suwalki from just a single week. It was enough to make me happy.
I had 3 volounteers from Bialystok and 2 from Suwalki, all of them very enthousiastic people. We were training children religious songs, drawing even talking polish. I prayed daily mass in the evening so children and their parents were same happy as Indura people year before. Also fr. Karolewski was happy. He visited us just few times, because very bussy in another 2 parishes, but I knew, he is really thankfull.
We knew each other from Seminary time even he studied in Lomza 70 km east from Bialystok but he was native from Zuromin County close to my native Skrwilno.
County city in Grodno Region I was visiting 3 times but I remember very well. First I met there seminarians from Riga. One was Stefan native from Ostrowiec, near to Vilnius on Belorus-Lituanian border. I met him as a priest in Russia few times later.
Second visit was because of Redemptorist missions, during my staying in Plebanowce at st. Anthony fest. We were helping to confess thousands of people present on the event. It was really time of religious enthusiasm difficult to describe. I remember nice supper for priests. Archbishop Kondrusiewicz was present and happy. He was telling us many funny stories during eating. He also talked much in Lithuanian language with Zylis and local parish priest fr. Henryk. It was very confortable way. Lithuanian is very difficult to understand without being trained, so Bishop was sure that may tell something in secret without living from the eating room.
Somewhere near Wilejka, we have many Capuchins monasteries, their vice-Province Superior is living in Dokszyce. Some of parishes in old Polish borders we were visiting with fr. Edward Mackiewicz SDB in 1998. We were looking for change for me in case of my going to Siberia. These days I got to know a bit better capital of Byelorussia, city Minsk.
Vice-provincial fr. Jan was visiting us one year before, so we knew each other very well. He knew our parishes in Russia so now we get to know his parishes and success. In fact, small city Dokszyce got nice new monastery mostly made by own effort of parishioners with very small money.
On the way to Minsk fr. Jan showed us Moslem cemetery. In Dokszyce ever was living big Tartar Diaspora.
In Oszmiana I was twice. First visit was on my way back from Franciscan novice proving in 1996. I was traveling with Sister Teresa. Starting point was Warsaw, we crossing Vilnius, Minsk and Moscow. In Vilnius and Oszmiana were sister houses so Sister Teresa wished to visit them.
Local beautiful church in baroque style was restored thanks to Salezians. Local bishop these days took church back from Salezians and gave to diocesan priests. Two years later during our travel to Dokszyce I visited Oszmiana again with fr. Mackiewicz.
Oszmiana is close to Krevo. I saw the settlement from the distance. In such a small actually settlement 600 years ago Lithuanians decided to take Baptism from Polish missionary people and to create United Kingdom of two nations.
Slonim is the city known to me from children pilgrimage in 1991. As seminarian of 4-th course I was in summer camp in Bialowieza, polish city at Byelorussian border. There is a copy of Holy Mary from Zyrowice Greek-Catholic shrine in the past.
Actually Orthodox have own Academy and Seminary, the most important shrine in all Byelorussia. Catholics have to venerate local icon only in copy in city Slonim in Capuchin church. People knowing city Minsk may be surprised because most of so called Orthodox churches have seat in former Catholic buildings, even Orthodox Cathedral, so Zyrowice it is not the only case. These are examples of mentioned Russification and "conversion" of Catholics to Orthodox under Russian Emperors pressure.
My last visit in Slonim was also with group of children whom I was showing Warsaw for the last time on occasion of so called PARAFIADA sportive competition between parish teams.
I wished to visit fr. Dezor which was finally promised to change me in Azov.
It is bishop, actually even Cardinals Sea. There is nice Cathedral and relics of famous Bishop Lozinski, candidate to be blessed. Local Cardinal Swiatek is same famous man because of his sufferings in Siberia. As simple parish priest he was living poor at moment of returning from prison in 1956 until now in same conditions as archbishop Kondrusiewicz in Grodno. His house was on Shevchenko 12 Street in wooden slums with small garden.
I saw Cardinal in Bialystok as Seminarian just after his election as bishop. He was 77 years old in that moment but full of energy. In 1995 I saw him daily during Fatima retreats for priests, he was 81 and still same strong full of humor. Now he is 92 and I hope same health. I came to visit him and ask his blessing during my way back from Brzesc.
On the border during 5 days were sitting volunteers from Germany with transport of two chapels for Volgodonsk and Toliatti on Volga. The rules on borders changed and to cross the border they needed permission from Rostov. I made everything immediately but bureaucrats from Rostov wished to send papers by post, it may go weeks or even months in soviet way. If so our chapel will return to Germany. I beg Rostov people to give me document in hands and permit to bring personally on the border. Thanks God they gave me. I took the driver and we were traveling about 1700 km by stupid soviet roads old defected car just 24 hours with crazy speed 100-140 km and small stops to tank gas.
We were traveling successfully but on our way back just 20km out of Brzesc one of wheels broke and pulled out. Thanks God on small speed. We were not in hurry now. If it happened one day before, nobody will stay alive, not me not driver.
It was the reason I wished to make stop and visit Cardinal talking to him. He was very very simple and kind. He gave us many rosaries from Rome and special blessing to my driver which made fast reparation of the car and happily drove me home.
Germans which were driving faster were waiting us on Byelorussian-Russian border. From that moment we were traveling together.
Baranowicze it was beloved city of Cardinal. It was residence of SVD (Verbists) in all former USSR superior Jerzy Mazur. Later he became bishop in Irkutsk and my superior also.
In Baranowicze you may see his big gift of organizing things. He have built two big churches on one street, Verbists church and Fatima Holly Mary shrine with mother house of Sisters Missionaries of Holly Family Province. Verbists were having Radio broadcast, paper "Dialogue", Training Center for lay Catechists and so one. Many diocesan level activities were having place in Baranowicze. Jerzy Mazur started also pilgrimages on foot, to some Franciscan shrine close to Minsk.
Nowogrodek I was visiting twice. At first I was there together with my classmate Jurek Rojecki and my native brother Cezary. We came in the evening so parish priest local dean fr. Dziemianko invited us to stay in the night. We were sitting and talking in the deep night. Later he prepared for us 3 improvised sleeping places in the same very poor wooden parish house. He was very good guest.
He may be our classmate, but he was a priest for many years, just because got sacrament of priesthood as 20 years old boy in the deep underground. Prelate Lisowski his parish priest prepared him in deep conspiracy. He also prepared same way another 7 priests, just because he was old and afraid there will be no follower after his death.
Nowogrodek is native city of Adam Mickiewicz, most famous polish poet, so all the school children are familiar in Poland with the city Nowogrodek, but not many had opportunity to visit the place. Mickiewicz in his writings mentioned that church as a place of miraculous healing of him as a baby. Mother brings him half death on altar at the icon of Ostrobramska Holly Mary and he recovered. I was really happy. City has nice landscape and many churches. Most of them at the moment were given to Orthodox or just in ruin, not returned still to owners.
The city was famous also because of strange death of 11 Nazaretan Congregation sisters. They martyred in good faith asking God to be arrested in place of local Parish priest. In fact God accepted their prayer. Priest got freedom and sisters were not only arrested but also executed. German soldiers who were doing that were talking later that it was really heroic death. Now we call these sisters Holly Martyrs from Nowogrodek. Graves were exhumed and new solemn burial was made by fr. Dziemianko on territory of His church. It is the second reason that visiting the city may be useful for anyone.
Mohylew is pilgrimage place. Local Cathedral of St. Stanislaus was in soviet times used as KGB archives.
The dean in Mokhylev was famous priest Wladyslaw Blin, native from Byelorussia but educated in Wloclawek in Poland. Returned, obtained back Byelorussian passport as adult man. In 1999 he became Bishop in Witebsk. He was sick man but with God's help he does much for local Catholic society. He became famous in Poland sending big groups of children addicted in result of Chernobyl explosion. He also established Catholic community in close Smolensk in Russia. He started activities on cemetery of Polish Officers killed in 1940 by soviet KGB.
Mokhylev was in 19-th century the Bishop Sea. Mokhylev Archdiocese was largest in the world. 200 years ago most of Russian Empire was under Mokhylev Archbishops care. Later Bishops see moved to Petersburg, but still was called as before Mokhylev Archdiocese.
In that city blessed Boleslawa established mentioned congregation of Missionaries of Holly Family. They still are very active in the city and all Byelorussia. They have one house in Moscow and had in Bataysk on Don. I collaborated with them during 7 years.
Homel is Neo Catechumenal Center, the biggest in all Byelorussia. They have built nice church in the center close to Academy of Medicine.
Parish Priest fr. Slawomir, I saw him once before going to Siberia. His people gave me nice small sculpture of Holly Mary with 12 years old Jesus. I took the statue to Irkutsk and perhaps is still there in Bishops house.
In Minsk I was the first time with my children from Zabiele on my way to Mokhylew in spring 1992. We were visiting newly returned to Catholics Red Church, white Cathedral still in hands of Sportive and Cultural organisations. Catholics were preying on the 3-th or 4-th artificial flour. One of workers was verbist missionary priest from Slovakia. His small room was on the same floor.
Few years later I got to know also st. Joseph hand-made chapel in the garden. It was kindness of some Catholic family in new Minsk to have such a place. I realized in Minsk we have same difficulties as in Russia.
I remember also church of saint Roch with Byelorussian father Anatol Parachniewicz. He studied in same seminary in Bialystok and ever was very patriotic to his own language.
In 1998 I was in Vatican Embassy. Archbishop Nuntius was Slovakian priest. His office in the center of the city was looking nice and very representative.
In Glebokie I spent just one hour perhaps on my way from Mohylev to Dunilowicze. It was one of centers where in the middle of I and II world wars actively worked Catholic mission in the middle of Orthodox, which in the past were Greek-Catholics.
During my visit I met fr. Cyril Klimowicz, which I knew from some priest in Elk (East Prussia). This priest in Elk was classmate of fr. Klimowicz and he talked to me his life story. Klimowicz same as fr. Blin was born in USSR in Kazakhstan Republik, but his paretnts took him to Poland as a baby in sixties. He had problems in getting Polish citizenship so he studied in Warmia seminary as foreigner, even Poland was for him homeland and all his ancestors were Polish. During his studies he finally got proposition to get Polish Passport, but it was time when collapse of USSR was near and he got idea to be a priest there. He choosed Byelorussia and because very successful priecher. He also got ordination as a bishop first in Minsk, later as bishop in Siberia in Irkutsk. He came on place of dismissed Bishop Mazur and I hope he feel good. The people in Minsk loved him so perhaps in Siberia the same.
In fr. Pozarski parish house our children spent the last night before visiting Vilnius. Priest was telling me about his activities and about local administration promissing him to dimiss from Byelorussia. I was told it happen in Brest and other places, but at first I man a person who was really persecuted for being Catholic priest in Byelorussia. Soon he has gone to st. Petersburg. These days Russia was more tollerant than Byelorusia. Actually both countries have the same intolerant kind of politicians.
In Bieniakonie was living poet Michal Wolosewicz, classmate of my schoolteacher Mrs. Goralska. Wolosewicz was living same town where young Mickiewicz falls in love first with Maryla Wereszczak-Puttkamer. Mickiewicz was poor man; Maryla was rich lady so family protested against their relationship. Soon Mickiewicz was arrested and expel first to Crimea later dismissed from Russian empire but ever nostalgic for his first love.
Wolosewicz made also poems about young lovers and ever talked with pleasure to visitors of his town about both Adam and Maryla. He was showing me and my children the memorial stone which Maryla established in memory of her boyfriend.
In Bieniakonie came Pallotine Priests just in last years of soviet regime and work successfully. Church was damaged but they have restored. It was big effort but local parishioners were very generous and helped new priests which came from Poland.
It will take much time to describe the beauty of Grodno, the city on River Nemunas. I will just say, actually it is very close similar to Bialystok city. The people have very own style of being, talking and thinking. Most of citizens declare to be Polish and Catholic. It is actually bishops sea. Nice seminary in former Bernardine monastery. Cathedral in former Jesuit shrine of Holly Mary of students called "Kongregacka". Nice church of st. Brigit. Actually we have novitiate of Nazaretan sisters and many other activities.
We have polish schools here. Polish organizations and papers, also Consulate. The rulers of the state make difficulties to all these movements, but because the people have really polish roots and strong will to restore them soviet times cannot return back.
Grodno is at the border of United Europe, but the people of Grodno and perhaps most Byelorussia will prefer in deep heart to be same side of new iron curtain. I believe in deep heart it may happen some day.
At the end I wish to make some remarks concerning history. Byelorussia is mostly forest land with beautiful lakes and landscapes. Has no seas and none mountains. Has also small natural resources, it is why depends so much from Russia. The most treasure of Byelorussia is local farmers. They are very busy, religious and honest people. You can see it especially in western part of the country. The only problem is lack of reforms and private farms. It is local anachronism inherited from USSR.
The only natural border Byelorussia has with Ukraine which is friendly country without any territorial or political aggressive aspirations. Border to Russia is opened. Moscow politicians still treat Minsk like own territory. Lithuania is friendly to Byelorussia. Vilnius for many Byelorussia patriots is capital of Byelorussian culture. Historically for centuries it was one big country with specific nation customs and religion. Greek-Catholic faith was established here and was flourishing under Polish-Lithuanian Republic as own, native faith but destroyed by Russian Emperors.
Latvia also has Byelorussian minority. Poland has none aggressive policies or territorial ambitions. We have big polish minority and many common heroes like Mickiewicz and Orzeszkowa, even saints like St. Casimirus, blessed Boleslawa or blessed sisters from Nowogrodek.
St. Casimirus loved Byelorussia very much. His beloved city was Grodno. He even died in the Castle of Grodno in 1484.
It is difficult in Byelorussia until now to declare being pure Polish or Byelorussia. Everybody has mix blood. Even Lithuanian people and culture is present in any aspect of Byelorussian history.
People are trained to tell nothing about their roots. The knowledge of history was so many centuries changed by Imperial propaganda of Russia and Soviet Union. Real Byelorussian patriots has chance to live and act mostly in Poland. Many of them were catholic priests in Vilnius seminary in the beginning of 20-th century.
Myself, I am deeply convinced that Byelorussian culture and language have to be restored. In fact all the politicians in Minsk ignore local language and culture. As children of soviet country they prefer to talk Russian publicly and to collaborate with Moscow more than with Europe. Deep Russification of native Byelorussians is perhaps the biggest problem of the country.
In short time of national enthusiasm in 20-30-ties of 20 century most of educated people with patriotic minds in Byelorussia were killed in famous village Kuropaty.
In early nineties, to open schools with Byelorussian language, local authorities in Grodno were looking for teachers in Bialystok, in Poland!
In my opinion it is most wounded nation from all 15 soviet Republics after getting freedom. In fact they still depend of Russia and still risk being a part of Empire, simple colony, not independent country.
Most typical and native for Byelorussia is Greek-Catholic church. It was established in 1596 in Byelorussian Brest, has own holly patron as st. Josaphat Kuncewicz, but still in "independent" Byelorussia has difficulties in restoring own structures.
F. Jaroslaw Wisniewski
Beijing; October 25, 2006