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When Fr. Joseph Jarzebowski, MIC, made a perilous escape from Poland during World War II, the fate of The Divine Mercy mission and devotion in America hung in the balance.

'Man on a Mission'

Fate of Divine Mercy in U.S. Hung on Marian Priest's Perilous Journey

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Photo: Marie Romagnano

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The statue of Fr. Joseph Jarzebowski, MIC, in Lichen, Poland.

Among the many pictures taken in Lichen, Poland centered on the beatification of Marian Founder Blessed Stanislaus Papczynski is one snapped on the grounds of the magnificent basilica of Our Lady of Lichen. The shrine stands as the largest church in Poland and one of the largest in the world.

The Shrine's prepossessing grounds do justice to this striking edifice built in honor of the Blessed Mother. There are numerous chapels, grottos, and other locations that all but induce spontaneous prayer. For pilgrims, these "prayer spots" reveal a few of the endless possibilities we have for communing with God when we focus the mind and call to heart the "spiritual," whose essence is love. These are holy grounds.

The picture in question depicts a statue of a cleric. We don't stop the presses at the sight of a statue on the grounds of a shrine. We expect effigies at a shrine the way we presume to see fans at a football game. "Great ... a statue ... so what?" you ask.

If you have a devotion to The Divine Mercy, so everything!

Large in Stature and Spirituality
The sculptor has memorialized the priest holding a plaque that bears the image of The Divine Mercy. Behind him, to his left, a stone cross stands firm and upright, reminding pilgrims that the limits of God's love are infinite. The priest's face is determined and resolute, with a hint of — what would we call it — thanks, gratitude, indebtedness, appreciation? All four words would fit. It's an inspired work of art.

So who is this man?

The legend under the statue tells us he's Fr. Joseph Jarzebowski, MIC. It also informs us that he was born in 1897 and died in 1964, certainly a Marian of relatively recent vintage — young enough so that more than a few present-day Marians remember him on Eden Hill, home of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass.

Father Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, for example, director of the Association of Marian Helpers, remembers meeting Fr. Jarzebowski in the mid-1940s in Stockbridge. Father Seraphim describes him as a man large in stature, presence, and spirituality — a determined man, the proverbial "man on a mission."

"Mission." The word gets us closer to understanding why Fr. Jarzebowski rates a statue on the holy ground of Lichen.

Militarized Political Evil
Obviously, he's not just another deceased Marian. So why is Fr. Joseph Jarzebowski important enough to be memorialized with a statue? Because without him, who knows where the message of Divine Mercy would be today, particularly in the United States. It might well be nowhere.

In 1940, Fr. Joseph, a Polish priest who turned 43 that year, embarked on a perilous journey upon whose success rested the fate of the Divine Mercy message in America.

To better understand the temper of the priest's flight, keep in mind that World War II was raging following Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. The war brutalized Poland, and for men of the cloth, a priestly vocation offered no protection against the onslaught of militarized political evil. The Marians of the Immaculate Conception were no exception. The war threw the Congregation into chaos. According to a history of the Marians compiled by Br. Michael Gaitley, MIC, "a large number of Marians" died during the war, including many who were murdered.

In 1940, the situation in Europe deteriorated. America had not entered the war, and one year after the Nazis invaded Poland, Germany entered into agreement with Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan to form the dreaded Axis powers, a covenant formalized with the Tripartite Pact signed in September. The Axis military machine stormed over Europe and, at its peak, controlled large parts of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Ocean. To the east, Poland also had to contend with the looming presence of the Stalinist Soviet Russia, a godless dictatorship that was in the middle not only of World War II but of genocide.
Stalin's murderous purges killed millions.

'The Decimated and the Destroyed'
The communist threat was only too real. In 1940, the Marians opened their Latvian Province. Only a few years later, following the Soviet annexation, the communists destroyed the Marians' Latvian and Lithuanian houses, killing almost all the seminarians and many of the brothers. In all, 98 Marians died.

In 1940, Father Joseph — with a penetrating, almost prophetic intelligence — realized he had to leave Poland to escape the mayhem. With war-torn borders secured and heavily guarded, with communications disrupted and tapped, with spies lurking, and with unauthorized travel one of the surest ways of attracting attention of the authorities, the prospects of escape seemed dim. The chilling command, "Produce your papers!", served as the first words of the epitaph for countless innocent individuals caught in a nightmare and slaughtered for the "crime" of trying to flee its horror. "Refugees" they call them, which is a euphemism for "the decimated and destroyed."

Before Fr. Jarzebowski launched his daring getaway, he made a solemn vow to promote the Divine Mercy message if God would allow him to escape occupied Poland. He made this bold promise only two years after St. Faustina died, this even though Fr. Joseph had up to that time been hesitant about working to spread the message of mercy. It was a classic "this-for-that" deal that urgency and desperation often force us to make with God.

Father Joseph's deal with God contained the codicil that's always required from us but one we seldom live up to, especially after God holds up His end of the deal and we — in our smugness — conveniently forget to honor ours. Once we get what we want, it's human — all too human — to worry about God.

The codicil in question is the one Jesus prayed in Gethsemane the night he was betrayed. He asked His Father to take away "the cup" of His Passion, then added: "Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it."

A Man of Honor
Unlike so many of us who write spiritual checks that God cannot cash because of our inadequate funds of thanksgiving, Fr. Joseph would prove himself to be a man of honor.

The priest's journey of escape led him into a number of perilous situations that would do justice to a script for an action spy thriller. The circumstances of his safety do not skirt the improbable. They border on the miraculous.

Father Joseph journeyed from Poland through Lithuania, Russia, Siberia, and Japan, before finally setting foot in San Francisco, Calif., four months later. Through his travels, amid the terrors of war and despite many hostile inspections from suspicious guards, Fr. Joseph was able to bring with him a copy of The Divine Mercy image hanging in St. Michael's Church in Vilno. He also carried copies of two documents written by St. Faustina's spiritual director and confessor, Fr. Michael Sopocko: the Second Memorial to the Polish Hierarchy, and a manuscript on the Feast of Divine Mercy.

After this extraordinary journey and having arrived in San Francisco, Fr. Joseph took stock of his situation. He realized he had made it safely only because of help from The Divine Mercy. He then faced reckoning time, a squaring up of accounts. He had to deal with his end of the "bargain." Would he keep his promise to God?

It was probably the easiest life-alternating decision the priest ever had to make: from that moment on, Fr. Joseph dedicated himself to spreading the message and the devotion. No energy would be conserved, no expense unpaid in honor of his promise. The promise sweetened into ardor, his ardor into action, and his action into results.

Modest Beginning
Father Joseph traveled to Washington, D.C., and then to Michigan. After a retreat he conducted for the Felician Sisters at their Motherhouse in Enfield, Conn., Fr. Joseph asked the Sisters if they would print in Polish The Divine Mercy Novena, Litany, and Chaplet.

This modest, black-and-white edition — 2,000 copies in all — quickly sold out, and not long after, as Br. Michael Gaitley puts it in his compilation of Congregation history, "thankgivings to Divine Mercy began to pour in. This outpouring led other Marians in America to dedicate themselves to spreading the devotion."

At the Immaculate Conception novitiate in Stockbridge, Fr. Joseph established the Mercy of God Apostolate. The Apostolate grew into today's National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, spiritual home of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception in the U.S. and recognized as the headquarters of Divine Mercy in America.

From the 1954 Winter-Spring issue of Marian Helper magazine:

In memory of Father Joseph, who brought the message to this country, and was its first active apostle, all correspondence sent from the Mercy headquarters [in Stockbridge] is signed with his name ["Fr. Joseph, MIC"], though he at present is Superior of Divine Mercy College in England. ... The Marian Fathers are doing all in their power to bring knowledge of God's great mercy to every possible soul. They ask your help, spiritual and material, in this vast undertaking. On the grounds of the Novitiate, they are building a beautiful Shrine to the Mercy of God.

A Journey of Love
Father Joseph's harrowing journey to America in 1940 was a journey of love. His spirit of faith employed that love to turn fear into courage and darkness into light, a Light of Love that had to be the Holy Spirit holding up His end of the deal. Today, the pure Goodness that is God can be felt in every corner, in every grotto, and in every blade of grass on Eden Hill.

That's why people come here, as they did to Lichen on Sept. 16 for the beatification of Fr. Stanislaus Papczynski. They come here for the Love of God, which is boundless Light.

That they are able to come here at all must be attributed to the man honored by a statue on the holy ground of Our Lady of Lichen Shrine in Poland. Won't you all join me in a silent prayer of thanks to Fr. Joseph, whose presence still abides on Eden Hill.

We who walk here do not walk alone.

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