All Saints/All Souls Day in Polonia

By Robert Strybel,

November 1st and 2nd have for centuries been celebrated by Catholics world-wide, and Poland (together with some Romance-language nations) has observed it with particular devotion. The custom came over to America with Polonia’s immigrant pioneers who celebrated the first two days of November, November 2nd being the holy day of obligation. In a sense, both feast days have been set aside to honor those who have gone on to their eternal reward. All Saints Day is the day people pray to their officially canonized patron saints as well honoring all those unknown and unnamed souls who have gone to heaven. Since no mortals know what the fate of those who have ‚crossed over’ may be, All Souls’ Day (Zaduszki or Dzien Zaduszny) has been devoted to honoring one’s own dearly departed and praying to God to show mercy to the poor souls in purgatory.

The importance of these feastdays over the years appears to have waned somewhat across in Polonia, possibly due to widely observed rival mainstream occasions (notably Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day) on which the dead are honored. But they continue to be marked in America marked wherever sizable Polonian concentrations exist. That includes the well-known American Czestochowa Shrine in Doylestown near Philadelphia, the Polish Carmelite and Salvatorian monasteries in Indiana, and various Polish parishes and cemeteries in between. Apart from the purely religious aspects of these feastdays, they have considerable potential for creating a symbolic sense of continuity with those who have gone before us and stimulating interest in the achievements of the Polonian pioneers who laid the foundations for the local Polish community. Here are some suggestions:

Polish Saints in litany:

When the Litany to the Saints is said at All Saints Day Mass, be sure to have the officiating clergyman include Poland‚s patron saints. They are headed by Matko Boska Królowo Polski (Our Lady Queen of Poland) or the older form — Matko Boska Królowo Korony Polskiej (Our Lady Queen of the Crown of Poland). Local Polish Madonnas of nation-wide religious significance include, first and foremost: Matko Boska Czestochowska (Our Lady of Czestochowa) and Matko Boska Ostrombramska (Out Lady of Ostra Brama — now in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius [Wilno]). Canonized Polish saints include St Wojciech (Adalbert), two Stanislaws (bishop & martyr and Kostka), two Jadwigas (Hedwigs — a queen and a Silesian princess), St Jacek (Hyacinth — said by some to be the patron saint of pierogi?!), St Jan Kanty, St Kazimierz, Saint Jozafat, St Andrzej Bobola, St Klemens Dworzak and, in more recent times — St Maksymilian Maria Kolbe, who sacrificed his life for a fellow-prisoner at Auschwitz. A Polish congregation’s response to the saint’s name in the litany read out by the priest is: ‚Módl sie za nami’ (Pray for us). If more than one saint is invoked as in ‚ O swieci Janie i Pawle’, the reply must be in the plural: ‚Módlcie sie za nami’.

Patronal feast:

All Saints Day is the patronal feast parishes named Parafia pod wezwaniem Wszystkich Swietych (All Saints Parish) — an appellation often encountered among parishes of the Polish National Catholic Church, including Chicagoland’s All Saints PNC Cathedral. In addition to the religious liturgy prescribed for the occasion, this celebration could include the traditional parish fair or at least a community supper. Other observances suggested below (cemetery clean-up, cultural pilgrimage, renovation fund, alms) could also be incorporated.

Prayer intentions: Prayer intentions known as “wypominki “ are a typical feature of Polish All Saints/All Souls Day observances. After the All Saints Day Mass a priest seated at small table at the back of the church, in the vestibule or elsewhere takes down the names of the dearly departed for whom parishioners want prayers to be offered on All Souls Day. Usually, these are recently deceased family members or friends, although some people have their loved ones remembered in prayer for decades and entire generations. The parishioner makes a ‚cołaska’ monetary offering (as much as he feels he can give). The following day (Nov. 2), the wypominki are read out from the altar during the All Souls Day liturgy.

Most functioning American cemeteries are regularly kept in order by professional maintenance crews, but local Polonian pioneers often lie buried in old, largely disused and rarely visited cemeteries that may have become somewhat neglected. Circumstances permitting, involving a Polish-American children’s or youth group (school, scouts, altar servers, dance ensemble, teen club, etc.) in a clean-up campaign might be a rewarding project in more ways than one. Apart from beautifying the burial ground, this is a good occasion to teach young people how to accomplish something constructive through teamwork and teach them about their ancestors at the same time. If the effort is properly supervised, it will keep also them busy and out of trouble. But any cemetery — whether largely abandoned or still very much in use — will take on a new radiance if its graves are decorated with flowers, little Polish and American flags and votive lamps. If this custom is new to your area, be sure to contact the local TV stations. You can be more than certain that Polish-style observances commemorating the dead — especially the ocean of flickering flames after nightfall — will be featured on the evening news.

All Souls Day observances:

Holy Mass, the visiting of graves and the reading of wypominki (prayer intentions) constitute the core of the All Souls Day celebration. If there are a great many prayer intentions (if, let’s say, 100 families list half a dozen departed loved ones each that amounts to 600 names), the reading may be carried over the masses celebrated on subsequent days. The actual procedures depend a lot on the topography of a given venue. For instance, whether the cemetery is near or within walking distance of the parish church, or whether there is a chapel, mausoleum, outdoor altar or other structure suitable for celebrating Holy Mass at the cemetery. If the cemetery is within walking distance, Holy Mass may be celebrated at the parish church, followed by a candlelight procession to the cemetery for additional prayers and wypominki. Votive lamps should be available at the parish or outside the cemetery. It is a Christian gesture to come equipped with more votive lamps than needed for one’s own family use and place lighted lamps on untended graves that may no longer have anyone to look after them.

Alms and renovation: Apart from prayer, penance, visiting the sick and burying the dead, according to Church teaching one of a Catholic’s duties is to give alms to the poor. Although though is no lack of poverty even in relatively well-to-do America, homeless beggars do not congregate at cemetery gates the way they once did in the Old Country. But a collection of money and/or food can be taken on that day at church or at the cemetery and made available to local homeless shelters, the parish needy, etc. In a variation from the original charitable effort associated with All Saints/All Souls Day, in recent years in some of Poland’s historic old cemeteries (Old Powązki in Warsaw, Rakowicki in Kraków) well-known celebrities collect donations from those visiting those burial grounds on those days for the renovation of some of the weather-worn statuary, regarded as part of the people’s cultural heritage. Perhaps that modern-day Polish custom could be borrowed by Polonian communities whose old cemetery has been allowed to deteriorate but, by virtue of its architectural assets, those buried there and/or location remains a site of local cultural importance.

All Saints/All Souls pilgrimage: If your area’s traditional old Polonian cemetery is some distance away, consider organizing a bus, van or car-pool pilgrimage on either of the first two days of November or the nearest weekend the observances are transferred to in a given year. In addition to the liturgy commemorating the dead (Mass, prayer intentions), the occasion could be combined with an historical presentation about the early Polonian pioneers who lie buried there. Many old Polonian big-city cemeteries have ornate chapels, mausoleums and grave monuments erected in their honor, and each of them can be a story in itself. (It goes without saying that the person conducting such a pilgrimage must be well versed in local Polish-American history.) If the parish does not hold a supper that evening, perhaps the pilgrimage could be capped off with a visit to a local Polish restaurant.