A Place to Go for Mass and Pirogi

Times Staff Writer

For more than two decades, Orange County’s Pope John Paul II Polish Center has been a cultural and religious hub for thousands of Polish Americans.

In a county that has no Polish enclaves, the Yorba Linda center has become a headquarters of sorts where expatriates and others can worship as well as gab about Poland’s entry into the European Union over coffee, golabki and pirogi.

“We want to keep our culture,” said Frances Chlebowicz Ports, who came to the United States in 1949. “We want our children to remember and have some idea who the Polish people are.”


The center has a chapel, meeting hall and classrooms. Inside, a portrait of Pope John Paul II hangs on one wall, his hands clasped in prayer. A shrine to Mary, who is referred to as Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Black Madonna, is near the altar.

The Polish community put down roots slowly in Orange County. After World War II, many Polish people attended Mass at a Los Angeles Roman Catholic church. Then they moved to another in Anaheim, then held services at a Catholic high school, and, for a time, at a funeral parlor.

At each site, they raised funds to buy a future church site by selling Polish food and holding an annual harvest festival that still draws thousands to the center each September.

In the late 1970s, the Rose Drive property where the center now stands, about three miles from the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, was purchased. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla from Krakow, Poland, had been selected pope, and the center was named in his honor. It opened in 1983.

“Many of us knew him when he was the archbishop in Krakow,” said Lila Ciecek, 79, of Tustin, who was among the original group that founded the center.

Though seen by many as a church, officially it’s a center because it serves a specific community, not a territory, and has no full-time priest for its 2,000 families, said Father Douglas Cook, the center’s director. The families come from around the region, including West Covina and San Diego.


“But it functions like a church for the Polish community,” he said.

Cook works full time at the Diocese in Orange but oversees the center along with several others, including Father Henryk Noga, whose command of Polish is better than Cook’s.

“My Polish is a little rusty,” said Cook, who was born in Omaha, Neb., but whose ancestors are from Poland.

A link to the homeland is important to parishioners, Cook said. Members visit Poland on a regular basis, and although they are Polish Americans, most speak and read Polish and are eager to hear news from their homeland.

“Ties to the Polish culture are very important here,” Cook said. “That’s why we started our children’s school on Saturdays. Many of the parents who are Solidarity exiles send their children to Poland in the summer to visit relatives, but to also learn the Polish culture.”

Several generations of Polish people go to the center, including those such as Ports, who immigrated to the United States after World War II, and Solidarity exiles who arrived in the late 1970s and ‘80s.

Stan Czarnota, 48, who came to the United States in 2000, was among the Solidarity leaders taken from their homes at night and locked up after a Polish Communist general declared martial law. Czarnota, who now lives in Rowland Heights, was a member of the labor movement and elected to Poland’s first Solidarity Congress. Like many of his countrymen, he felt a kinship to the late Pope John Paul II and still can recite the pope’s words from a speech he gave in 1979 on his first visit to his homeland as pontiff.


“There was talk that they weren’t going to let him enter the country,” hesaid. “But he came and he gave a speech that included the words ‘Let the Holy Spirit step on and renew this land.’

“I was 21 at the time and working in the mines. His words inspired me. I decided to improve working conditions. I was part of a strike and later joined the labor movement.”

Czarnota never met the pope, though others connected to the center had, including Ciecek and Bishop William Johnson, who as head of the Diocese of Orange until 1986, approved the Polish center’s creation.

Cook tells newcomers how Johnson’s first meeting with the pope went: “Lore has it,” he begins, smiling broadly, “that Bishop Johnson was expecting big and great things to hear from the pope. But when he leaned forward he was told, “I hear you have Polish community. You take care of them.”

Another exchange was when Ciecek and her husband gave Pope John Paul II a picture honoring one of Orange County’s adopted celebrities, actress Madame Helena Modjeska.

Born in Krakow in 1844 as Helena Modrzejewska, she became a renowned Shakespearean actress who toured the United States and then settled in Orange County near a peak later named in her honor.


“Pope John Paul was an actor and had written a screenplay,” Ciecek said. “Since we had places like Modjeska Peak and Modjeska Canyon, we took a picture of a monument to her and took it with us on our trip to Rome.”

At a private meeting, Ciecek said, she handed the picture to the pope. “His eyes lit up and he said, ‘Oh, Madame Modjeska!’ We told him we live in Orange County. He looked very pleased.”