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Fr. Nick Caffaro leans into a pew to point to a student who was answering his question: “What did Fr. Nick give up for Lent?”

Students at St. Michael School in Pinconning learn Polish to delight their priests

By Mark Haney
The Catholic Weekly

PINCONNING — Kathy Krzysiak and the students of St. Michael School planned a surprise for the four priests who came to celebrate Mass with them on Tuesday, April 24.

That’s right, niespodzinkę.

That’s Polish for “surprise.”

The four priests — Frs. Nick Caffaro, Jerzy Dobosz, Richard Jozwiak and Chester Pilarski — were coming to do a Polish Mass for the children and those adults who could attend. What Krzysiak planned was for the children to respond in Polish to the priests at various points in the Mass.

Deacon Stanley Kuczynski from St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in Bay City read the Gospel in Polish and then in English.

The idea was hatched when Floyd Grocholski came to St. Michael Church in February for one of his periodic polka Masses. The well-traveled polka accordionist and Krzysiak, who plays piano at parish Masses, decided the students could learn a few Polish responses to the Mass.

But Krzysiak, who is not Polish — she grew up in California and had no exposure to Polish culture before meeting her husband — needed some help. She turned to Deacon Stanley Kuczynski from St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in Bay City to help. He wasn’t available, but he sent along Dorothy Gerold, who made several visits to the school to teach the children.

“The children,” Krzysiak said, “are spot on.”

Eighth graders Vicki Wise and Meredith Grusnick were cantors for the Polish Mass at St. Michael School.

Enthusiasm for the project grew to the point where seventh and eighth graders were coming forward to volunteer to learn more Polish just for the Mass.

“For the kids to get into it that much,” Krzysiak said, “almost never happens.”

One reason for that enthusiasm may be the role those four priests play in the parish. They each have served as sacramental minister for St. Michael Parish and School, which has no pastor.

“They are really our children’s sacramental ministers,” she said. “So this is a gift back from the children for all they have done for our parish and for the children.”

Krzysiak got additional help from the classroom teachers, who helped with the language instruction.

“The teachers have been working with kids in the classroom too,” she said. “I had to write the words out phonetically so they could work with them. It has just been a real team effort.”

The students were pledged to keep the plan a secret so the priests wouldn’t find out. They were so good at keeping the secret that they didn’t even tell their parents, until Krzysiak found out and told them telling family was okay.

Eighth graders Vicki Wise and Meredith Grusnick, who served as cantors, also learned to sing a little Polish.

“Dorothy Gerold said the two girls are just perfect,” Krzysiak said. “She can’t believe how good they are.”

Wyatt Osier, 7, helped his mother, Michelle Osier, sing a hymn from the printed song sheet.

The surprise was effective. It spurred Fr. Caffaro to speak about his Polish heritage during the homily.

“What did Fr. Nick give up for Lent?” he asked the children.

One answers, “candy.” Another answers “beer.” Yet another answers, “cooking” —

“Because you know I like to cook.”

Yet another answered, “pop.”

None were correct. After several more wrong answers, he turned to Grocholski.

“Mr. Grocholski, what did Fr. Nick give up for Lent?”

“Polkas.”

He gave them up for Lent, he said, because he likes them, he’s Polish and because they are fun.

His Sundays, when he was a youngster, meant getting up early to serve at Mass at SS. Peter and Paul Church in Brownsville Heights, Ohio. It was there, through the priests, that he learned the Polish language.

“When I was very young, we had a Polish Mass every day,” he said. “I learned Polish through prayer. It is not very easy.”

He learned, he said, by hearing the prayers and then reading the words.

He would return home from Mass to find his mother in the kitchen, making dinner and listening to polkas. He often found her dancing around the kitchen to the music coming from the radio.

Polka music, he told the children, is not Polish. Rather it is an American creation, formed when immigrants like the Poles, Slovaks, etc., combined their traditional folk music with the new beats and music they heard in their new homeland.

The faith, he said, is like the Polish language and polka music, something handed down from generation to generation.

“Boys and girls,” he said, “that faith was the greatest gift I could ever receive. Now we are giving it to you.”

At the end of the Mass, before he dismissed the children, he turned to the adults in attendance.

“One of the things I am going to view you is homework,” he said. “You guys don’t have to do homework but the adults do. Do you like that?”

The children roared in approval.

“I am charging each and every one of you to dedicate a rosary each and every day for these kids,” he said. “If this is important to you then make it important to them to give them a culture of faith. These kids need that stability. They definitely need an example of what Christianity looks like, what Catholicism is like.

“I ask you to pray for these kids at St. Michael; and for those at St. Anne (in Linwood), and for all of the children of the diocese that through them we might have more vocations.”

Still, kindergartner Kinsie Jacques could not stifle a yawn during the Mass.