Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko — Terror of Communists, Target of Vandals, Hero of Catholics Worldwide
For some modern Americans, Blessed Jerzy’s bold resistance to communism is an object of protest.
On Oct. 19, 1984, a gentle and courageous priest named Jerzy Popiełuszko, age 37, found himself in a horrible spot. For years, the official chaplain to Poland’s Solidarity movement had been monitored and harassed by the communist state. He was much beloved by the people of Poland, and thus he and his faith and his freedom fighters were a mortal threat to communist ideology and the regime. He had to be stopped.
The state aggressively continued to close in on the priest. He nervously knew his time was short. The time arrived that Oct. 19. Three thugs from Poland’s secret police seized and pummeled him. He was bound and gagged and stuffed into the trunk of their Fiat automobile.
Father Popiełuszko’s first beating that evening was so severe that it should have killed him. He was a small man afflicted with Addison’s disease. He previously had been hospitalized for other infirmities, including stress and anxiety. But somehow this Oct. 19, the priest was managing to survive as he fought for his life in the dark trunk of the Fiat. In fact, somehow, he loosened the ropes that knotted him and extricated himself from the car. He began to run, shouting to anyone who could hear, “Help! Save my life!”
He was run down by one of the goons, Grzegorz Piotrowski, who unleashed himself and his club upon the priest’s head with a ferocity as if he were possessed. Piotrowski later conceded that he didn’t know what had gotten into him. His comrades thought he had gone mad, “so wild were the blows.” He later said, “I became — never mind, it doesn’t matter.”
The beating was like a flogging. Father Popiełuszko’s pounding was relentless.
The priest’s tormentors next grabbed a roll of thick adhesive tape to bind his head. They ran the tape around his mouth, nose and head, tossing him once again in the vehicle, like a hunk of garbage on its way to the heap. After that came yet another thrashing still, with one of the communist secret police ultimately delivering a final deadly blow to the priest’s skull.
The killers drove to a spot at the Vistula River. They tied two heavy bags of stones, each weighing nearly 25 pounds, to the priest’s ankles. They lifted him in a vertical position above the water and then quietly let him go. He sunk into the blackness below.
The killers felt an immediate sense of guilt in their consciences. They drove away, downing a bottle of vodka to try to numb what they had done. “Now we are murderers,” one of them said to himself.
Indeed they were. Of course, so was the communist system they represented. When communist authorities eventually retrieved Father Popiełuszko’s decayed corpse from the river 11 days later, it was almost unrecognizable. His bloated body was so mutilated that it would have been unrecognizable if not for its priestly garments. The communist police who inspected the body surveyed the destroyed victim’s identity card. It listed his date of birth and then his profession as a priest. “Priest?” chortled one of the police. “That’s a profession?”
The boys got a good laugh there. To communists, nothing was as laughable as religion. To think that religion could be an occupation? Hah!
The communist system and its handmaidens had consumed countless Jerzy Popiełuszkos and tens of millions of others whose names will scarcely be remembered on the anniversary of their deaths. This priest, however, was remembered, by the millions. Ultimately, his struggle was not in vain. The communists could not extinguish Poles’ desire for God and for freedom. It would take another five years after his death, but the saintly priest’s demise would further fuel the flames for the torch of freedom and the corresponding crash and burn of communism.
Father Jerzy Popiełuszko’s cause is a significant one. His Church has certainly recognized him. He is now Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko. His memorial is Oct. 19, marking the date of his death and martyrdom on Oct. 19, 1984.
The deep respect for Father Popiełuszko makes so troubling and puzzling what happened to his memorial statue at McCarren Park in Brooklyn, New York. Last May, a statue erected as tribute to the slain priest was vandalized. Garbage was tossed all around the base and a large plastic trash bag was tied over the priest’s head. The words “No Polish” were scratched on the stone.
The way that the statue was vandalized is ironic, if not chilling. The desecrators bound a plastic bag over the statue of Blessed Jerzy’s head, reminiscent of how his head was bound when communists murdered him before tossing him in the Vistula River.
One is prone to chalk up this incident as an attack by ignorant radicals who targeted Blessed Jerzy’s statue for no other reason than it was a monument to some dead European white guy — part of the anti-statue craze that swept America in the ugly summer of 2020, targeting everyone from Columbus to even Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. But look more closely: The words “No Polish” were scrawled on the stone. Moreover, the act took place on May 3, which is Poland’s Constitution Day, a national holiday for the proud people of Poland.
Notably, too, this is not the first time the statue was desecrated. Shortly after the monument was first unveiled in October 1990, it was vandalized — the head severed. The monument was restored and rededicated in 1992, in a ceremony attended by more than 10,000 people. Every year on Oct. 19, thousands of Polish Americans gather at this area, now named Popieluszko Square, to honor the priest and his witness.
Obviously, the place has special meaning to local immigrants. In fact, about 20% of local residents (Greenpoint) speak Polish as their first language.
“This place is a meeting spot,” says local resident Konstancja Maleszyńska, noting that prayer vigils are often held there. “For example, we meet here to remember the victims of communism each December. But folks come here almost every day, intentionally, to light a candle, lay flowers, pay respects, pause with a heavy bag of groceries on a bench, eat a deli sandwich, meet some friends. Some, the less fortunate of us, also sleep here. This space is good and safe. This space is sacred.”
Perhaps all of that is why someone, or some group, targeted it. Blessed Jerzy’s bold resistance to communism might be an object of protest for some modern Americans.
In 2017, the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution, a group of leftist protesters showed up at the Victims of Communism Memorial on Capitol Hill and snapped and posted a photo of them collectively giving their middle fingers to the monument remembering the 100 million-plus deceased victims of communism. Many of those victims were from Poland — such as Blessed Jerzy.
“It is disheartening to learn the statue of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, a man who devoted his life to the advancement of freedom and liberty, has been vandalized once again,” Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said in May.
It is indeed. Perhaps that devotion was why he was targeted?
It prompts the question of why anyone would target this statue dedicated to this man.
Then again, at a time when America’s new desecrators have relentlessly attacked statues of figures from St. Louis to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and when hardly a statue of St. Junípero Serra remains standing outside the missions he founded in California, why would Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszkogo unscathed?
For the new cultural revolutionaries, Blessed Jerzy may be merely the next in line.