Ark of the Great Pole’s Covenant

Anticipating the 29th anniversary of Archbishop Karol Wojtyla’s election to the See of St. Peter on Oct. 16, a visit to a place in which he made pre-papacy history by standing up to, and slowly but surely defeating, communist suppression: The Church of Our Lady, Queen of Poland in Krakow’s Nowa Huta district. By John W. Davis.

Look out your window while approaching Krakow from the air and you can easily pick out two monstrously large landmarks.

The first is a scar on the landscape marking an erstwhile stone quarry. Its gray walls arc around a lake. The second is a gray, pipe-and-concrete behemoth of a building complex: the Nowa Huta steelworks and its surrounding blocks of apartments. These Stalin-era flats, which house close to a quarter million souls, look like rows of cold stone walls.

Both places indirectly played a role in my life as a Catholic — and, directly, in the life and history of the Catholic Church — so my wife and I recently went there on a pilgrimage of sorts.

After exploring the medieval streets, castle and cathedral of Krakow for a couple of days, we went to visit the now-international Jagiellonian University. Here the great Pole who would become “John Paul the Great” both learned as a student and taught as a professor.

In the university chapel we met a young Irishman named Michael. He told us he always went to a church when he was lost. Which he was when we met him: He’d been given wrong directions.

It turned out he, like us, was on a quest to discover what he could about Pope John Paul II in this city he lovingly served as archbishop in the 1960s and ’70s. I mentioned the rock quarry we’d seen from above — the one in which young Karol Wojtyla worked as a laborer during the Second World War.

Yes, Michael knew about that place, and could relate to the hard work Wojtyla did there. Our new friend was a gravedigger, which, he said, is “about as close as you come to a quarryman these days.” John Paul understood workers like him, he commented, because blasting and chiseling rock is exhausting manual labor.

“And he studied for the priesthood secretly at night,” he added. “I’m afraid I just go home and fall asleep.”

We explained how to get to Nowa Huta, the easternmost district of the city. Its name means “New Steel Mill,” and it witnessed one of Archbishop Wojtyla’s most astonishing apostolic moments. Here he showed how to defeat a powerful enemy using only prayer and peaceful methods of persuasion.


Communism Confronted

It has been said that, too often, the good-willed win only moral victories while evildoers take over the land. It was just so in Nowa Huta for years.

Built in 1948 by order of Joseph Stalin, who wanted to put the city’s Catholic leadership on notice and in their place, Nowa Huta was to be a city without God. Years of strife followed before the communists granted permission to build a church in 1966.

An oversize cross was placed on a green space. Outdoor services were held. But no building project materialized. The government proved itself highly competent in the arts of bureaucratizing, stalling and lying as Bishop (and then Archbishop) Wojtyla patiently filed and re-filed building permits.

Violence erupted when the state came to bulldoze the cross that had stood so long in the open field. To defuse the danger without giving up the fight, Archbishop Wojtyla organized peaceful processions through the streets. He held prayer services in the fields, come rain, snow or sunshine.


Lost and Found

At last the government relented. Officials issued a building permit — with caveats. The church had to be built without use of state property. And, of course, everything belonged to the state. There would be no steel, no concrete, no tools and no equipment. Just a patch of land and a permit.

The archbishop asked every parishioner-to-be to bring stones. Gradually millions of stones streamed in as people realized the government — likely believing the effort doomed to futility — was allowing the activity.

Stones came by bag, pocket and suitcase. Cement was mixed with shovels in crude wooden boxes. And, just like the handmade cathedrals of old, the church at Nowa Huta rose, bit by painstaking bit.

As Archbishop Wojtyla prepared to return to Krakow from the Second Vatican Council in Rome — the communists had granted him permission to attend, probably for diplomatic reasons — he was approached by Pope Paul VI. The Holy Father handed him a stone selected from the ground of St. Peter’s tomb. Let this be the foundation of the Church you are building in Nowa Huta, he offered.

And so it was. In May 1977, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla consecrated Our Lady Queen of Poland Church in Nowa Huta.

As a young father I saw a magazine photo of the completed church in 1977. Although it was located in a land beyond the Iron Curtain, it had a peaceful bearing that I can still recall in my mind’s eye. It looked like a proud ship floating over a drab sea of a communist city. It was dedicated to Christ’s mother, but the locals called it the Ark of the Lord. (In fact, they still do.)

I wanted to visit that place of sacrifice, faith and forbearance in the face of powerful and persistent resistance and antagonism. Three decades later, I finally did.

The trip was worth the trouble. The art and architecture of the “Ark” is decidedly modernistic but also completely captivating. Innovative yet reverent, it tells the visitor about the people who worship here.

Christ’s way of the cross is commemorated in a mural that incorporates the sufferings of the people of Poland. Here is a Pole in prisoner’s rags, beaten by a Nazi. There is a statue of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who volunteered to be murdered in place of a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz.

One standout statue is of the Blessed Mother. It’s made of from shrapnel and bullets taken from the flesh of Polish soldiers wounded in World War II. Another shows a holy Polish mother whose sons were taken by the communists to Siberia.

The altar is a sort of marble hand from which the bread of life is offered. The metal tabernacle recalls in abstract form the mighty God who made the earth, the stars and the planets: Embedded in that sacred space is a moon rock given by the people of the United States.

Then there is the astounding, arresting, crucified Christ. Fashioned in a sort of tortured cruciform, the suspended corpus is not affixed to a cross. Christ knew real pain, as did the Polish people. He is risen from death as they are from their oppression under first the Nazis and then the communists.

I’ll always remember Michael, our Irishman, because he unwittingly summarized what meant so much to me about that pilgrimage. 

Over the Ark’s confessional is an inscription: “Before entering, reconcile with God, with your neighbors, and with yourself.”

Like Michael, whenever I’m lost, I’ll go where Jesus is.


John W. Davis writes from

Athens, Alabama.