Tina Griego
The Denver Post

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April 16, 2010
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Plane Tragedy Unites Polish Community in Denver

If you travel Interstate 70 near downtown, you may have noticed a church steeple piercing the sky along the westbound lanes just before the I-25 interchange. Not that the steeple calls attention to itself. It's a slender spire topped by a metal cross. But it sits close enough to the freeway that, in a moment's daydream, a car passenger might imagine reaching out and brushing a hand across its surface.

The Catholic church to which the steeple belongs is of red-brick construction and is also modest in appearance, with sturdy wooden doors. It is within that the Polish families who built this church 108 years ago lavished their attention. Stained glass, statuary, an intricate, many-steepled altar piece. Some years ago, the high, arched ceiling was painted the late summer blue of the Colorado sky. Yet, it's not grandeur that is suggested but rather intimacy. Every Sunday, two Masses are held, one in English, one in Polish.

If the Polish community in Denver can be said to have a shared heart, this church may be it. And if all hearts must be tended lest they wither, then this one has long known only one caretaker. He lives in the small house next door. It is Monday, and he is resting and not expecting visitors. But he offers me a seat, puts his cane aside and sits back.

"You may ask me all kinds of questions," Father Jan Mucha begins. "Whether I can answer," - and here he offers a small shrug - "I don't know."

He is 80 years old now and has spent half of his life leading this one church in a neighborhood that has always belonged to immigrants.

It is, of course, the past weekend's plane crash in Russia that brings me here. Nearly 100 killed, including the Polish president, his wife and many top government and civic leaders. It is customary, in the aftermath of tragedy abroad, for reporters to seek out a local community. Perhaps additional insight is sought, two-sentence primers on politics or history, which are quickly forgotten. What is gained from such interviews is the underscoring of the understanding that some ties never fray. Distance and time hold no meaning in grief. It is as a young woman once told me: The blood calls.

It should be no surprise, then, that in a stone nave between the church and the priest's house now burn many memorial candles. Or that near the alabaster feet of the Virgin Mary are propped the red and white flags of Poland. Or that in a matter of hours Saturday, the church pews filled or that the stunned and sorrowful ranged from those recently arrived to the American-born descendants of immigrants past.

As it happened, Father Mucha (pronounced moo-ha) had invited a fellow priest from Poland to help him with Lenten and Easter services, and it fell to this younger man, Zbigniew Bogacz, to offer words of comfort.

Such tragedy the country has not known since World War II, Father Bogacz said. As he recounted his words, Father Mucha translated the Polish to English. Later, Father Mucha told me it is his hope Father Bogacz will take his place here, continuing his work among the Polish Catholic faithful.

What is gained in times of such tragedy is access to otherwise unseen communities, a chance to follow the steeple to the front door of an aging and affable priest who understands the life of his congregation stands not apart from Denver, but intertwined with it.

The surprise here is not that people removed from Poland by one generation or by five would gather to grieve. It is that, against all odds, this church community has survived to grieve at all. Their predecessors were laborers working alongside other Eastern and Southern Europeans in smelters, sugar beet farms, meat- packing houses.

"It was the poorest place in Denver, and it still is," Father Mucha says. "People came from different countries and they came with nothing."

It was possible on any given Sunday to walk from block to block and hear priests offering sermons in Polish, Serbian, German, Russian. And when they could, the immigrants left the neighborhood for bigger houses in better neighborhoods. The city later plowed freeways through the neighborhood, isolated it from the rest of the city. From those sturdy front doors of St. Joseph's one gazes directly upon the wall of I-70.

"You don't want to stay here. This is a dying church," Father Mucha says a fellow priest told him 40 years ago.

"He was wrong," Father Mucha says, leading me through the church. The Poles left for the suburbs, but they returned for Mass, baptisms, funerals. The congregation, replenished by Polish newcomers, has more than doubled, to 150 families, the priest says, and more than 100 children are now studying Polish at Sunday school. Together, they sing. Together now, they mourn.

Tina Griego writes Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Reach her at 303-954-2699 or tgriego@denverpost.com .


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The Summit Daily Updated Apr 16, 2010 06:45PM Published Apr 16, 2010 06:42PM Copyright 2010 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.