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updated: 4/11/2010 6:51 AM

Area's large Polish population grieves tragic plane crash

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  • Victoria Szczudrawa, 10, and her bother Jacob, 6, pray at a photograph of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife during a memorial Mass at Divine Mercy Polish Mission in Lombard on Saturday.

      Victoria Szczudrawa, 10, and her bother Jacob, 6, pray at a photograph of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife during a memorial Mass at Divine Mercy Polish Mission in Lombard on Saturday.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer


The phone's ringing shook Betty Wroblewska from sleep.

It was 3:30 a.m., and her sister was on the line from Europe, talking about their homeland.

"She was saying our president had passed away. I couldn't believe it," said the 21-year-old Des Plaines resident.

Wroblewska quickly turned on the TV to Polish news station ITVN.

"There was a Mass already going on for the President and his wife. It was so unreal to me," she said. "I just started crying. It brought memories back of when our Pope died."

As she worked Saturday at the European-style Oak Mill Bakery in Niles, it didn't seem to get any more real. The bakery should have been packed with Poles, but traffic was eerily slow.

"Our weekly customers aren't in," said Malgorzata Szczpka, of Chicago, who works with Wroblewska.

Szczpka and Wroblewska, who came to the United States when she was 10, reached out Saturday to the Chicago area's strong social network of Poles, checking Web sites, gabbing with customers and going to Mass - trying to make sense of it all.

Like Wroblewska and Szczpka, tens of thousands of Poles in the Chicago area are shaken by the news of the plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and more than 90 of the country's dignitaries and military leaders.

Now local Poles struggle with what the future may hold for their home country. Houses of worship across the region were a safe haven for Poles looking for solace and hope Saturday night, a practice likely to continue today and for weeks to come.

The Polish president was set to attend the annual Polish Constitution Day Parade in Chicago on May 1. Chicago has such a heavy Polish population it is known as "Chicago Polonia."

In Lombard, two lit candles flanked a framed photo of Kaczynski and his wife, Polish First Lady Maria Kaczynski, who was also killed in the crash. The portrait was on display during Sunday evening Mass at Divine Mercy Polish Mission. The church's parking lot was filled to capacity and cars were adorned with the red and white Polish banner and its familiar white eagle. Hanging with many of the flags was a black ribbon.

As many as 350 - many in tears and disbelief - heard Father Adam Bobola's remarks at Divine Mercy where services are held in Polish.

During Mass, Bobola urged followers to unite in prayer despite their political differences.

"We need to stay together as a nation, as people, as Catholics, Christians and face this tragedy together, no matter what our political options are, no matter who you sympathize with," he said before the Mass.

Bobola also dismissed conspiracy theories on the cause of the plane's crash.

"We have to wait for the official investigation and see what was the problem, although it seems pretty obvious that the weather conditions contributed to this tragedy," he said.

The plane went down in heavy fog en route to services commerating the 1940 Katyn Massacre in Russia, where Russian secret police slaughtered as many 22,000 Polish officials.

Jon Bien of Wood Dale attended the services in Lombard. He said it was important to remember the victims of not just this plane crash, but any tragedy.

"It doesn't matter the place, whether it's the United States or Poland," he said.

Killed along with the president and first lady was distinguished Chicago sculptor Wojciech Seweryn, whose father died in the Katyn Massacre. Seweryn designed a memorial to the massacre's Polish military victims at St. Adalbert Cemetery in Niles. It was the scene of a makeshift memorial to Seweryn on Saturday, as local residents surrounded the statue with flowers and candles.

Similar signs of mourning marked the Chicago region Saturday.

At St. Margaret Mary Parish Family in Algonquin, the church was flying the Polish flag at half staff and had placed a signature book in the lobby featuring a picture, draped in black, of the president and his wife.

"It's pretty somber," said Father Michael Tierney. "There have been Polish people in and out all day, saddened by this. People who are normally pretty joyous are just shocked. I'm envisioning it in a similar way to what Kennedy's assassination did for us. It just sort of stunned us."

The Roman Catholic church, which has a membership of about 3,700, celebrates a Polish mass each week, serving 1,000 Polish families from suburbs that include Huntley, Cary and Crystal Lake, attend.

Tierney is planning a special prayer for 1 p.m. Mass today. "Our English community," as well as our Polish community, grieves," Tierney said.

The Polish president's death hit the Chicago region especially hard since it is said to have the second most Poles in the world next to the Poland capital of Warsaw. Today more than 800,000 in the region are of Polish decent. About 138,000 Polish-born residents live in the Chicago area, with roughly half residing in the suburbs, making up the second largest immigrant group in the region.

Before Poland joined the European Union in 2004, Poles were immigrating to the U.S. in droves, seeking to escape the country's high unemployment. One out of three immigrants would land in the Chicago area, either scattered across suburbs like Algonquin, Mount Prospect and Lombard or concentrated in the northwest side of the city.

While immigration from Poland to the Chicago area had dropped in recent years, Poles still make up the largest white ethnic minority at just under 8 percent of the population, according to some estimates.

Saturday night, world leaders began expressing sympathy over the tragedy. That wasn't lost on Father Bobola from Lombard.

"This tragedy touched and moved the hearts of many other people, not necessarily Polish, it's a kind of a global tragedy," he said.

Crying: Many spend the day at Mass

• Daily Herald staff writers Ashok Selvam, Harry Hitzeman and Joseph Ryan and wire services contributed to this report.