By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
CONSHOHOCKEN – Jozef and Felicia Rzeznik of St. Mary Parish, Conshohocken, were thrilled and watched television when Pope John Paul II was beatified on May 1. They were living in Warsaw, Poland, in October 1978, when they received the unexpected news that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow was elected Pope.
“At first it was a complete surprise and then enormous joy,” recalls Felicia, 68. Even the dour communist regime could not suppress the pure excitement that flooded Poland, and it grudgingly allowed the installation of Poland’s first pope to be telecast.
“If you walked down the street every window was open, and nobody had any other program on,” she said.
Born in the United States as Felicia Jemionek of Polish parents and raised in St. Mary Parish, Felicia was a Catholic lay missionary in Texas before going to Poland in 1975, where she worked as a teacher in a school that served the international community.
Jozef, 67, wasn’t born in Poland either. His mother was taken to Germany by the Nazis for slave labor during World War II, and that is where he was born. After the war the family returned to Poland.
As a young engineering student at the Polytechnic Institute of Warsaw, he remembers attending a lecture Cardinal Wojtyla gave at the university during a visit to that city. He would also come to speak at times for Days of Recollection.
Jozef and Felicia met because their fathers were close friends. After a brief courtship, they married, and their two sons, Stas and Tom, were born in Poland.
The family was still living in Warsaw in October 1979 when John Paul II made his first visit home.
“Every parish had a place assigned along the route he would pass, and the street was covered with roses as far as I could see,” Felicia recalls. Millions of Poles saw the pope on that joyous homecoming visit, and for a time a multitude of candles left by the faithful lit the square where he had celebrated Mass. Taken away by the communist authorities at night, the candles would be replaced by the following day.
The family was able to come to America in 1981 with necessary visas supplied because of Felicia’s American citizenship. Over the years, a highlight for Felicia was attending a papal audience of Pope John Paul II in Rome, and Jozef had an opportunity to speak to him during a visit to Poland.
Jozef obtained work in his engineering field, while Felicia taught at various archdiocesan high schools, usually English or history. She taught at Archbishop Carroll, St. Pius X, Kennedy-Kenrick, and now appropriately enough, John Paul II High School in Royersford.
They also became active in ministry at St. Mary’s, where Felicia is a lector and extraordinary minister of holy Communion, and Jozef lectors at the Polish language Mass.
Jozef believes as pope, John Paul was especially effective because he knew and understood Eastern Europe, something his Italian predecessors could not know as well.
“He was extremely charismatic, intelligent and faith-filled,” Felicia said. “The people loved him.”
“There was a feeling from the time of his death that he would someday be a saint,” Jozef said. “I had it too.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.