HEROIC LEGIONARY ACTION
Fr. Francis Cegielka
~ Excerpts from Maria Legionis magazine May 2019
Fr. Cegielka was born in 1908 in Grabow, Poland which was occupied by Germany. He came from a devout Catholic family and was ordained a Pallotine priest in 1931. He spent part of his first year in Paris before returning to Poland to teach college students. In 1938 he returned to Paris as rector of the Polish Catholic Mission. There were many Poles in Paris who fled there during the “Great Emigration”. Many were devout Catholics and needed pastoral support as they found French religious customs unnerving. They could not understand the Latin mass and the sermon was in French. A network of itinerant chaplains was established to serve the Polish communities.
Fr. Cegielka regularized the chaplain system, founded a high school for children of Polish exiles and established “Caritas”, an organization that distributed food and clothing to the poor refugees. “Fr. Cegielka also displayed the characteristic heroism of Poles ( Poles hold the highest percentage of those named ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ by the State of Israel) in denouncing the Nazi’s in his sermons at the Church of the Assumption and in radio broadcasts.
This drew the attention of the Nazi’s once they had occupied France. Fr. Cegielka recalled the day the Gestapo arrived on 10/26/40 at the mission office:
“Gentleman.” He didn’t call me Father. “We have in possession all of your sermons which you delivered through the French radio to the Polish people against our German system. You will not be free anymore. This is the day that we make really the end to your freedom. You come with us and we will place you in the prison of Paris.”
He called the next period of his life “The Great Pilgramage for Martyrdom.”
He was imprisoned in Paris until December 1940 when he was transferred to Berlin. He could leave his cell ony 2 times per month. During Holy Week he was put in a blacked out cell with no food or water. After, he was sent to the prison hospital. Once recuperated, he was sent to Dachau on 2/13/41.
Dachau was originally intended to house political prisoners opposed to the Nazi regime but was expanded to include Jews, clergy opposed to the regime and criminals. Over 30,000 documented deaths at the camp were from forced labor and terrible conditions but prisoners were also executed, died during medical experimentation or succombed to disease. A large proportion of priests were selected for medical experimentation. Over 1,000 Catholic priests died at Dachau and of that, about 800 were Polish priests.
Fr. Cegielka was housed in the priests barracks. He recalled how he survived ….. “It was really very important to have a firm will and peace of heart. How was it possible to find peace of heart in such conditions? And I answer just by your faith. You see, if you believed in God, in His not only justice but also law, then you knew that you are under His protection and if he permits all that suffering to us, it is also on the basis that we, the mortal priest, are co-responsible for the salvation of other people.”
He said other priests were sustained by maternal love. Most prisoners who received packages at the camp had them opened and disturbed by camp authorities. The priests noticed, however, that packages sent by their mothers mostly made it through undamaged. This led them to a deeper appreciation of the role of their mothers in their lives.
In 1945, Dachau was liberated by the American forces.
In 1947, Fr. Cegielka refused to cooperate with representatives of the Communist government in Poland. He left for Rome and while there he was most interested in furthering the spread of the Legion of Mary and began to learn English upon Frank Duff’s recommendation. He made contact with the Irish ambassador to the Holy See, Joseph Walshe, who was also a legionary.
In 1948, Fr. Cegielka visited Dublin and the Legion’s headquarters for two weeks in September. Frank Duff continued to correspond with him a number of times thereafter. He then emigrated to the United States where he became a distinguished university lecturer and taught theology at several American universities. He earned a nomination as an “Outstanding Educator of America”.
In 1981 he became Director of the Infant Jesus Shrine in Wheatfield, NY where he worked on developing the site.
He died in 2003 at the agent of 95.
“Fr. Cegielka’s story is a dramatic example of the courageous work done by legionaries and their spiritual directors around the world, often quietly and without recognition.”
Note: An interview with Fr. Cegielka was recorded by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1990. It can be found online at: https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn504550.