This calendar of saints is drawn from several denominations, sects, and traditions. Although it will no longer be updated daily, the index on the right will guide visitors to a saint celebrated on any day they choose. Additional saints will be added as they present themselves to Major.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

February 17 -- Feast of Blessed Antoni Leszczewicz

Many Roman Catholic priests were among the millions of Polish citizens murdered during the Nazi occupation of Poland.  The Catholic scholar Matthew E. Bunson describes the scope succinctly:
Blessed Antoni Leszczewicz
Between 1939 and 1945 over 3,000 members of the Polish clergy were killed; 1,992 of them died in concentration camps, 787 of them at Dachau. Altogether, estimates place the number of Polish civilians killed in the war at between 5 and 5.5 million, including 3 million Polish Jews, not even counting over a half million Polish civilians and military personnel killed in the fighting. 
Antoni Leszczewicz was one of these.  Although ethnically Polish, he was born in the Belarus region of the Russian Empire in 1890.  Of course, Poland did not even exist on the map in 1890.  What had not been devoured by Germany or Russia was taken by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Those (and other) titans of imperialism were destined to so badly wound each other in World War One that little folks like Poland would eventually creep back onto the map, only to find themselves stomped again during World War II. 

Trans-Siberian Railway
Being a subject of the Russian Empire, Antoni enrolled in the St. Petersburg Seminary in 1909.  He was ordained a priest on April 13, 1914; Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot on June 28, 1914.  Exactly one month later, World War One was declared.  But combat was not the only way to make a sacrifice during those years.  Father Leszczewicz went to work in the southern Siberian cities of Chita, Harbin, and Irkutsk. 

I recognized the third city from playing Risk as a kid.  Irkutsk is 5,185 kilometers from Moscow.  The distance from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon is only 4,078.45 kilometers.  Although it is a stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway, it is a hell of a long way to go.  And even though it is southern Siberia, let's not kid ourselves about the climate.  The average daily temperature in February is six degrees Fahrenheit; the record low is minus forty-eight.  

Polish Silver Cross for Merit
Although he was way out east, his isolation was not complete.  Enough folks knew of his good works that in 1934 the Polish government awarded him a Silver Cross for Merit for his work with the poor.  In 1937, he visited Japan, which must have been odd since Japan went to war in China that year. In 1938 he visited Rome, and in 1939, he became a missionary group supervisor back in Belarus.  He would have been safer in Irkutsk, of course, but I don't imagine personal safety was his concern.  After all, it is not as if the Soviet government had been very friendly to priests, especially Catholic priests, from the start.  

Blessed Antoni got word that the Nazi forces were advancing into Belarus in 1943.  He knew, of course, that Poles were being killed or sent away.  He knew also that Catholic priests were being killed or sent away.  He was doubly marked, but he stood his ground.   On February 17, 1943, the Nazi occupation force in the little village of Rosica (Rositsa), Belarus ordered Leszczewicz into a barn with many other prisoners.  There, they were burned to death.  

Three thousand members of the Polish clergy were killed by the Nazis.  Pope John Paul II batched 108 of them together and collectively canonized them.  Today, we honor just one of them, but it is also worth remembering the scope of things.  Further, it is worth remembering that approximately eleven million people were killed in the overall genocide that was the Holocaust, of whom six million were Jews.  Mr. Bunson's statistic about Polish clergy was in a very Roman Catholic context; he was not counting rabbis.  Finally, we ought to remember that the collective madness known as World War Two killed sixty million people, 2.5% of the world population at the time.

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