St. Faustyna Kowalska, the author of the book that has had more translations from Polish into foreign languages than any other and a great advocate of God’s mercy, spent a few crucial years of her life in Łódź. It is in this city of textile industry that the young girl stepped on the path of her Christian vocation
Helena Kowalska came from a poor peasant family. She lived in Głogowiec village with her parents (Marianna and Stanisław) and nine brothers and sisters. The family made ends meet cultivating a small field, the father also earned some money doing carpentry in his own workshop.
No wonder then that at the age of sixteen Helena had to leave her family village in search for work. Her parents could not afford to keep financing her education (she completed only three grades of primary school). It was hard to get by in the 20s of the 20th century, Poland regained its independence only a few years earlier, its statehood was being built again and the country kept tackling with the dramatic effects of WWI and the Polish-Bolshevik war which ended in Oct. 1920.
”When I was seven I first heard God’s voice within my soul. It was an invitation to live a better life, but at that time I would not always listen to the Grace’s voice. I had not met anyone who would explain those things to me.” The Diary (7)
Helena got to Aleksandrów Łódzki, a small town where ca 8 thousand people lived at the time. She was provided with references from Janina Ługowska, an acquaintance of Helena’s family. Janina was a sister of Leokadia Bryszewska, the wife of the local baker Kazimierz. Helena got work there. She cleaned the house, cooked, did the washing up, washed clothes and even brought water in buckets, because the water supply system had not yet reached Parzęczewska Street. In her free time she looked after the 6-year-old Zenek, the only son of the hosts.
Helena spent less than a year in Aleksandrów, then she went back to her family home in Głogowiec. Being already after confirmation (it was during her stay in Aleksandrów that her parish was visited by a bishop) she decided to enter a nunnery. She told her parents about it, but they said ”no”. They told her they did not have money for the dowry, which in their opinion closed the case. Not even the local parish priest could change their minds. Helena obeyed her parents’ will, but she left her village again to take up work, this time in the city of Łódź.
In mid-20s of the 20th century one British man of letters referring to the then newly reinstated Poland claimed that if one wants to see Poland’s past, they should visit Kraków, the presence is to be seen in Warsaw, whereas the future shows itself in Łódź. Although that was disputable, undoubtedly at the time the city had already been in rapid development for many decades. Early in the previous century Łódź had over half a million inhabitants. As far as languages used there, apart from Polish it was easy to hear German, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew. Piotrkowska Street, the most important street in Łódź, boasted the splendid facades of tenement houses, smog hung over the manufactures and factories and the city suburbs were full of lavish mansions.
On 10th Dec. 1920 Łódź became the capital of the diocese and the Church of St. Stanisław Kostka built just a few years earlier was made a cathedral, the mother church for all Roman Catholics in Łódź. There were also three big Lutheran churches, Orthodox churches and synagogues, but it is the cathedral that has played a crucial role in the story.
”If you want to see Poland’s past, visit Kraków, the presence is to be seen in Warsaw, whereas the future shows itself in Łódź.”
Helena came to Łódź in 1922. She did not look for a job in the textile industry than was then so open to new workforce. The young Kowalska aimed at working as a maid. At the beginning she made use of her family ties: she stayed at her uncle Michała Rapacki’s and worked for three Franciscan Tertiaries.
At the time the work market must have privileged the employee, since Helena was able to give her employers three conditions: guaranteed time for everyday participation in a church mass, possibility to take care of the sick and the dying and access to spiritual guidance of the priest who was the guide of the Tertiaries. She apparently had to pay the price for that: her wage was not high at all.
9 Krośnieńska Street where she lived and worked is ca 2 kilometres away from the cathedral. One can walk the distance at a fast pace in 20 to 25 minutes. Helena did it every day. She woke up every morning early enough to be on time on the first mass. It is not known if she had her favourite seat there, if she went to the same confessional… Yet there is no doubt that the Eucharist shaped the spirit of that girl on a daily basis.
In early 1923 Helena found a new job offer. When she turned up in the house of Marcjanna Sadowska, the owner of a grocery shop at Abramowskiego Street 29, she did not make a good impression on the woman who, upon seeing an elegant young lady found her unfit for maid’s work. She did not tell it to Helena openly, but in order to discourage her she offered her a low wage. To her astonishment, however, Kowalska accepted that. She was taken in and started to work.
Helena took care of the house and the host’s children. ”When I was away from home, I could be sure everything back there would be done better than I could possibly do. She was kind, well-mannered and diligent. I cannot say a single bad word about her, because she was even too good. Unspeakably good” – remembered Marcjanna Sadowska.
Helena continued her charity work as well, e.g. she cared for an ailing old man who lived in the same tenement house in a tiny room under the stairs. She catered for his bodily (bringing him food and dressing him) and spiritual needs (she brought a priest to him who gave him the Holy Communion host and heard his confession – which was the last time in the old man’s life).
The girl also very much wanted to help in the nearby Anna Maria hospital for children. The institution fell into financial troubles, but there was nothing Helena could do about that, so at least she visited the children in the surgical ward.
We know details of a certain incident connected with a visit of the eldest sister Józefa. To receive the guest in a proper manner the host asked Helena to go shopping for food. She brought only rolls. When asked by Marcjanna why she had not bought anything else she responded: ”because it’s Lent”.
The change of living place to Abramowskiego Street gave Helena something else: the walking distance to the cathedral was cut in half, so she could get there in less than a quarter of an hour, and running even in 10 minutes. Did she do that every day?
”At the age of eighteen I begged my parents to let me join the convent, which they rejected straight away. My reaction was giving in to temptations of life and suppressing the voice of Grace, yet my soul could not be soothed by anything. The call of Grace tormented me ceaselessly, therefore I tried to run away from that, immersing myself in all possible forms of entertainment. I avoided God and gave myself away to His creations instead. God’s Grace ultimately won in my soul, though.” The Diary (8)
The vanity that she described in The Diary became a milestone on her way of life. Then two Helena’s sisters, Gienia and Natalka, worked in Łódź, too. They met once a week, on Sunday, after the mass in the cathedral. They talked, exchanged gossips and went to dance parties.
One of the latter was held in the then ”Wenecja” (”Venice”) park with small ponds connected with narrow channels, hence the park’s name, today hard to understand since all the water has gone dry long ago. The party that the three sisters and their friend Lucyna Strzelecka decided to take part in was a ticketed event. According to Natalia Kowalska’s words on that occasion Helena was in a frilled pink cretonne dress and her hair was in a solid plait.
”Once I was with my sister at a dance party. Amidst the best fun had by all the others I felt a terrible torment affecting my soul. When I started to dance, I saw naked, wounded and suffering Jesus by my side. He asked: »How long shall I suffer and be lied to by you? «. At that very moment the music went silent and the people around me disappeared. There was only Jesus and I. I sat next to my dear sister, pretending that all that was happening to me right there was caused by a headache.” The Diary (9)
The sun nearly set. It was a peak of the party at ”Wenecja”, the band shell was making a lot of noise, perhaps there was a trampoline among the ponds where the boys jumped over fire to water. Helena slipped out stealthily from the crowd and, running and walking, headed for the cathedral.
”As the evening drew near and there were only a few random people in the cathedral, I did not pay attention to anyone, I just lay on the floor in front of the Eucharist and prayed to the Lord for blessing me with the recognition of what I should do. Suddenly I heard the words: »Immediately go to Warsaw, you will enter the convent there «. I finished the prayer, went home and prepared myself for the journey. I told my sister what had happened in my soul, asked her to say goodbye to our parents from me, then without even changing the dress I was in I went on my way to Warsaw.” The Diary (10)
So began the nun’s way of Helena Kowalska, who after entering the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy bore the name Faustyna. The world knows her as St. Faustyna Kowalska, the advocate of God’s mercy, one of the favourite saints of the Polish pope, St. John Paul II.
In Łódź the memory of Faustyna Kowalska is not only symbolic. Of course there are plaques in places where she dwelt, there is a monument, the Church of God’s Mercy and the Church of St. Faustyna Kowalska built half way between the ”Wenecja” park and the cathedral. Her profile is on the huge Heart of Łódź bell. On the initiative of archbishop Władysław Ziółek St. Faustyna was declared the patron saint of Łódź on 10th Dec. 2005.
Actions taken by common people are what counts as well. Twice a year the parish of St. Faustyna organizes festivities in her name, with e.g. carrying her relics in a march to the cathedral. Festivals of Mercy commemorating the party that had the far-reaching consequences for Helena are held in the former ”Wenecja” park.
It was in Łódź in 2008 that the group ”Iskra Bożego Miłosierdzia” was created, which started the first ”Chaplet on 111 Crossroads” on 28th Sept. of that year. Groups of people with rosaries turned up in various spots in the city and exactly at 3 p.m. started saying their prayers. The idea spread all over Poland and beyond. These days, apart from the actions carried out every 28th Sept., it runs around the globe in the form of the ”every week a chaplet in a different country” relay.
Marks of St. Faustyna in Łódź: 1. The archcathedral basilica (tympanum with an image of the saint and a scene of ”Wenecja” park). There is a display in the modern multimedia room devoted to the marks of St. Faustyna (with voice tracks provided by Polish, English, German and French lectors); group tour bookings in the vicarage. 2. Plaque on the house at Abramowskiego Street 29. 3. Plaque on the house at Krośnieńska 9 (a museum of the saint is being set up inside and will be run by the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy). 4. The Church of St. Faustyna Kowalska at Plac Niepodległości (a chaplet every day at 3 p.m.). 5. The fountain/monument of St. Faustyna Kowalska at Plac Niepodległości (opposite the church).
Citation taken from ”The Diary” of St. Faustyna on-line: [LINK]