Polish bishop who built secret communist-era churches dies at 94

WARSAW Sat Dec 29, 2012 8:45am EST

WARSAW (Reuters) - Retired Polish Archbishop Ignacy Tokarczuk, who built churches in secret in defiance of the communist authorities, becoming a folk hero for many, has died at the age of 94, PAP news agency said on Saturday.

One of the Soviet bloc's more colorful anti-communist clerics, Tokarczuk clandestinely built hundreds of churches under the noses of the officially atheist government in the 1960s and 1970s.

"While Ignacy Tokarczuk was bishop of Przemysl, more than 400 churches and chapels were built in the diocese despite the lack of building permits from the communist authorities," Episcopate Chairman Archbishop Jozef Michalik said on the website of the Przemysl Archdiocese.

"He will be remembered for his uncompromising stance in defence of the institution of the Catholic Church despite frequent harassment by the security service of the Polish People's Republic."

The typical ruse was for a parishioner in the staunchly Catholic Przemysl region, in southeastern Poland, to get a building permit from the authorities to build a farmhouse, whose interior was then secretly fitted out as a house of worship.

When volunteer builders from the parish had everything in place, they would affix a small steeple to the roof under the cover of darkness, and a new church was created.

Communist security troops were routinely sent to the churches after they were discovered but, faced with the embarrassing prospect of demolishing a structure built by local volunteers, the authorities frequently gave in.

Despite constant surveillance and harassment, including visa denials preventing trips to Rome, Tokarczuk actively supported anti-communist dissident groups in the 1970s and the Solidarity movement that emerged in 1980.

The Soviet bloc's first independent trade union, Solidarity evolved into a 10-million-strong pro-democracy movement which the communists tried to crush.

Tokarczuk died on Friday in Przemysl.

(Reporting by Rob Strybel; Editing by Alison Williams)

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