By GREG MELLEN     10/6/2021

On a stage and dressed in full 17th century-style regalia, Darak and Grace Swiatkowski, the ceremonial Lord and Lady of the Manor, handed out loaves of fresh rye bread to the faithful. All around the smells of kielbasa, pierogi and golabki mingled in the air. At the front gate, people posed for photos, poking their heads through cutouts in a mural depicting farmers in the fields. Meanwhile, the beer garden did brisk business to the sounds of polka and mazurka music and dance.

These were among the sights, sounds and smells of the 42nd annual Dozynki, or Harvest Festival, on the grounds of the Saint John Paul II Polish Center in Yorba Linda.

While the Harvest Festival is the most public and outward display of Polish heritage and culture in Orange County, it is backstopped and buttressed by the Catholic Church and Diocese of Orange, which helped create the Center in 1983.

While the Diocese of Orange supports ministries and conducts Masses in more than a half-dozen languages or ethnicities, ranging from Latin to Asian, the Polish Catholic population is a unique group.

“Catholicism is very important in the Polish community,” said Father Zbigniew Fraszczak, the pastor for the Center. He jokes that he was chosen because he had the rare ability to communicate in English, Spanish and Polish.

“A lot of Polish traditions are centered
around Catholic holidays,” said Swiatkowski, who joined the church in 1990.

Currently the Center is the spiritual home to about 1,800 families, mostly of Polish descent. It is home to weekly Polish- language Masses, plus First Fridays. There are also Polish-language classes, along with instruction in Polish history and culture at the Helena Modrzejewska Polish School. Youngsters can also learn Polish dancing and music.

There are also traditional and cultural events, speakers and various club meetings such as the Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko Council No. 9599 of the Knights of Columbus.

The location of the Center is more a matter of serendipity than due to large numbers of Polish in the city. After years of bouncing around to different Orange County locales, community leaders jumped when the Seventh Day Adventists put up the property in Yorba Linda for sale, gaining late Bishop William Johnson’s approval in 1982. So excited was the congregation, a Christmas Eve Mass was celebrated in 1982 while the sale was still pending. The first official Mass was celebrated on January 16, 1983.

The need for a home for expats and refugees from Poland, where nearly 90 percent of the population is Catholic, had grown over the years.

Poles had been fleeing the devastation, privation and poverty of the country in the wake of World War II and through the rise and fall of communism, many landing in Southern California.

As the community spread through the Southland, Poles began congregating at churches in Long Beach and Orange County, even the chapel of an Anaheim funeral home. For a while, monthly Masses in Polish were held at St. Anthony Claret in Anaheim.

When the Diocese of Orange was established in 1976, an early goal was to find a spiritual, social and cultural home for the Polish Catholic community. Yorba Linda, in Northern Orange County, is centrally located and accessible to many areas.

Fr. Zbigniew said parishioners from Los Angeles to Long Beach to Palm Desert attend Masses and events.

Rev. Joseph A. Karp was appointed the first spiritual director for the Polish Community in Orange County. The aim, according to the Diocese, is “to keep alive in the hearts of the Polish Faithful the rich religious and cultural heritage and traditions of their forefathers; to preserve the Polish language among the first and second generations; and to allow full participation in the Liturgical functions for the newly arrived into this area.”

“It’s our roots and our tradition,” said Conrad Wyszomirski, a second-generation Polish-American church congregant.

The Center was named after the then-pope, John Paul II, who was born and raised in Poland. The church’s patroness is Our Lady in Częstochowa, Poland, who is among a small group of Black Madonnas recognized throughout the world.

The Center is also made available to the Latino, Slovak and Czech communities for Eucharistic celebrations and other activities.

For all it does for Polish Catholics, the Harvest Festival, which draws more than 5,000 visitors each year remains the church’s main attraction. Ever since Polish descendant and TV personality
Pat Sajak did a live segment on the KNBC Sunday Program, the station has run annual spots from the event through the years.

The festival actually predates the church by several years and was held at various church and school sites before making the John Paul II Center its permanent home.

One of those in attendance at the festival was Rafal Stachura, 46, who was dressed in full Polish garb topped by a jaunty highlander cap with a large feather. Like many of his fellow immigrants, he fled poverty and privation in the early 2000s.

“This is like to keep tradition alive, yah?” he said. “You have Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick’s, so Poles can have a day too to celebrate their hard work.”