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Chaplain recalls journey from communism

LAJES FIELD, Azores -- Chaplain (Maj.) Stan Pieczara celebrates Mass at the chapel here.  Pieczara joined the Air Force in 1992, after receiving his U.S. citizenship.  He is a 65th Air Base Wing chaplain.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michelle Michaud)

LAJES FIELD, Azores -- Chaplain (Maj.) Stan Pieczara celebrates Mass at the chapel here. Pieczara joined the Air Force in 1992, after receiving his U.S. citizenship. He is a 65th Air Base Wing chaplain. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michelle Michaud)

LAJES FIELD, Azores (AFPN) -- They would have arrested and interrogated him if he were not so sick.

The Communist Party in Poland had heard enough of Father Stanislaw Pieczara’s Masses on Dec. 14, 1981. Just one day before, Soviet Union-based marital law locked the nation down. Pieczara prepared what he called a “joyful” Mass for the third Sunday of Advent.

However, as the iron curtain’s shadow loomed, Pieczara abandoned the more upbeat sermon to rail against the communist injustices.

“I couldn’t preach the more joyful Mass because people were crying. A lot of mothers, fathers, husbands and wives were killed the night before,” he said about the first hours of martial law. “It was not a happy time.”

Chaplain (Maj.) Stan Pieczara, one of three chaplains here, recalled his journey out of communism and into an Air Force uniform with vivid clarity: dates, times, places and even room numbers. The 52-year-old remembers the details that led him from a Polish schoolhouse to this Portuguese island -- with stops in interrogation rooms, England and Indiana -- instantaneously.

Pieczara said he felt his calling to the priesthood as a 5-year-old growing up in Bagnow, Poland. An altar leader by fourth grade, the young Polle knew of nothing more he wanted to do than become a priest. By age 16, Pieczara’s sights were set on attending seminary and joining the diocese in Krakow, Poland. Communism, instead, stepped into his high school and lowered the curtain farther.

“At the end of my school year, one of my teachers tried to get all the children to become members of the Socialist Youth Party -- and I refused,” Pieczara said. “When I refused, the teacher ensured me I would not make it through my next year.”

Failing to finish school meant losing a spot in the Krakow seminary.

“(The teacher) was going to make every effort to kill my education,” Pieczara said.

Devastated, the 16-year-old boarded a train from home to the school the next day to pick up paperwork. Slumped and sitting with a long face, Pieczara made a chance encounter with his uncle, himself a priest.

“He said ‘Don’t worry. I’ll help you.’ A week later I had an appointment with the provincial superior. Two weeks after that, I got a letter approving my entrance into the lower seminary for three years,” Pieczara said.

Nine years later, the Catholic church ordained him a priest. When he could not join the diocese in Krakow, Pieczara joined his uncle’s religious fraternity, the Society of the Divine Savior. As a one of now 790 priests belonging to the Salvatorians, Pieczara had taken four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and mission work.

Seven years after receiving his collar, the Communist Party came to haul him away. Pieczara was so sick he almost died. The communists simply ignored him, thinking he would die; however, fortune was not as kind Dec. 30, when three members of the party showed up again -- at 8 a.m. -- and hauled him off to police headquarters -- Room 206.

In a period of just 16 days, his faith was being tested. The fact that he had nearly died of blood poisoning got him out of this meeting before; however, the three men in long coats who stood before him saw him as fit enough of interrogation and began tossing “thousands” of questions, Pieczara said.

“After four hours of interrogation, they couldn’t get anything out of me,” he said. “After that point, I just started telling jokes. It made them completely mad.”

Pieczara said he knew their tactics well. In his first years as a priest, party members would follow him from place to place. He would duck and bob in and out of places to evade them. He would taunt them by bowing in his black outfit and cincture, smiling all the way.

Antics aside, Pieczara said he knew this was serious business.

“I was making fun of them, but at the same time, I was trembling. They could have killed me if they had a chance,” he said.

By October 1983, enough, he said, was enough. He talked with Catholic officials in England who agreed to help him get his passport, teach him English and bring him to the United Kingdom.

Pieczara wanted to leave. Thirty years of communist rule was enough. His father, who was interrogated and refused a job, was enough. His countrymen dying because of Soviet marital law was enough. And the four hours he spent in Room 206 -- weaving through interrogator questions until confidence and faith set him free -- was enough.

Pieczara never considered American citizenship when he bolted Soviet oppression in 1983. His eyes were fixed on Canada, Australia and, his first destination, England. He served the church in Great Britain for nearly four years.

However, his order asked him to move to Indiana in 1987. Pieczara said he fought going but eventually conceded to the idea.

After clearing up some passport problems -- caused mostly by the Polish justice department -- Pieczara found himself in Merrillville, Ind.

But not for long. After a year, Pieczara celebrated Mass in East Chicago, Ill., and eventually made his way to Phoenix offering services for that community’s more than 72,000 Polish-American citizens.

Meanwhile, fulfillment of another goal in his life was taking shape to become a chaplain.

“I always wanted to be a military chaplain -- even in Poland,” he said. “I gave up that idea because I dreaded the thought that the communists would pay me. My father instilled in me a great animosity against the communists. We were occupied by the Soviets, and I did not want to serve the Soviets.”

Conversely, the thought of serving the American military suited him just fine; however, when the goal reignited its flame in 1992, Pieczara was not an American citizen. He asked a recruiting official at Bolling Air Force Base, D.C., if he could become a chaplain without the citizenship and was told “no.”

So, he called a few friends -- like Senator John McCain -- to pull a few strings. Still the answer was the same -- no citizenship, no chaplain job.

On July 17, 1992, Pieczara fixed that and earned his U.S. citizenship. Within a month, he was able to join the Air Force chaplain corps.

With 11 years of service now, Pieczara has deployed five times to places like Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Bosnia. He is one of 104 priests serving more than 68,400 Catholics wearing blue, said Air Force Personnel Center officials.

Adjustment to the military life took time. When he entered the service, he literally had nothing. The Salvatorians provided almost everything he needed -- a place to sleep at the rectory, clothes, transportation and more.

“I had to buy everything from a needle to a car,” he said. “I depended so much on the order. I learned to live and appreciate how other people live.”

Since then, Pieczara said he has learned about diversity and working with other denominations to bring comfort to troops across the spectrum.

He admitted his work was not done. He still feels the frustrations any lay leader might. There are “difficult moments” that make him question his role in the chaplain corps, he said, but they are not nearly as difficult as arrest and interrogation. For that, he said he is thankful.

“There are moments -- things that happen -- that make me convinced that I should stay,” he said. “When I see those moments, I see the reason why I am here. That makes it very worthwhile.” (Courtesy of U.S. Air Forces in Europe News Service)


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