Being without work these past few weeks, I’ve had more time than usual to read. Last weekend, I finished Walter M. Miller’s 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, a book recommended to me by three of the smartest men I know. Set in post-apocalyptic America in the centuries following a nuclear holocaust, it tells the story of the monks of the Albertine Order of Leibowitz, who scratch their livelihood from the rocks and dust of the southwestern deserts and dedicate themselves to their founder’s mission of extracting knowledge from the rubble of the previous civilization and preserving it for the future. Continue reading
While back home in Michigan over Divine Mercy weekend, I had the pleasure of browsing the Mecosta Book Gallery and coming home with my first Gothic fiction work of local literary hero and celebrated thinker and writer Russell Kirk, an unjacketed, former library edition of Old House of Fear.
Too few people, perhaps, know of Russell Kirk today. Even growing up a few miles from the tall brick house where he dwelt and wrote, and with his four daughters not far from me in age, all I knew growing up was that a eccentric writer supposedly lived in that big house. Such knowledge was wasted on my teenage self; had I known he was one of the foremost conservative political thinkers of the last century and a novelist to boot, I may have postponed Yale for a year and ultimately saved myself the trouble and the expense.
But I didn’t — and now I’m playing catchup.
I would describe Old House of Fear as a Gothic men’s adventure story: equal parts ghostly yarn, murder mystery, and manful romance. Our protagonist is sent by his employer, a Scottish-American industrialist intent on buying his family’s ancestral home on the remote Scottish island of Carnglass. The requisite castle has an ominous name — the House of Fear — though in its ancestral Gaelic it would be spelled fir or fhir and means “man.” What begins as a challenging business transaction with a strange old widow becomes a treacherous tale of intimidation, terrorism, and murder, involving Communists and occultists, as well as more run-of-the-mill ruffians, a beautiful red-headed niece who may also be a witch, and the ever-present shadow of a legend: a grostesque, three-eyed goat-man said to haunt the island from time immemorial.
It is a quick and satisfactory read, if a bit tidier than I expected at the end. I enjoyed it thoroughly and recommend it wholeheartedly…if you can find it! If not, I may be convinced to loan it to you!
My first visit to the University of Mary Bookstore, a slim little volume caught my eye, perhaps because I was hungry. The book was titled Valerian Pączek: Priest, Soldier, Quiet Hero by William C. Sherman and John Guerrero and is pictured to the right. In proper Polish, the good Father’s name is rendered Walerian Pączek (pronounced va-LAIR-yan POWN-chek, though it appears his Plains parishioners may have said it “paycheck”) and his last name is the singular form of pączki, those stout, fruit- or custard-filled pastries Poles and others enjoy on Fat Tuesday.
I received the book for Christmas and finished it last night. At just 88 pages, it is a quick read, and worth every moment — if for no other reason than to imagine this Polish hero serving as a parish priest in rural North Dakota and recognizing that most of the time, we have no idea what people have been through in their lives.
Fr. Pączek was born in 1909 in East Prussia, a region of Poland which at that time was under German control. He grew up speaking Polish and accentless German, became a Catholic Pallotine priest, joined the Polish Army, served in the British Army after World War II, then moved to the States, ultimately to become a parish priest at historically German and Czech parishes North Dakota. He was quiet about himself and his experiences in the War, so most people had little idea that their Polish pastor:
- Served in the Polish Home Army (the underground military resistance to the Nazis) under the code-name Germen, providing for the spiritual needs of fighters and refugees with secret Masses and moving intelligence, communications, and large sums of money under the noses of the Germans, even to the Polish government in exile in London.
- Personally forged documents for Jewish families using the identities of recently deceased Poles gleaned from the growing cemeteries around Warsaw to help them avoid detection by the Nazis. (One of the most compelling scenes in the book is a chance meeting between Fr. Pączek and a Jewish man who escaped to the States from Poland. The Jewish man shows Father his forged documents, and Fr. Pączek rewrites the information on a sheet of paper to show the handwriting is an exact match.)
- Narrowly escaped death at least six times, was an excellent marksman and carried a handgun during (and after) the war, and was decorated by both the Polish and British armies and recognized by the U.S. Army as well.
- Was a marked man by the Polish Communist Government after the War — and as a result, spoke little about his service and often destroyed correspondence about it to avoid endangering friends and family still in Eastern Europe (and himself).
- Spoke several languages and earned multiple degrees, including a doctorate in canon law, which he completed via correspondence to scholars across Europe while serving in parishes in North Dakota.
- Was known and welcomed by name, rank, and code-name by Pope John Paul II and greeted as Fr. Colonel Pączek by the Swiss Guards when he visited the Vatican.
This time tomorrow, Gabe and I will be winding our way through security lines at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, preparing to embark on a pilgrimage to Poland to join Pope Francis and millions of other Catholics from around the world for World Youth Day. This will be Gabe’s first flight, first international trip, and first World Youth Day; for me, it’s my second overseas trip (Iceland being the first), one of my two or three longest flights (Iceland and Hawaii), and my second World Youth Day (2002 in Toronto with Pope John Paul II).
For me, it as also very much a journey to the Motherland. My mom is a Polish Catholic farm girl whose grandparents immigrated from Poland in the first half of the 20th century: the Galubenskis and Koczwaras. The Thorp clan is so diverse in its various bloodlines that Polish has always been the nationality I’ve identified most strongly with: it’s the only foreign language I’ve heard older relatives speak, the one ethnic cuisine I’ve had older relatives cook and serve, the language I studied in college, and the only poetry I’ve ever taken the time to translate myself. Poland’s history is deep, beautiful, tragic, and heroic. And even now, remarkably Catholic.
I am blessed to make this trip with a number of friends from here in Minnesota, and especially with Gabe, whose faith as a teen almost certainly surpasses my own. It is my hope that this trip deepens my own conversion and his, so we can be the men God has called us to be with courage, joy, and zeal.
I’m sure I’ll post much more on this trip when we return. Pray for us and for our family and friends while we’re away, and know of our prayers for you! St. John Paul II, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Faustina Kowalska — all you great Polish saints and all you holy men and women — pray for us!