Christine Wasielewski cannot remember a time when anyone in three generations of her family failed to take part in a tradition that may be as old as the 104-year-old Sacred Heart Cemetery in New Britain.
“It’s just something that we’ve been doing in our family forever,” the Sacred Heart parishioner said.
Every year, on the Sunday closest to All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2), thousands of parishioners and others gather at the cemetery for an All Souls’ Day Cemetery Mass honoring the dead who are buried there, as well as all the faithful departed around the world.
“Everyone grooms up the gravesites, usually with flowers,” Wasielewski said. “And it’s traditional to put candles on the grave.”
When night falls, thousands of colorful lights flicker under the stars, illuminating hundreds of graves and looking like a miniature city.
Paul P. Popielarczyk, cemetery officer, said this year’s Mass will take place on Oct. 29, beginning with a procession that steps off at 2 p.m. from St. Lucian’s Residence, an assisted living facility at 532 Burritt St.
“Then we actually have a Mass right there at the cemetery,” he said.
“Usually it’s about 3,000 or 4,000 people,” he said. “They come from all around. Even [from] out of state they come, because people have family members [in the cemetery]. It’s a Polish tradition.”
Msgr. Daniel J. Plocharczyk, Sacred Heart’s fourth and current pastor, said he has visited Poland and observed that cemeteries often are adjacent to churches, making it convenient to carry on this ancient tradition.
In Poland, the tradition evolved from a 1,000-year-old practice of bringing food to the cemetery, in the belief that souls returned on All Souls’ Day and could partake of a meal. In the 1800s, the Catholic tradition of bringing flowers, wreaths and candles to the cemetery became more common, according to the American-Polish website www.ampoleagle.com.
At Sacred Heart, Msgr. Plocharczyk said, the tradition has been in place since the time of the first pastor, Father Lucyan Bojnowski, who led the parish for 64 years, from 1895 until 1959. (Interestingly, Msgr. Plocharczyk was baptized by Father Bojnowski.)
Msgr. Plocharczyk said it started out as simply a Mass at the cemetery to honor the parishioners of Sacred Heart and Holy Cross parishes buried there. At least 20 years ago, he said, a march for life was inserted before the Mass, in the form of a procession from St. Lucian’s Residence.
“Everything combines into one,” he said. “We have the Mass for the deceased and we pray for all the souls of the faithful departed, but we begin it with a march for the respect for life.”
He said they pray for the success of life, that after a person has lived and died they will be successful in entering into the kingdom of heaven.
“We want to make sure that all life is respected while the people are living. Then we respect the dead that are buried in our cemetery, and we are praying for them, that they, who when they were living respected life, will enter into eternal life in heaven,” he said.
“Life is really the center of everything,” he said.
“We share our cemetery with parishioners of Holy Cross, the other Polish parish in the city,” Msgr. Plocharczyk said. Many families have multi-grave plots, one monument with perhaps eight graves, he said. Even if a family has moved out of the parish, family members can be buried there, he said, but only Sacred Heart and Holy Cross parishioners may purchase plots there now.
When the procession reaches the cemetery, the priests stop and pray at five locations for priests and religious, mothers and fathers, all those buried there, all people who have died and all the faithful departed everywhere, he said.
Michael Jeanette, cemetery manager for the past four years, said, “It is something to see. That whole chapel area where the altar is, that whole grass area, it’s elbow-to-elbow people. That’s what it’s like.”
And in the evening, after the Mass and after thousands of candles are lit and placed near graves, “It’s like a Christmas tree,” he said. “It’s gorgeous. It’s like they try to outdo each other. The candles are red, yellow, blue, you name it, they got them. The majority of them are red.”
Jeanette said he is impressed with the parishioners’ commitment.
“They are very dedicated to keeping the graves up, planting and flowering. They are dedicated to the Church also.”
Eva Gryk, a lifelong parishioner at Sacred Heart, said she has been taking part in the cemetery Mass since she was a little girl, going with her parents and her grandmother.
“We start marching in the procession, and there are also people who start marching in the streets and on the sidewalks,” she said. “As we march into the cemetery, there are people already in the cemetery standing by the graves of their loved ones.”
Gryk, who photographs the event every year and who is a Mass commentator in English and Polish, said the cemetery Mass means even more to her now that her grandmother is among those buried there.
“She was very close to me, and there were times when I was a little girl I remember holding her hand, and we walked in procession together, as well,” she said.
Many people come back in the evening to see the lit candles and to pray, she said. Cars are parked on both sides of Burritt Street and Osgood Avenue, near the cemetery, she said.
“If you come, the Mass is wonderful,” Wasielewski said. “You also have to come at night, though, to see it all lit up. In the middle of the cemetery there is a crucifixion scene, and that is lit every night, including cemetery Mass day. And all along the hill, you can see the vigil lights, white and red. There are a few blues, but mostly there are white and red. It’s just a really moving experience and it kind of connects you to all these people who were once part of the parish families, Sacred Heart or Holy Cross. They believed in eternal life, and now here they are and we are still remembering them and maybe they are looking down on us. It’s just very moving.”