Priest heads to Ulma family beatification: ‘Saintly figures so close to my family tree’

Niemczak 2 Father Michael Niemczak. | Father Michael Niemczak

A New Mexico priest with Polish roots is on his way to Poland to celebrate the historic beatification of the Ulma family this weekend, the first time an entire family will be beatified together.

The Nazis brutally executed the devoutly Catholic family of Józef and Wiktoria Ulma and their seven children in 1944 for hiding eight Jews in their home outside the village of Markowa in southeast Poland.

Father Michael Niemczak, a priest of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and coordinator of propaedeutic formation at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, told CNA that he plans to make the trip a pilgrimage to several holy sites around Poland, culminating in his participation in the beatification Mass.

The Sept. 10 Mass will take place in Markowa with an estimated 30,000-50,000 people expected to attend. Nearly 1,000 priests and 80 cardinals and bishops will concelebrate the outdoor Mass, set for 10 a.m. local time.

Father Michael Niemczak at World Youth Day in Krakow in 2016, where he served as one of the simultaneous interpreters for the papal Masses. Credit: Father Michael Niemczak
Father Michael Niemczak at World Youth Day in Krakow in 2016, where he served as one of the simultaneous interpreters for the papal Masses. Credit: Father Michael Niemczak

Born in the U.S. to Polish immigrants, Niemczak is a relative of the Ulma family; his great-grandfather, Jan Niemczak, was a cousin to Wiktoria, the matriarch.

When discerning the priesthood as a young man, Niemczak said the stories he heard about the Ulmas really “set the tone” for the kind of faith he wanted to live, and he found himself desiring to live out his priestly vocation “as heroically as they lived out” their vocation as parents. 

“It’s easy to read these stories and think of the figures in them as very distant in time and space…To think, oh man, they must have been like some superhuman people. I couldn’t possibly do that. But then when you hear that it’s your family members, there’s something striking in that,” Niemczak said. 

“To realize every family has saints in it, every family has sinners in it, every heart is capable of great holiness and great wickedness. And so it just was a very arresting thought to think, oh wow, within just a couple of generations, there were these saintly figures so close to my family tree.”

Niemczak said he thinks the Ulmas were not terribly well known even in their native Poland until fairly recently but that the impending beatification has been a “galvanizing” event for the predominantly Catholic people of Poland. 

“Growing up as a child, we didn’t really talk much about that time [WWII], but then as I was growing older and in seminary, that’s when I first heard a little bit of the story of the Ulma family, and then in more recent years been hearing more and more about it,” he said. 

“When I was in seminary and then early priesthood is when I was getting more and more of the story, mainly from my dad, who was very happy to share it.”

The Nazi police killed 31-year-old Wiktoria and 44-year-old Józef outside their home. They then shot and killed Stanisława, 7; Barbara, 6; Władysław, 5; Franciszek, almost 4; Antoni, 2; and Maria, 1.

Also among the nine family members killed was Józef and Wiktoria’s seventh child, who was not given a name before the Nazi killings. The Vatican has confirmed that Wiktoria went into  premature labor when she was killed and that the baby was born at the time of her death. 

“I think it’s a powerful lesson in the personhood of the unborn, or those who are in the process of being born, however, they want to phrase it,” Niemczak commented on this aspect of the beatification.  

“We know that this was a child made in the image and likeness of God that participated in some mysterious way in this family’s self-offering. There’s just something so beautiful about Józef and Wiktoria deciding to teach their children the dignity of every human life, not just in words, but in action.”

Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, told Vatican News that although the child was never baptized, the exceptional case constituted what the Catechism describes as a baptism of blood,” echoing the narrative of the Holy Innocents in the Gospels.

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Father Witold Burda, the postulator for the Ulma family, has said that a Bible was found inside the Ulma house in which the parable of the Good Samaritan had been underlined in a red pen. Niemczak said families striving for holiness today can take example from the clearly “whole family effort” the Ulmas made to keep the Jewish family safe — something many other families in Poland did as well. 

“I think it’s something that the Polish people are taking pride in right now and realizing that there were plenty more families like the Ulma family. They just kind of are putting a face to a heroic decision that plenty more unnamed people had done,” he said.

Father Michael Niemczak vested at the altar at the Divine Mercy Shrine in Kraków, Poland. Father Michael Niemczak
Father Michael Niemczak vested at the altar at the Divine Mercy Shrine in Kraków, Poland. Father Michael Niemczak

Niemczak said he is excited to serve as a priest during the beatification and plans to hear confessions of the pilgrims during the visit. He said when he returns, he hopes to encourage the seminarians he helps to teach back home to become “those priests in the background that let people become the saints that God wanted them to be.” After all, he said, some unnamed priest was clearly in the background of the Ulmas’ story, taking care of the spiritual needs of Józef and Wiktoria and the family. 

Niemczak’s planned trip includes stops at holy sites in Krakow, Our Lady of Częstochowa Shrine, the Divine Mercy Shrine, and several days spent staying with family in addition to the beatification Mass. Niemczak encouraged anyone wishing to submit a prayer request he can bring with him to Poland to do so via a Google form he set up.

“I’ve tried to make it a habit to have parishioners or friends or family members send prayer requests with me if I go on pilgrimage. And I want to be able to open this up to as many people who need prayers, and especially families in need of prayer as I can,” he said.

The Archdiocese of Przemyśl, which opened the Ulmas’ sainthood cause, has published a novena — nine consecutive days of prayer — beginning Sept. 1 and concluding on the vigil of the beatification Sept. 10. The archdiocese has encouraged those participating in the novena to accompany the prayer with daily Mass and adoration.

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