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The old home in the New World

FROCKED IN TRADITION: Polish folk dancers, known to cut a rug over a fine sztajerek or polka, walk along the Polish Festival’s stretch mid-September.

Polka music, the smells of pierogi, golabki, sausage and the sound of the Polish language fill the air. There’s laughter, a charge of excitement, and a sense of pride buried deep beneath the people’s smiles.

Andrew Krupowicz weaves through the crowd at the mid-September Polish Festival on Roncesvalles Ave. He’s been a resident of the area for all of his 28 years and he feverishly snaps shots with his camera.

He comes across friends of the family: kisses them on the cheek, introduces them, and speaks to them in Polish. The conversation is warm, and there’s a request for more photos.

He kindly obliges, capturing their time lines and graying hair in one digital portrait. He turns his camera so one woman can see. Her fading fire of auburn hair glows in the sunlight, she pats him on the cheek and smiles.

After a few moments, Krupowicz is back to walking Roncesvalles and taking more pictures of stores, gaggles of festival-goers as well as the harcerze and harcerki — Polish boy and girl scouts.

He spies a convenience store where there used to be a theatre. He moves on to a deli where old-world pastries — kutia, makowiec, pierniki, chrusty and paczki — sit on racks while preserved meats and baskets hang from the ceiling.

It feels like a market in Krakow, Krupowicz says.

There’s fondness in his voice as he recounts his progression from child to teen to adult in the matter of moments. And it all comes to its apex when he stands in front of St. Casimir’s Church.

He wants to go in, and after a few hesitant moments, he does.

A basin with holy water sits at the entrance. He crosses himself, bows, and waits his turn to speak with the priest.

The church is an important fixture in Roncesvalles’ Polish community. Built in 1948, it was the second Polish Roman Catholic church built in Toronto and constructed to address the city’s growing population of Poles.

The first church, St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish, was built on Dension Ave., in the Spadina and Queen neighbourhood in 1911. Toronto’s famous philanthropist and businessman Eugene O’Keefe donated the land to the first wave of Polish immigrants.

By 1918, according to City of Toronto archives, there were 3,000 Poles living in the city. To offer help to the immigrants and to preserve their cultural heritage, organizations, including The Sons of Poland and the Association of St. Stanslaus, were formed.

Then, with a second wave of Polish immigrants arriving before the Second World War, another church was needed. Thus St. Casimir’s was erected.

“When Queen was filled to capacity — the Queen and Spadina area — the Polish people were still looking for a place to settle, and they chose Roncesvalles,” Father Pawel Ratajczak says. “At a certain point in time, a group of Polish people got together and with the permission of the diocese, purchased some land on the west side of Roncesvalles.”

Ever since, St. Casimir’s has proven to be a cultural hub to the residents of Roncesvalles Village.

“Roncesvalles is a place that draws Polish people not only for Saturday shopping but for all sorts of religious and cultural festivals.” Ratajczak says. “In a way the church plays a double role.”

First, St. Casimir’s passes on the Christian faith.

“It’s here to instil a relationship with Jesus for everyone who comes to its doors, and we just happen to do it in the Polish language, although we’re obviously a part of the larger Catholic Church,” he says.

The church, he adds, has all sorts of Polish traditions surrounding religious practice, including the blessing of Easter baskets, a procession on Easter Sunday morning, and festivals of Polish saints and the Virgin Mary.

But, Ratajczak notes, church doesn’t just observe the holidays.

“It is also a cultural hub for organizations such as the Polish scouts, young people who are involved in folk dancing and other cultural groups who have to do with the history of settlement like the Polish veterans,” he says. “So it’s a mix of the young and the old coming together here.”

It’s family that keeps younger Polish people still involved in the community and church. Krupowicz has grown from being an altar boy at St. Casimir’s to being a Eucharist minister — a layperson who is given permission to give out communion during larger ceremonies.

He still lives in Roncesvalles Village with his mom Krystyna, who settled in the neighbourhood after a roundabout journey.

And she has no regrets, she says, adding one has to be strong when leaving everything you know behind to venture off to a new country.

Departing from Southwestern Poland in 1976, Krystyna came to Canada with nothing but $5 and the coat on her back.

Originally settling in Edmonton she would leave two years later because it did not feel like home to her. Alberta for her was a bit of a culture shock, as she was not used to seeing natives lying in the streets, she says.

So she decided to move to Toronto in 1978, and instantly fell in love with Roncesvalles.

“It was just like home,” she says.

The shops, the people, everything about the tight-knit community attracted her. Three years later her son was born.

And the area grew even more when the third wave of Polish immigrants began arriving in 1981, when many Poles were granted refugee status by the Canadian government during the declaration of martial law back in Poland.

For a decade over 95,000 Poles made the journey across the Atlantic. Among them engineers, skilled technicians and mathematicians came to the country, Krystyna says.

While the community remains close-knit, it is aging.

“There’s not that many younger people,” she says. “I think one of the reasons is the real estate is really expensive.”

And the number of new immigrants to Canada from Poland has dwindled due to a more market based economy and becoming a member of the European Union in 2003.

Roncesvalle’s Polish community has also had to face an exodus of its members to Mississauga and Brampton. But through it all, the community continues to thrive.

“I think it has still retained its roots, although we are dealing with the fact that not as much Polish people are coming to Canada any more,” Ratajczak says. “There’s more emphasis we place on second- or third-generation people who worship on Sunday in English, but they still want some sort of Polish accent or tradition.”

Krystyna agrees. But to her, it’s a lot simpler.

“I think that because you are here for so many years, you are at home,” she says.

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