St. Maximilian Kolbe parish in Mississauga, Ont., celebrated its 30th anniversary Oct. 5, with Cardinal Thomas Collins celebrating the Mass. The parish is the largest Polish parish outside of Poland Photo by Ted Wolinski

At 30, St. Maximilian Kolbe’s growth spurt is not slowing

By 
  • October 8, 2014

MISSISSAUGA, ONT. - St. Maximilian Kolbe in Mississauga may be one of the Archdiocese of Toronto’s newer parishes, but it is also one of the largest and it continues to grow.

Since opening its doors 30 years ago, the parish — which celebrated its anniversary on Oct. 5 — has seen the number of parishioners grow from a few hundred to about 40,000.

“We’re bursting at the seams but that is okay because that means we are active and the faith should be a living faith,” said Gabriela Kasprzak, secretary of the parish pastoral council. “The majority of parishioners came during the Solidarity years (that led to the fall of communism in Poland), the 1980s and 1990s. That’s when it really took off in terms of expansion and ever since then it has been a really large centre for the community.

“And it’s growing. It is so busy our pastoral committee wants to get more people involved,” said Kasprzak. “We have parishioners drive from Barrie to come to a Polish Mass in our church. It is an oasis.”

Not only is the parish one of the archdiocese’s largest, it is also the largest ethnic Polish parish outside of Poland, according to the parish’s anniversary book.

The growth comes at a time when many parishes in the archdiocese and across the nation are seeing fewer people in the pews.

Kasprzak credits the influx of Polish parishioners to historical events from Poland’s past: the Partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth over the second half of the 18th century, and the spread of communism when the Soviet Union imposed communist rule on the nation following the Second World War. These attempts to strip the Poles of their identity only caused the predominantly Catholic citizenry to identify more strongly with the Catholic Church.

“Polishness couldn’t exist without Catholicism,” she said.

Her husband Michal, chair of the parish pastoral council, supports the claim that Polish identity is part and parcel with Catholicism.

“Catholicism has always been part of the (Polish) identity,” said Michal, a history professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University. “It is sort of always fused together ... into a single identity where you don’t have those lines separating the national and the spiritual. (So the parish) serves several different roles at the same time for the community; it is a home away from home.”

As Poles emigrated from their homeland, they found community in parishes such as St. Maximilian Kolbe. It became standard practice for those looking to maintain not just their faith but culture as well.

“Those who immigrated, the one thing that has been stable for them was the Church because the Church is the same everywhere,” said Kasprzak, a historian who specializes in ethnic and religious history. “For them it was just natural, it was what they knew. (So) it is not just a parish but also a community centre; it is somewhere that the communist comes not only for the faith aspect but to keep their culture alive.”

Kasprzak said this connection between Catholicism and Polish heritage tends to grow stronger for Poles outside of their motherland.

“A lot of people in our parish say it wasn’t until I immigrated that my faith really began to develop, that it really took and began to mature,” she said. “It is not that these people weren’t religious before but the difficulties that come with migration further show people that this is where you find grace and support.”

Faith-wise, there are activities such as the Rosary Group, which draws about 1,200 people a day to the parish, the Perpetual Adoration program which has remained strong for more than 20 years, and the “very strong RCIA program.” 

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