Edward Piszek

REV. GEORGE W. RUTLER

Having known Edward Piszek for nearly 15 years, my mistaking him for the groundskeeper of the Colorado retreat house where we first met still seems understandable.

Edward Piszek
(1916-2004)

He stood apart from the rest of my audience, arranging folding chairs in a work shirt and overalls. He had noticed that someone needed help and he helped. That is what he did all his life until he died of bone cancer in March 2004 at the age of 87. Familiarity with hard work came from his parents who had immigrated to Philadelphia from Poland. Getting punched up by neighborhood boys who raucously slurred such “foreigners” did not make him a zealot, nor did he lick his wounds. In lean years he helped to sell his mother’s fish sticks door-to-door, and eventually her recipe and his business acumen turned a $350 investment in 1946 into Mrs. Paul’s Kitchens, Inc., which he sold in 1982 when it had annual sales of $100 million.

Poland scarcely concerned him until a representative of CARE asked him to donate an ambulance for that distressed land. From then, Ed turned his very American eyes to his ancestral homeland, which in the 1950s and 1960s was plagued with tuberculosis. He battled the Communist bureaucrats and donated a whole fleet of ambulances, X-ray machines, and examination centers, performing his works with practical anonymity. Years later, a medical intern taking a delegation of Westerners through an abandoned TB ward told them, “The story is that an American came over and cured it….But it was a long time ago. Now TB is something we hardly think about.”

Conscious of what he considered a limited formal education, he put his brains to work in educating Americans about Polish culture through his “Project Pole” and the Copernicus Society and donated the Philadelphia house of Tadeusz Kosciuszko to the National Park Service. He started the Peace Corps Partners in Teaching English because he said he was not eloquent himself but was sure that democracy would grow in former Communist countries if people knew the language of democracy. In the same vein, he was able to establish the European center for the Little League in the town of Kutno to form children in the sportsmanship and self-respect that Marxism had drained from their schools, and he deliberately named it the Little League Baseball Leadership Training Center. During the Solidarity strikes, Ed sustained the workers with millions of pounds of frozen fish that he was able to get to them magna cum difficultate and airlifted food to Ukraine after the Chernobyl disaster.


As at our first meeting, Ed always blended into the wallpaper unnoticed, but he was holding up the wall. In a world of many who wear their achievements heavily, he shrugged them off with a lightness lifted by the graces of many confessions and communions.


An abiding friendship with John Paul II began when the pope was archbishop of Kraków. With palpable glee and a sense of intrigue he told me in hushed tones how in Communist times, he had outfitted a car with a typewriter so that Wojtyla could compose and dictate while being driven about, because the episcopal palace may have been bugged. He condoled by telephone with his other close friend, Lech Walesa, after his electoral defeat. Ed had warned him during the election that his people would turn him out just as Churchill had been turned out after the war. An incredulous Walesa had been confident of victory. Ed said to me, “I was right.”

Three things made him veritably sparkle. One was the Peace Corps language project. Another was his longstanding friendship with James Michener, who was as literary as Ed was not. Michener saw the man in Piszek and one got the impression that he learned more from Ed than Ed learned from him. He was docile to Ed’s persuasion and finally agreed to write the novel Poland, which became one his top best-sellers. A third delight to him, which engendered a classical pride of piety like the old Romans at their ancestral altars, was the purchase of George Washington’s headquarters outside Philadelphia in Fort Washington, Emlen House. Ed was an American after all, and he died as a father surrounded by his children in the house of the Father of the Country.

The boy who sold his mother’s fish helped to wipe out diseases and bring down an empire that he knew was genuinely evil, and compelled a relatively obscure clergyman who became a pope. As at our first meeting, Ed always blended into the wallpaper unnoticed, but he was holding up the wall. In a world of many who wear their achievements heavily, he shrugged them off with a lightness lifted by the graces of many confessions and communions. When informed that George Washington had quietly gone back to his plantation after the Revolution, King George III, the farmer king, called him “in a light the most distinguished of any man living.” George Washington and Ed Piszek rightly lived in the same house.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rev. George W. Rutler. "Edward Piszek." Crisis (July 2004).

This article is reprinted with permission from the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization.

This article appeared first as one of the "Cloud of Witnesses" columns Father Rutler wrote for Crisis. It is included in his book, Cloud of Witnesses - Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive.

THE AUTHOR

Father Rutler received priestly ordination in 1981. Born in 1945 and reared in the Episcopal tradition, Father Rutler was an Episcopal priest for nine years. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1979 and was sent to the North American College in Rome for seminary studies. Father Rutler graduated from Dartmouth, where he was a Rufus Choate Scholar, and took advanced degrees at the Johns Hopkins University and the General Theological Seminary. He holds several degrees from the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities in Rome, including the Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology, and studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In England, in 1988, the University of Oxford awarded him the degree Master of Studies. From 1987 to 1989 he was regular preacher to the students, faculty, and townspeople of Oxford. Cardinal Egan appointed him Pastor of the Church of Our Saviour, effective September 17, 2001.

Since 1988 his weekly television program has been broadcast worldwide on EWTN. Father Rutler has published 17 books, including: Cloud of Witnesses - Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, A Crisis of Saints: Essays on People and Principles, Brightest and Best, Saint John Vianney: The Cure D'Ars Today, Crisis in Culture, and Adam Danced: The Cross and the Seven Deadly Sins.

Copyright © 2010 Father George W. Rutler




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