By David Tisdale
It’s sometimes difficult for Father Tomasz Powroznik, parochial vicar for Sacred Heart and Holy Rosary Parishes in Hattiesburg, to hear fellow diocesan priests discuss their frequent visits with family and friends who live nearby.
A native of Poland, Father Tomasz has no such luxury, separated by thousands of miles and an ocean, only able to occasionally connect with his own circle of relatives and friends virtually online, or on the rare opportunity to travel to his homeland.
“When I leave to return to the U.S. after my visits home, I become emotional because I know it will be a long time before I go back,” he said.
Recently however, Father Tomasz has hosted his mother, Gabriela “Gabi” Powroznik, who returned with him to the U.S. after his recent visit home in July. She will stay in Hattiesburg until October before returning to Poland; it is her first visit to the U.S.
Gabi Powroznik has met multiple members of the congregations at Sacred Heart and Holy Rosary while attending Mass at both churches, where she has been roundly welcomed.
“I have been so moved by the warm reception by our parishioners for my mother,” Father Tomasz said. “It is so wonderful to have her here, and I appreciate Father Ken for his encouragement of her visit here.
“She is so impressed with the open heart and prayers of everyone, and their gratitude to her for her support of my decision to choose to serve God and his people as a priest.”
Father Tomasz recalled the moment he broke the news to his mother that he felt called to the priesthood. “I said, “Mother, I want to talk to you. I want to be a priest,’” he said. “She began to cry because she was happy, as she and our whole family love our faith. But she was surprised, because I had studied public administration as a university student, and at the time I shared this with her I was working as a manager for an insurance company.
“My father was not so surprised when I told him; he said he had seen the books I was reading about the vocation and had overheard me speak with a priest on the phone about seminary.”
Although this is Gabi Powroznik’s first visit to America, it was not the first attempt. Covid-19 restrictions prevented her and other members of the family from coming to Mississippi earlier last year, even though arrangements had been made to fly to the U.S., to attend Father Tomasz’s ordination at The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Biloxi. A misunderstanding by airline staff about the restrictions led to a last-minute cancellation of the trip, a deep disappointment for the family and Father Powroznik.
However, the ordination was available for viewing online, and Father Tomasz returned to Poland soon thereafter to celebrate Mass at his home parish before returning to officially begin his assignment with Sacred Heart and Holy Rosary in March 2022.
While Gabi Powroznik primarily speaks only her native language along with German and Russian, that hasn’t discouraged those who meet her to try and communicate directly, often circumventing the language barrier by using a translation device on their cell phones.
“It’s been wonderful to meet her,” said Joe Kinnan, who along with wife Sandy are members of Holy Rosary Parish. “She’s already taught me two words in Polish – ‘thank you’ (dziękuję) and ‘good morning!’ (dzień dobry!).”
Kinnan says he’s impressed to learn of Gabi Powroznik’s work, along with other members of her family back home, in providing relief and in some instances housing for refugees of the war in Ukraine. “It’s wonderful how they pull together to help other people. They’re a great family. We hope to continue staying in touch with her after she returns home.
“It’s also been nice to see her witness her son presenting the liturgy in daily Mass, and you can tell he’s (Father Tomasz) delighted that she’s here.”
During her visit here, she has also visited Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans where her son studied. “The rector welcomed us, and my mother was overcome with emotion at the display of a portrait of Saint Pope John Paul II there, the first Polish pope,” Father Tomasz said. She also visited St. Louis Cathedral, remarking at its beauty, and was especially happy to see the chapel located behind the Sacred Heart Church rectory named for Saint Pope John Paul II.
While attending Sacred Heart’s Mass in either English or Spanish, Gabi Powroznik doesn’t let the language barrier keep her from witnessing and feeling the deep faith shown by the congregants; likewise, for the English service at Holy Rosary. She remarked that she can see “the faith on their lips;” “I can watch and figure it out (the sequence) and respond with my heart in Polish.” She also praised the beauty of the stained-glass windows at both churches.
At a baptism where Father Tomasz presented the rites in Spanish, she was deeply moved by the blessing with the water and the response of the family to the event; afterward, both she and Father Powroznik were invited to a local restaurant, Rio Grande, her first opportunity to try Mexican cuisine.
“Usually, she does not like spicy food, but she really enjoyed her meal there,” he said. She has also enjoyed seafood from Triangle Seafood restaurant, located near Sacred Heart Church; both she and Father Tomasz will soon have an opportunity to enjoy dishes from their native Poland in a dinner hosted by Polish priests later this month on the coast.
Another special treat for Gabi Powroznik has been to witness her son interact with students from Sacred Heart Elementary and High Schools, including when he celebrates Mass for both at the high school chapel. “She has heard them address me by name, witness them make the sign of the cross during Mass, and give me high-fives and fist bumps following services, when I stay afterward to visit with them,” Father Tomasz said.
When Gabi is not out visiting with new friends she has met in Hattiesburg, she takes time to sit outside and read, listen to a Catholic podcast, or talk on the phone with her sister back home in Poland, while Father Tomasz attends to his duties. She has also brought a little touch of home with her to Hattiesburg, taking time on occasion to make sure her son’s work attire is presentable.
“I don’t like to iron, so that’s been a big help,” Father Tomasz said, laughing.