By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published February 19, 2016
LAWRENCEVILLE—After immigrating to the United States from Poland in the mid-1980s, Dr. Krzysztof Krawczyński and his wife, Dr. Elżbieta Gürtler-Krawczyńska, excelled in medical research careers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Emory University in Atlanta.
They brought that same passion, dedication and depth to the Polish community in Georgia, including fostering the Polish Catholic apostolate in the Atlanta Archdiocese and strengthening community bonds through music and cultural traditions.
The couple died in a car crash on Elżbieta’s 78th birthday Jan. 28. Krzysztof was 77. Returning home from her birthday dinner, their car was struck by another vehicle trying to elude police in Johns Creek. The driver of the car has been charged in their deaths. The funeral Mass was celebrated Feb. 4 at St. Marguerite d’Youville Church in Lawrenceville, home of the St. John Paul II Polish Apostolate.
Dorota Lato, president of the Chopin Society of Atlanta, where Elżbieta was a board member, moved with her husband, Piotr Folkert, to Atlanta 20 years ago. Elżbieta welcomed and connected her to the Polish community, Lato said. She organized the first recital for Piotr, a concert pianist.
“Through enormous efforts she established the Polish Apostolate, making possible that Mass in Polish was available for the Polish community. She even traveled to the Vatican, asking Pope John Paul II for (a) blessing,” Lato recalled, adding that her faith shone through “in a quiet way” characteristic of Poles.
“The Polish Club of Atlanta was born because of the Polish Mass, because people were brought together. She was behind all Polish organizations and activities. She was the ambassador of everything Polish in Atlanta.”
Krzysztof “had a great wit, great sense of humor, and always was supporting Elżbieta in a quiet way, always beside her,” whether at Mass, a concert or a fundraiser, Lato said.
Born in 1938 in Warsaw, Elżbieta was exiled as a child with her mother, also a physician, for years to a labor camp in Siberia. Despite such harsh beginnings, she eventually became deputy head of the Department of General Cardiology at the Institute of Cardiology in Warsaw. She later joined the radiology department at Emory and focused research on nuclear imaging of the heart, retiring in 2008.
Krzysztof conducted viral hepatitis research with the CDC for 31 years. In 2014 he was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases before retiring last year as chief of the experimental pathology laboratory in the Division of Viral Hepatitis.
“It was her mission”
The funeral Mass for the beloved couple was dignified and somber: the two caskets side by side at St. Marguerite as the music of Chopin and Bach played.
Overflowing into the vestibule, people in the congregation wiped away tears and sat close together, some with a supportive arm wrapped around a spouse.
Father David Dye, administrator of Mary Our Queen Church, Norcross, where Mass is also celebrated two Sundays a month in Polish, was one of seven concelebrants.
“It was her mission,” he said, of the years-long effort Elżbieta made to secure a Polish-speaking priest to offer weekly Mass and the sacraments in Polish in metro Atlanta and sustain Catholic traditions cherished by Polish people.
The apostolate began in 1989, but because the Polish congregation was small, the Society of Christ discontinued sending a full-time chaplain to Atlanta from 1992-2000 and there was not regular Sunday Mass. Elżbieta found Polish-speaking priests in the archdiocese and elsewhere to offer Polish Mass as often as possible, while she continued to petition the Society of Christ to send a priest again. In 2000, she asked for the blessing of Pope John Paul II on her petition. Six months after the pope’s blessing, a Society of Christ priest again was assigned and weekly Polish Mass has been celebrated in the archdiocese ever since, now with the saint as their patron.
“When people emigrate, they really need the church and the community very badly,” Father Dye said. “She wanted it for the Polish people, so they would have part of Poland with them.”
“I think she believed it was an essential part of life,” he said, adding that she had “a very profound faith.”
He once traveled to Poland with the couple.
“Poland is the most Catholic country I have ever been in my life,” he said, with the faith woven into culture.
The loss of the couple, who will be buried in Warsaw, has left deep sorrow.
“Such remarkably capable people and such a joy for life,” Father Dye said.
During the homily, speaking in English and in Polish, Father Marek Ciesla, of the Society of Christ, told their daughter, Anna Paré, her husband, Richard, and their two daughters, “we are with you in your pain in this difficult hour.”
Several years ago they gathered to celebrate the couple’s golden wedding anniversary that drew friends from around the globe.
Now, he said, “we give thanks to God for the earthly life he gave them. We pray they will continue to live together with God in heaven.”
“We all know how they served God, how they served other people. Individually and together, they did a great job,” he continued. “Today, giving the souls of our friends back to God we are consoled by the Book of Wisdom—‘the souls of the just are in the hands of God.’”
At the conclusion, Anna Paré, also a medical doctor, described the texture of her “remarkable” childhood in Poland as “the only beloved daughter” of the two physicians. Then, they sent her in 1981 to the United States “on a journey to a new life.” They could not join her for several years. “Then America was our new home,” she said. “They did it for me.”
She spoke of her parents’ love for their two granddaughters and their zest for life.
She said, “I am left with a deep sorrow, but I am at peace. I have no anger—just love. They left this world together. As hard as it has been, I cannot imagine any other way.”
“They will always be with us. It is time to take another journey,” she said.
Father Dye read a letter of sympathy to the community from Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
Father Zygmunt Ostrowski, speaking on behalf of the Society of Christ, said he wanted to thank the couple “for so many years that you were not only creating but also supporting this community.”
He said, “Elżbieta —look around and see! Your dream has come true. Your church is full.”
Cantor Magdalena Wór sang from St. Matthew’s Passion by Bach at the Mass. She met Elżbieta in 1997 through the Polish Club. Wór’s parents were part of the founding group.
“She really worked hard to have a Polish apostolate. You have to have that one strong person who will fight for this, and she did. She is the reason why we have it. She held it all together. We all have the utmost respect for her,” Wór said.
Wór also described her concern for the whole person. “Quite often there were groups from Poland (visiting Atlanta) and she always wanted to make sure we could take care of everybody. She would find housing and make arrangements.”
Through a weekly email she shared community news, promoting events, informing people of members’ needs and accomplishments. “She would let somebody know if there were job opportunities. If someone was in trouble, she would let people know.”
Polish traditions shared with Atlanta
As a board member of the Chopin Society, Elżbieta promoted the music of Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin, particularly reaching out to children.
“We have many competitions and grants for young children and she was an important part of it,” Lato said.
“She was enormous in connecting us all together. She knew how to bring the best from us. She was demanding, but she always wanted to have things done the best way that could be done,” she said.
Lato also admired their modesty. “They never made a point of proclaiming their scientific successes. Their works were published in many international scientific journals,” she said. “They were both Renaissance people, very knowledgeable and appreciative of music, arts, literature, loving life—very often traveling and enjoying good food and wine.”
Longtime CDC colleague Norman Pieniazek first met Krzysztof at a meeting in Warsaw 40 years ago. Years later they reconnected at a conference where “I remembered him immediately because he was very smartly dressed and had a bowtie. And we became very good friends.”
At the CDC his group discovered very important facts on the hepatitis D virus and one of the “most prominent discoveries of hepatitis C.”
“He was a very prominent researcher whose discoveries he was very well known for. He was invited to many scientific conferences to deliver keynote addresses. He was passionate about his work and he had a lot of friends through work at the CDC,” he said.
Father Ciesla was the apostolate chaplain in 2009 and 2010 and planned with Elżbieta the inaugural Pierogi Festival, as the Polish community created huge quantities of the homemade filled dumplings as a fund-raising and cultural event. Expecting 1,000 people, they were delightfully overwhelmed to have triple the turnout, which also helped to promote the ministry.
“People came from all over and are still coming from all over,” he said.
She also taught children at church about traditional baking and Polish Easter egg decorating, practices which are interwoven with feast days.
“She was always well-prepared like she was going to give a presentation at the university. She was giving them all she knew and her whole heart,” he recalled. “She was teaching them ways to cook different cakes, special cakes. She did it with her granddaughters all the time, but she had enough time because of the heart she had to pass on these traditions to others.”
Father Ciesla, now serving in Colorado, will dearly miss his good friends.
“They cared for the Polish-speaking community, but it was the same level of care taken for other people, co-workers. They were involved deeply in whatever they were doing, both of them,” he said. “Elżbieta was the leader who took a lot of attention and care for the Polish-speaking community, and Krzysztof was taking care of his work and his co-workers and also he cared for her. It was incredible to see there was this support between each other.”
Elzbieta once said about her childhood exile, “if you walk with God and have faith you will come out better, and she did,” Father Ciesla said. “The Catholic faith was very important for both of them.’”
Memorial donations may be made to the Polish Catholic Apostolate in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, 85 Gloster Road, Lawrenceville, GA 30044 or the Chopin Society of Atlanta, 10700 State Bridge Road, Suite 12, Johns Creek, GA 30022.
Gretchen Keiser also contributed to this story.