It was a golden evening, to be certain. The Polish Mission team had been anxiously awaiting this night for months. Now, every detail was set: the electronics worked perfectly, the centerpieces and accents were arranged with minute attention to detail, and the freshly-printed copies of The Mission were poured over again and again for typos. The work had been non-stop in the months and weeks prior, but now everything was ready to shine.
And so began another part of The Polish Mission’s Brightest Hour! It began when Minister of Culture Madam Małgorzata Omilanowska came to campus in late July to award us with the gold degree of the Gloria Artis, and on October 29, The Polish Mission welcomed Ambassador Ryszard Schnepf to formally mark the occasion in front of a group of our most generous friends, gathered at Pine Lake Country Club.
Over 115 guests came to mark the gala occasion, in a gorgeous room that was embellished by approximately 50 letters of congratulations, from people ranging from President of Poland Andrzej Duda, Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Dr. Piotr Cywiński, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, President of the Grand Hotel R.D. Musser III, and even President Obama. Letters from leading influential Polish institutions were displayed in the elegant bar room, where a choice display of some of the best artwork from our collection was showcased in view of the panorama of Pine Lake at sunset. Works by Jacek Malczewski, Julian Fałat and Leon Wyczółkowski, among others, inspired guests. The adjacent sample of modern art, a sample of Po Prostu Pink by Agata Dworzak-Subocz, part of the International Print Triennial Society of Krakow, accented the breadth of great art, from antiquity to the modern day.
At 7:00 PM, the bells rang, and as the din of delightful conversation subdued, our program began with some kind words of welcome from Chancellor-Rector Msgr. Tom.
Ambassador Schnepf then went on to give a moving address on the status of Polish-American relations that captured everyone’s attention. In a heartwarming expression of admiration, he mentioned that over 70 years since the last visit of an Ambassador was entirely too long of a time, and continued to congratulate The Polish Mission.
His words of affirmation resonated greatly with everyone–the work of The Polish Mission can only with the greatest of difficulty be complemented to a more fulfilling degree.
Pine Lake chef extraordinaire Nick Lundberg prepared an exquisite array for the guests – a luxurious American base with Polish accents. Matzo ball duck broth soup and Polish cheesecake were the book ends to the excellent main course of filet mignon and horseradish jus.
As the talented Pine Lake serving team brought out the decadent cheesecake, it was time for a special addition to the speaking program that began with Mr. Bob Wittman, who most graciously offered guests an unforgettable telling of the true story of the 1728 oil painting by Krzysztof Lubieniecki, Portrait of a Young Man. Looted from Europe at the close of the Second World War, Mr. Wittman courageously endeavored to return the valuable early Baroque masterpiece to its original home of Poland. Wittmann’s son, Christopher, is a St. Mary’s man, a 2014 graduate of OLSM, and his father closed the presentation by challenging all collectors and museum professionals to closely investigate their collections to uncover the secret stories behind the prized items.
After Mr. Wittmann’s enthralling presentation, guests were informed that the Gloria Artis wasn’t the only prestigious award being celebrated that evening. Though many were aware of the Gloria Artis, only a trusted few were aware that our Director Marcin had been nominated to receive the Cavalier’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland (Krzyż Kawalerski Orderu Zasługi Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej) several months ago. By decision of President Bronisław Komorowski, Marcin was to receive the award in recognition of outstanding service to the Polish Republic through cultural engagement in the United States, but he had requested that the ceremony take place on the 29th, at the place where Marcin received his first job in the United States so many years ago – Pine Lake Country Club!
The Ambassador was welcomed to the stage for a second time, but this time he focused on the vision of our esteemed Marcin, who he humorously likened to a movie star (which many of Marcin’s associates understand well). But aside from warm-hearted humor, with Marcin on stage, it was with the utmost formality that the Ambassador read aloud the formal declarations necessary for the awarding of the Cavalier’s Cross. He pinned the blue silk award on Marcin’s lapel, to the delight of the applauding guests, some of which were Pine Lake members who remember seeing Marcin working in the locker room all those years ago.
The evening was closed with a most heartwarming address by our Director Marcin, who with grace proceeded to thank his family, the Polish Mission team, and everyone who helped make that evening’s dinner a reality and a success. Most importantly, he dedicated his award to his children Phillip and Michelle, and their generation, so that they may carry on the special purpose embodied by The Polish Mission. Amidst his brief remarks, he promised all that The Polish Mission would never stop our high-profile cultural program, and that the future would hold great things for us. As The Polish Mission is now anointed with prestigious gold, he said, “we are the top Polish organization in North America, and you are all responsible for this achievement. Thank you for supporting our mission, our Polish Mission.”
The next morning (Friday, October 30th), we were all back on campus, bright and early, for Ambassador Schnepf’s tour of our historic campus. This was the first visit of a Polish ambassador to the Orchard Lake campus in 77 years, since 1938! You could feel the excitement in the cool morning air.
We attended mass at the Shrine Chapel of Our Lady of Orchard Lake at 9:45 Am with the entire student body of St. Mary’s Preparatory in attendance. After Mass, Cormac Lynn, Headmaster of St. Mary’s Preparatory introduced Ambassador Schnepf to the students, faculty and staff and formally welcomed him to the campus. The Ambassador addressed the St. Mary’s men for about 15 minutes, sharing that the “proper” hour-long speech he had prepared for him was a bit boring for so early in the morning and that instead, he wanted to speak a few words from the heart.
He said that being on campus, and being with the men of St. Mary’s reminded him of his younger years; the age where most teens want to goof off and hang out with friends, resenting pressure from parents and teachers. Ambassador Schnepf acknowledged that it was challenging to live up to the expectations of parents, who want you to always “do better” and learn from your mistakes. He said the world is changing so fast in those formative years, that it is sometimes difficult to make informed decisions quickly. He said the world is changing so much faster now than when he was a young man, that it is unbelieveable what teens and young adults are faced with today. He challenged them to live great lives and to strive for those things that may seem too big to manage, but those that conquer these challenges will not regret the work that was invested.
To applause and cheers, the Ambassador stepped away from the microphone as a few students approached the ambo carrying a few packages. These were students from the Polish language class of St. Mary’s, and their teacher, Marzanna Owinski, helped them prepare a few words of welcome, in Polish, for the Ambassador. The students then presented the Ambassador with a St. Mary’s hockey jersey with his last name embroidered on the back and the number 15, so he’d remember the special year he visited St. Mary’s Prep.
After snapping a few pictures with the boys and shaking a few hands, the Ambassador walked to the Administration building with the Polish Mission team for the unveiling of a special surprise! In 1938, a plaque was placed on the front of the building to commemorate the visit of the Polish Ambassador Count Jerzy Potocki. JJ Przewozniak helped create a replica of the plaque to commemorate this visit of Ambassador Schnepf in 2015, and Monsignor Tom presented this with a few words of thanks to the Ambassador!
The next stop was the Castle on campus, which is the permanent residence of the Chancellor, and the oldest building on our property (originally built in 1858). Just as most of our esteemed guests do, Ambassador Schnepf graciously signed our famous guest book. There is a lot of history in that single book, and also many recognizable names such as Karol Cardinal Wojtyla and Lech Walesa.
Fridays are busy days at Polonica Americana Research Institute (PARI), The Polish Mission’s Genealogy wing, and we were looking forward to showing the Ambassador the hustle and bustle of our daily genealogy programming. There were a few clients being assisted by Ceil Wendt Jensen and Dr. Hal Learman, genealogy institute co-directors. Several of our wonderful volunteers were there as well, working on digitizing, answering phones and fielding any questions that came up. The Ambassador went on a short tour about the room and then saw the beginning of our Panorama presentation showing 1,000 years of Polish history! As a historian himself, he saw great value in the work of The Polish Mission, and encouraged us to continue to nurture these programs and make them accessible to larger audiences.
Another important branch of the Orchard Lake Schools is our seminary, under the patronage of Ss. Cyril & Methodius. With 19 men studying for the priesthood this year, Ambassador Schnepf made a point to spend some time with them as well, dining together with them all in the John Paul II Dining Hall.
The last stop before his departure to Washington D.C., was amongst the most meaningful. The Ambassador visited our monument commemorating the Katyn Massacre of 1940 and the 2010 tragedy at Smolensk. That monument, most recently enhanced by renown Polish sculptor Jan Siuta, was the first erected in America memorializing both of those historic tragedies. Ambassador Schnepf laid flowers at the hallowed site and stood a moment in silence, remembering those that have gone before us, and all those who lost their lives for Poland.
It’s impossible to express how fortunate we were to be able to host Ambassador Schnepf for these few days and truly appreciated his time and the gift of his wise insight into the future. We look forward to continuing our relationship with the Embassy in Washington D.C. and visiting Ambassador Schnepf on his turf in the future!