U.S. priest who is Ulma family relative collects prayer intentions to bring to beatification

Oregon-based Father Michael Niemczak, pictured in an undated photo, is collecting prayers for the Ulma family's intercession as he prepares to attend their beatification in Markowa, Poland, Sept. 10, 2023. His great grandfather, Jan Niemczak, was Wiktoria Ulma's cousin. (OSV News photo/Father Micheal Niemczak)

(OSV News) -- Father Michael Niemczak, whose great-grandfather, Jan Niemczak, was Wiktoria Ulma's cousin, decided he can't fly from his home in Oregon to Markowa, Poland, for his family members' beatification empty-handed.

He plans to bring prayer intentions that anyone can share with the priest online.

Father Niemczak, whose parents emigrated from Poland, felt a mix of pride and joy when he learned that his own family members would be beatified. Wiktoria and Józef Ulma, along with their seven children and eight Jews they were sheltering, were killed March 24, 1944, by Nazi gendarmes in Markowa in German-occupied Poland. The beatification of the entire Ulma family, recognized as Polish Catholic martyrs, takes place Sept. 10 in their home village.

"I always think, what would I do in that kind of a situation? And you can never really know. You can hope that you would react in this way or in that way. And just to know that there's this close connection to those who reacted with heroism rather than cowardice is beautiful," he told OSV News.

Despite the risk of the death penalty, an estimated 300,000 Polish people hid and helped Jews in their homes during the German terror of World War II. Over 7,200 Poles hold the title of Righteous Among the Nations. An estimated 1,000 Poles, including women and children, were executed by the Nazis for helping their Jewish friends and neighbors.

"They're just the visible representation of a lot more people who also did heroic things like that. Obviously, there were others who did less heroic things. And so it's like every human heart has the capacity for incredible holiness or incredible wickedness. And it's beautiful to see this example of those who went in the direction of heroism," Father Niemczak said.

The Oregon-based priest also is connected to the Szylar family, the Ulmas' neighbors in Markowa who sheltered seven members of the Jewish Weltz family in their attic. The Szylar and Weltz families survived the war.

Father Niemczak did not want to keep his family story to himself. When he shared it with his parishioners in New Mexico, where he was ordained in 2016 for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, they were "moved to tears" by the Ulma family's tragic story, he said. Father Niemczak is now forming seminarians at Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Oregon.

People have reacted to the Ulmas' story, he said, with "sadness at the tragedy of human wickedness, of the fact that we can do these things to each other," but also "this great hope that even when you're surrounded by a lot of evil, you can always choose to do good."

Parents have been especially moved by the Ulmas' witness, he noted. "The instinct of the parent is to protect my children from everything. But to have that higher instinct of saying: 'I want to protect them, but I also have to teach them that every life is worth protecting. … I need to not just teach them how to kind of survive this life and mediocrity, but how to really live a heroic life,'" he said.

While still in New Mexico a few months ago, he came up with the idea of bringing people's prayer intentions with him to the beatification Mass.

"As a pastor of my parish, I would frequently ask my parishioners to send in their intentions so that I can pray for them if ever I went on a pilgrimage … and so this is just an extension of that. I thought, if I am so blessed to be able to go to this beatification Mass, I want to be able to bring with me the intentions of my friends and family," he told OSV News.

But not only those who know Father Niemczak can request he brings their prayers to the Ulma beatification. Anyone can do it through a Google doc.

"I thought, why should I keep it to my friends and family? Why not make it something accessible to all? (Like) those who are going through family struggles, to (make them) feel like they're not alone," he said.

"I know a lot of parents that feel terrified at raising their children in such turbulent times. They feel very scared to maybe welcome another child into their home. And I thought the Ulmas are such a perfect family for these times to show couples that they can live their lives with great heroism," Father Niemczak stressed, adding that in "having that openness to the lives that God gives, (they) can raise their children in such a way that their children become heroes as well."

He said his prayer intention form can be updated any time.

"What's good about it is that I can carry them with me wherever I go, even if you send it to me the day before the beatification, I can still pray for them there," he said.

"But the beautiful thing is, say you only get the link four months after the beatification, your prayers are still being heard by the family. So it's also a way of getting people to start asking for their intercession no matter where they are or when they do it," Father Niemczak said.

He said his own saintly family encourages him to strive for holiness as a priest in day-to-day life

"I've always thought I want to be a heroic priest like St. John Paul II or St. Maximilian Kolbe. That's true," he explained. "But I also realize I want to be whoever was the priest in the background who was ministering to the Ulmas, the priest whose name you will never know, the one who gave them Communion, who heard their confessions, the one that helped nurture the sanctity in them."

This is "the way that I want to live my priesthood and, that I want the men that I'm forming here to live their priesthood, to realize there's going to be saints in the pews," he said. "And they need to humbly minister to the saints that are in their parishes that they might not even know about."



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