‘A great friend’
After 50 years as a priest, the anniversary celebration of the Rev. Paul Breza’s ordination has become an international event.
Wednesday morning, Mayor Ryszard Sylka and Council Chairman Leszek Waszkiewicz of Bytow, Poland, accompanied by translator Asia Malek, touched down at the La Crosse airport to spend a week with American friends in Winona.
“We wanted to come to celebrate Father Breza’s 50th anniversary, meet your new mayor and see friends who have been to Bytow before,” Sylka said.
Breza has done more than anyone to bring Winona and Bytow together as sister cities. Bytow, a town of about 20,00 about 50 miles southwest of Gdansk in north-central Poland, was home to many of the Polish immigrants who arrived in Winona around the turn of the last century.
“The names in your cemetery are the names in our cemetery,” Waszkiewicz said.
For nearly 40 years, Breza has devoted countless hours to keeping the memories and heritage of Winona’s Polish immigrant community alive. “I’m just trying to save something that was on the verge of being lost,” he said.
In 1976, he bought the old Laird-Norton Lumber Co.’s office building at the corner of Second and Liberty streets to be home to a museum celebrating the culture of the Polish workmen who sawed the lumber that Laird-Norton sold. Assigned to a parish in Altura, Breza managed to fit several hours of cleaning, refurbishing and remodeling into his pastoral schedule virtually every day, filling the building with artifacts, documents and memorabilia that would otherwise have been lost.
In 2001, Breza first completed the circle, finding himself on a Polish inter-city bus bound for a place he’d only heard of.
“I had no idea where I was going,” Breza said of his first visit to Bytow, but “I knew when I got there I was home.”
“Father Paul is considered to be a great friend,” Sylka said. Since that first visit, he’s returned to Bytow several times, where he’s forged a sister city relationship, fostered a student exchange program, and helped guide a growing number of people from the Winona area back to their homeland.
“Bytow admires all he has done,” Sylka said, pointing out that in 2010, Breza was made an honorary citizen of Bytow — only the fourth person to be so honored.
The government of Poland also has recognized Breza’s role in fostering closer ties between the two countries and sister cities.
In May, on Polish Constitution Day, Paulina Kapuscinska, Consul General of the Republic of Poland presented Breza with the Cavalier’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland 5th class.
“The Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland is bestowed on foreigners and Polish citizens permanently living abroad, who by their activities have made out-standing contributions to international cooperation and to bonds between the Republic of Poland and other nations and countries,” the citation read.
“I don’t know if many cities have such a good ambassador,” Sylka said.
“He is truly a good man. He has a great heart.”