“Be Not Afraid”: Service As A Priest In Communist Poland And America

Joseph Tokarczyk


Father Joseph Tokarczyk was born in Krasnystaw, Poland in February 1954. His father was a builder who owned a small farm, and his mother stayed at home to raise two boys and work the farm. The farm had belonged to his grandfather, who left the land to his son. Father Joe credits small, privately owned farms for helping Poland survive communism. When Father Joe was a child, there was no electricity in the house, which was lit by kerosene lanterns. His father grew two types of tobacco on the farm, Virginia and Pulaski, and Father Joe remembers pulling tobacco leaves as a boy. He enjoyed playing soccer, and remembers watching President Kennedy’s funeral and the moon landing on TV (there was one television in the community and neighbors gathered to watch important events). Recalling the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Poland, Father Joe notes that “the geographical location of Poland is horrible.” When the Nazis occupied Poland, people were more afraid of the Ukrainian Nazis than the Germans. When the Soviets took over, they seized the large farms, but left the small ones to the people. Father Joe recalls going to school every day under the communist regime, but not having food. There was nothing in the stores. He remembers people standing in line all night to get chicken, but when the chicken ran out, people left hungry and angry. He also recalls that “you couldn’t travel. Unless you were a party member, you couldn’t go to Russia.” When votes were held, one voted only for the satisfaction of voting; the winner was predetermined. Growing up, Father Joe learned music in school and became a soloist. He played the piano, accordion, guitar, and drums. He joined a band and every weekend they played “anything popular.” He was living the rock and roll lifestyle, making money, driving a motorcycle, and dating girls – lots of girls. In the early 70s, he received a wakeup call. He met a young priest who was also a musician. This priest wore jeans and cowboy boots and had long hair, and the communists did not like him. The priest encouraged him to attend the Catholic University of Lublin, but Father Joe resisted, saying he was comfortable with his lifestyle. Eventually, Father Joe was convinced, and after a harrowing motorcycle ride with the young priest on the back, he made it to the Catholic University. As a child, attending church had been important to Father Joe, and he remembers walking to church, even though the government did not want you to attend Mass. During the communist era, the Soviets were the ones who gave building permits and no new churches were built. Party members were not even allowed to go to church, but some did in secret, to be married in the church or baptize children covertly. They did so even though the punishment for discovery was severe. During this period of repression, the church was trying to help people, and many priests died or were sent to jail for standing up for their faith (here he shares the story of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, who died in Auschwitz to save another prisoner). At the Catholic University, one of his professors was Father Karol Josef Wojtyla – later Saint Pope John Paul II, who became the Pope immediately before Father Joe was ordained. He remembers Pope John Paul II telling the people of Poland, “Be not afraid!” Father Joe says, “He brought us freedom.” Before the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Father Joe traveled to Berlin with a religious group and he recalls the oppression there. “The Stasi were following you,” and it was worse than Poland. Even though freedoms were returning in Poland, observation by the government was increasing. Calling the agents “angels,” he remembers being followed and finding tape recorders in the church. Wanting to go “anywhere not communist,” he came to America in 1986 at the age of 32 after his cousin, a doctor, helped him get a passport. Arriving in New York, he was shocked by everything he saw, and especially that he could go into a store and get what he wanted. Initially, he got his start working at an electronics store for $3.25 per hour before resuming his work as a priest. The Polish bishop was upset at losing Father Joe, but he replied there were people to help over in America. He earned his citizenship in 1999 and notes that American citizenship “means you are free.” He still has a lot of Polish pride and frequently returns to Poland, even though New York is home now. Since coming to America, he has served Catholic communities in Manhattan, Staten Island, and Orange County. He ends the interview saying, “I became a Priest to serve people,” and “I love this country, this is my home.”


conflicts Cold War
topics Leadership Camaraderie Faith and Religion
interviewer David Siry
date 29 May 2024


name Joseph Tokarczyk
specialty Catholic Priest / Former Polish Rock Star