KRAKOW, POLAND - Poland has a lot to offer Catholic pilgrims looking for history and stories associated with their, and other, faiths.
In the middle of World Youth Day 2016, a group of young adults decided to tour the host city of Krakow and take in some of the religious treasures the city has to offer.
Led by Sarah Leahy, ministry development coordinator for the diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, and her husband Jimmy, the group maneuvered through the city by tram and foot to visit the relics Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, an Italian-born member of the Third order of St. Dominic. Buffalo has a young adult social group known as Frassati WNY, which gathers to pray together and hear speakers.
The group grabbed some lunch from the Frassati Café, right outside of the Church of the Holy Trinity and Dominican Monastery, which housed the relics. The café is run by the Dominican brothers who offer sandwiches, smoothies and drinks all for donations.
After lunch they visited the Jewish Quarter and Schindler's Factory, a museum built inside Oskar Schindler's cookware factory.
The museum recreates the experience of being in Krakow under Nazi occupation. Cobblestones cover the walkways. Photos and postcards hang on the walls of prison cells. Newspapers from the 1940 are scattered throughout the building. Schindler, known from Steven Spielberg's film, "Schindler's List," was a Nazi spy who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust.
"You feel a lot of emotional confusion, said Samantha Pangrazio, 21, from St. Padre Pio Parish in Oakfield. "It's hard to understand because we're so removed from it, but to see everything in newspapers and what people were experiencing at that time, it's mind blowing that something that huge could happen."
Christina Mitchell, 27, from St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Cheektowaga, noted the contrast between the killing of Jews in Krakow 70 years ago to now inviting people from across the globe to join in a celebration of religious faith known as World Youth Day.
"In school we learn about the Holocaust. To see a city so devastated by that firsthand, a country that was taken off the map and put back on the map and trying to thrive with this religious celebration, when individuals of another faith were persecuted and almost stamped out," said Christina Mitchell, 27, from St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Cheektowaga, adding that the visit fit in with an earlier visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp and panel discussion at the Tauron Arena.
"On of the panel discussions (yesterday) was religious freedom. Being able to practice your faith, and people around the world now are being persecuted for their Catholic faith. It's good that we don't forget these atrocities so they aren't repeated in the future."
The tour had to be cut short due to the arrival of Pope Francis, which was a big draw for the pilgrims.
"It was interesting to go through the museum and learn a little bit more about Krakow and it's history during World War II. It touched on what we already encountered in Auschwitz," said Pam Ehrke, from St. Leo the Great Parish in Amherst.
Unlike the younger pilgrims who came with parish youth groups, this gang of young adults came as individuals seeking to strengthen their own faith lives.
"I work two jobs, so sometimes it's hard to devote as much time as I want to to my faith. Sometimes it's hard enough to go to Mass on Sundays because I usually work on Sundays," said Ehrke.
Mitchell came with an open heart.
"I didn't want to have these deep set expectations," she said. "I wanted it all to come out as it was supposed to. I prepared for this, and I came here and I wanted to experience it. I just kind of wanted to reaffirm my own faith and experience other (people's) faith, as well. You don't get this kind of exposure in everyday life. You don't get to see people from other countries everyday of your life, and all coming together in such a unity. It's proof that the world can unify and be at peace for a moment."
World Youth Day 2016 runs from July 26 to 31.