Since the Fourth century, the last Sunday in Lent has been recognized as Palm Sunday, commemorating Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. The tradition of waving palms remains in the American Church. At St. Casmir Church in Kaisertown, Father Czeslaw M. Krysa takes his palms seriously, by keeping the tradition of decorative palm weaving alive.
The art originated in Alsace-Lorraine and was brought to the United States where it began to flourish in convents. Nuns would braid palm fronds into symbols of Palm Sunday, such as a crown of thorns, whips and belts and bind them into elaborate bouquets.
"The imagination just took off," said Father Krysa.
Father Krysa, a lover of traditions, learned the craft from the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph in Hamburg nearly 40 years ago.
"For some reason it stuck with me, really stuck. So, anyplace I would go, if I saw something or heard something, I'd ask, then I would learn the weave," he said, adding that every weave he knows, was taught to him by another person, not through books or videos. "Everything you see here, I learned from people, and everyone has a bit of a story to go with it," he said, pointing to an Italian weave he learned from a saxophone player in Buffalo.
He now passes the art on to others, holding instructional seminars every year.
He makes it clear that, although beautiful and decorative, the palms are more than a craft. They are religious symbols.
"For me it's a meditation," he explained. "I actually prepare my Holy Week homilies during those 18 hours of meditation on all these religious symbols that I'm weaving here; three or four kinds of crosses, five kinds of flowers - roses, lilies."
A typical bouquet holds about 20 designs with variations on each. For instance, a wheat weave with some free space can hold an egg. Without the egg, it is an empty tomb. A rose not tied down is a hyacinth.
Regardless of the size of the space he uses for the lessons, he always has to turn people away. A good class has 25 people. Although he does use PowerPoint, the lesson requires a hands-on demonstration. A video series published on YouTube has drawn 34,000 viewers in two years. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDiOphbP0uAo6MOlD2TwY7w
"Some people get hooked. I'm one of those people. I have to do a palm every year to carry into procession. That's how I prepare to enter into the mysteries of Holy Week. It's not just a nice little craft like pottery or basket weaving," he said.
At Palm Sunday Mass, the palms get blessed with Easter baskets as a sign of new life, transformation and joy. Then they are brought home to remain in the domestic church, usually placed next to a holy picture or cross. Father Krysa claims they will keep forever. He hangs some of his upside down for a few months so they dry straight and stiff.
"They're extremely durable," he said.
Making a liturgical item in the home, then bringing back after being blessed, brings that blessing into the home. Having a sacramental in the home reinforces the concept that the home is the domestic church, a place where religious education and prayer take place. It's a concept close to Father Krysa's heart and one that he wants to see continue.
"Buffalo is wonderful because it holds on to a lot of different practices, traditions, now foods," he explains. "There are people who come back to Buffalo for Easter. What's really necessary is for people to know that there is meaning behind this. I think this is what Buffalo can offer. People have memories of this, or at least they're interested in it. There is some sort of creative participation that happens. This is something Buffalo can offer. It can be a center for, what I call, the liturgy of the domestic church."
He has seen people who go through the whole religious education process and receive all their sacraments, then spend Easter eating ham and colored eggs, just like people who never learned. "That's why the meaning needs to be captured, because a lot of our people are losing it. If you know there's meaning, it's going to last. If you don't know there is a meaning to it, it's a superstition and it atrophies into nothing," he said.
St. Casimir Church has seen a rise in twentysomethings coming to Mass, not with parents, but on their own. Father Krysa credits the use of incense, bells and visual symbols, such as the palms, with involving people in the Mass by playing on their senses. During a candle Mass he saw kids actively participating by holding candles. "They felt they were doing something, not just sitting in a pew. The worst memory you can have of Church is sitting in a pew and behaving. Our kids are involved."
During the last two years thanks to a seed grant from the Permanent Chair of Polish Culture at Canisius College, Daybreak Productions has been working at St. Casimir's to document Holy Week Polish American and Italian palm weavers. Tutorials of this ritual art of the domestic church appear, along with their profound faith meaning, in a video series entitled, "From Table to Altar and Back."
The next palm weaving seminar will be held at St. Casimir Church Saturday, March 10, from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. instructors include Michael Szafranski, Deacon Mark Kehl and Anette Noto. To reserve space send a $25 check ($10 for teens with adults) to Palms/St. Casimir Church, 160 Cable St., Buffalo NY 14206.