Our Lady of Mercy Chapel, Willesden Green
A wartime story of faith and mercy
Devotion to Mary and inspiration drawn from her images played an important role in the conversion and spiritual journey of St. Ignatius. Among many we recall the Black Madonna at Montserrat where he laid down his sword and symbolically started new life, and the image of Santa Maria della Strada, on the wall of Saint Mary of the Way in Rome, the first church ever held by the Jesuits.
Marian devotion has also been very precious for generations of Poles who have been gathering at Our Lady of Mercy chapel at Willesden Green in London for more than 60 years.
But how did the Poles end up in North West London? To understand this we have to go back to Second World War, when many Polish people were dispersed throughout the world as allied soldiers, refugees or prisoners. After the war over 200,000 Poles were unable to return from Britain to their native land. Some of them, including general Władysław Anders, eventually settled in London’s Willesden Green area. They initially founded a Polish Saturday school and in 1955 asked Polish Jesuits to create a chaplaincy for them. A house was bought at 182 Walm Lane and adapted as a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy.
The history of the painting of Our Lady at the focal point of the chapel is an inspiring testament to the perseverance and faith of this first generation of Polish immigrants.
After Germany attacked the USSR in 1941, many of the Polish prisoners in Soviet slave camps were released and formed into the Polish Army, known as the Anders Army, which was soon evacuated from the Soviet Union and fought alongside the Allies.
Soldiers in some units asked to be allowed to carry an image of the famous Marian icon Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn (in Polish Matka Boska Ostrobramska) to inspire them through their campaigns. The artist was a soldier, Piotr Sawicki, and he copied the painting from a small prayer card which had been kept carefully hidden by a Jesuit priest and fellow prisoner Fr Tadeusz Walczak SJ (1906-1987). The Jesuit had managed to retrieve the prayer card after it was confiscated during an NKVD search, and hid it in the lining of his shirt collar for over a year.
On November 11th 1941 the first field service with the newly dedicated painting took place. It was a very special experience, when several thousand soldiers, who had barely survived the Soviet slave camps, could openly have Mass and pray before their new image of Our Lady of Ostra Brama. The painting accompanied the soldiers through Iraq, Egypt and the whole Italian campaign including the crucial battle of Monte Cassino.
The first wooden frame for the painting was carved by Władysław Żołdak who was killed in 1944 at Morro d'Alba in Italy. Today’s more elaborate frame is a piece of art in itself. It contains Polish national emblems, symbols of the military units it served and an expressive motto: “Mother, rescue us!”
After the war Fr. Walczak took the image with him as he travelled on missionary work to Zambia. In 1975 it was transferred permanently to the care of the Polish Jesuits at Walm Lane chapel.
Nowadays, every Wednesday, after the 7pm Mass, there is a well-attended service to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. A current schedule of masses, prayer meetings and other events can always be found at our website:
Our parish has a distinctive Ignatian character. We run annual retreats in daily life, offer spiritual direction, confessions and workshops, take care of religious education classes at Polish Saturday schools, regularly support missionary and charitable projects and co-operate with many Jesuit or Ignatian works in the UK, Poland and other countries. It is worthwhile to note that the last Polish President in Exile Ryszard Kaczorowski and his family have been actively involved in our parish for many years – especially with our scouting movement.
While our primary mission is to help the Polish community, we are happy to serve as a meeting place of cultures and nationalities. Every weekday morning (7.30 am) we have a Mass in English. Similarly, as well as our many Polish-speaking parish groups, we have two (Lectio Divina and Men of St. Joseph) run in English or bilingually. If you want to get to know us better and possibly find some ways for co-operation just contact us or join one of our BBQ parties in the parish house gardens. The next will be… on July 31st.
Pray with us
Let us conclude with the words of Pope Francis, from his recent bull Misericordiae Vultus:
My thoughts now turn to the Mother of Mercy. May the sweetness of her countenance watch over us in this Holy Year, so that all of us may rediscover the joy of God’s tenderness. /…/
Her hymn of praise, sung at the threshold of the home of Elizabeth, was dedicated to the mercy of God which extends from “generation to generation” (Lk 1:50). We too were included in those prophetic words of the Virgin Mary. [Let this] be a source of comfort and strength to us…
Lescek Golebiewski SJ, Parish Priest of Our Lady of Mercy chapel, Willesden Green
Lescek Golebiewski joined the Jesuits in Poland in 1981. His is currently the parish priest at the Walm Lane Chapel, Willesden Green in North West London, and Superior of the Polish Jesuit mission in London.