Fr. Justin Figas OFM Conv.
Life and Legacy
In 1793 Poland ceased to exist as a sovereign nation on the maps of Europe when it was "partitioned" between three land-hungry countries: Prussia, Russia,
and Austria. But the Polish people were proud of their heritage, their language, and their Catholic faith even though the struggle would be great and
arduous to maintain these throughout a long period systematic suppressions.
Jacob Figas was born in Kruchowo, Mogilno, the Prussian-occupied territory of Poland in 1852. It was a poor and old village that did not offer much
advancement for a common laborer. Jacob was serving as a guardsman in the 6th infantry brigade of the Prussian army when at the age of 22 he recalls
that he struck a Prussian soldier who degradingly called him a "polish pig." Charges were not brought against Jacob, and he was released from the army
in good standing a short time later, in 1875. But Jacob had determined that there would be no real life for him in his homeland. He felt compelled to
join the masses of Poles immigrating to the Unit-ed States. It was his only chance to make a good life for himself and his future family. Jacob received
his embarkation documents on February 23, 1880. He arrived in the United States a month later on March 24th. Like so many others who were unskilled he
headed for the coal mining regions of Pennsylvania where all that was required was a strong back and perseverance. He settled in the small town of McClure,
presently merged with the town of Everson. At the time McClure was comprised of about 20 families, mostly of Polish and Slovak extractions. It was there
that Jacob married a Polish immigrant named Maryanna Szymanska four years later in 1884.
The couple's first child was born on June 24, 1886. The boy who would later be known as Justin in religious life, was baptized Michael in St. John the Baptist
Church in Scottsdale, Pennsylvania. Many other children followed. In 1891 the family had to vacate their tenement house owned by the McClure Coke Company.
Jacob Figas frequently turned to the parish priest at St. Joseph Church in Scottsdale for aid and support of his growing and now homeless family. The parish
was always able to provide something. Jacob's faith was further put to the test when, at age seven, Michael contracted infantile paralysis (polio). Jacob vowed
promise. Many would say later, that Fr. Justin's energy and constant projects were the result of his eternal hymn of gratitude to God for sparing his life.
In 1886, five weeks after the birth of her eighth child, Mar-yanna died. Michael was then 9 years old. Jacob's great concern for his young family compelled him
to seek help one more time from his parish priest to help him find an up-standing woman with whom he could marry and who would care for his children. Not an
out of the ordinary situation in those days, it was finally a priest in Pittsburg in 1896 who was able to locate a young woman who would meet his needs. She
would give birth to five more children to Jacob.
Michael being the oldest child, the weight of many responsibilities fell on his shoulders. But his father also knew that the only way out of poverty was through
education. Michael was sent to the Polish parochial school in Everson. Michael took interest in all of his studies and was a very avid reader, a habit that
remained with him the rest of his life. Michael's favorite works were Adam Mickiewicz and Henry Sienkiewicz. The poetry of Mickiewicz and the prose of
Sienkiewicz provided the young boy with a deep sense of loyalty to his Polish heritage while the keen literary style of these authors helped him to master his
parents' native tongue and to take great pride in the deeds of his ancestors. Equally proud to be an American, Michael's favorite author was the fabled Mark Twain.
The stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn served as an escape from the harsh realities of life in McClure. One boyhood friend recalled that whenever they
went hunting together on a spur of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Mike would take along his old single barreled shotgun, and always suggested that he be Huck Finn
and the other be Tom Sawyer. The boys pretended that the sulfur polluted creek which drained the mine bilge was the Mississippi river. Michael's momentary
schoolboy pretenses were indeed a respite from reality, but he was also mindful of his obligation to crawl through the coal mines with his father in order to
help his family financially. Justin later wrote, "We were always poor, however home always wore a congenial air. My father dominated our lives. He was stern,
Michael never forgot the vow his father made while he lay afflicted with infantile paralysis. At age 14 Michael met Fr. Benedict Langa, a Conventual Franciscan,
who had traveled from Pittsburg to Everson to offer a parish mission. Michael was chosen to serve the Mass for the young Franciscan. After the Mass Michael
spoke about his desire for religious life. The friar encouraged Michael to contact the rector of the Order's minor seminary in Trenton, New Jersey. Michael
was accepted and entered the seminary in the late summer of 1901. He was providentially welcomed by the rector, Fr. Dominic Reuter, a man who would one day
be the first American to hold the title of Minister General as the 107th successor of St. Francis. Although Michael's courses in the seminary came quite easily
to him, and he showed proficiency for languages, Michael also shared his natural anxieties about entering the seminary and about being so far from home. Letters
back to his family confirmed the reasons for his apprehensions. "In the mornings we are given coffee and bread. For lunch we are given soup and water.
In the evenings we have bread and water again. We don't even have crackers for a snack. I miss home very much." The 14 year old continued to plead "Please
send a package of some food and warm clothes." One day he recalled the students stuffed their pockets with apples and he ran after them with a large strap and
a stick. Michael said the boys laughed the whole time they were being chased but at least they got away with a few apples.
After four years in the high school seminary, Michael petitioned to enter the novitiate, which at time was located in Syracuse, New York. Michael was invested
in the habit of the Conventual Franciscans and given the name "Justin Maria." The community to which the young Justin was now offering his life was founded by
St. Francis 700 years earlier. In time the Order divided into various branches, each a legitimate stock of that noble religious tree. The community that became
known as "Conventual Franciscans," chose to minister in the heart of medieval cities rather than in more remote hermitages. They chose to band together in
concentrated communities, in large houses, a conventus, from the Latin. The Conventual friars assumed the broadest response of transforming every level of
society. The friars became preachers and educators, royal administrators of charity and advocates of social justice. They spread the faith far and wide as
missionaries, and spilled their blood as martyrs. The friars' expanding influences ultimately sacramentalized even the world of culture. As musicians they
dispelled the dullness of life, as architects they reached beyond the ordinary shapes and forms, and as scientists they explored the mysteries of the universe.
It was a Conventual Franciscan, Friar Juan Perez, who pleaded Christopher Columbus' case before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Friar Juan Perez sailed
with Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. He is credited with celebrating the first Mass in the New World. A year and a day after receiving the habit,
the young novice professed his first vows in the church of the Assumption on August 15, 1904. After the novitiate, Justin returned to Trenton to continue
his course of studies in philosophy. Two years later, in 1906, the mother province of the Conventual Franciscans was separated into another province,
formed mainly for ministry that would focus on Polish immigrants.
On September 25, 1906, Fr. Hyacinth Fudzinski was unanimously elected the first provincial of the newly created Province which was to be under the patronage
of St. Anthony of Padua. Justin's life would now be formed and guided by the new provincial, Fr. Hyacinth, and would continue to be paternally guided by him
until Hyacinth's death.
In 1907, at age 22, Justin was selected to pursue theological studies at the Order's international college in Rome, the Seraphicum. There he continued his
studies with diligence, always appreciated as an excellent student. Three years later on July 17, 1910 Justin was ordained to the priesthood in St. Agnes
Church by the saintly Cardinal Raphael Merry del Val, the Secretary of State of Pope Pius X. Afterward, Justin traveled to Assisi where he offered his Mass
of Thanksgiving at the tomb of St. Francis. Fr. Justin re-mained in Italy another year to complete his studies for a doctorate in Sacred Theology.
When he returned stateside, Fr. Justin thrived in the infectiously high morale of his homeland and of his new young province. Fr. Justin's first assignment
was as a curate to St. Josaphat Parish in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The popularity of the new priest with the people soon caught the eye of Fr Hyacinth.
The career of the young priest would now be determined by the masterful zeal and passionate dreams of Fr. Hyacinth Fudzinski, still the Provincial.
Fr. Hyacinth had an unshakable respect for all things Franciscan and Polish.
Fr. Hyacinth's esteem for the talents and abilities of the young priest was proven when three years later in August 1914, at the age of 28, Fr. Justin was
chosen as the Secretary of the Province and as Assistant Provincial to Fr. Hyacinth. Fr. Justin was immediately transferred to St. Anthony Friary at Corpus
Christi Parish in Buffa-lo, New York, the seat of the Provincial administration.
At the turn of the 20th century Buffalo, like other large industrial cities in the United States, had become the haven for a multitude of immigrant Poles
who fled their mother country in a quest for freedom and livelihood. Cognizant of the small number of Polish priests who could not minister properly to the
influx, Bishop Quigley appealed to the Conventual Franciscans in Syracuse for help. Fr Hyacinth, a zealous and energetic Pole, responded to the bishop's plea
immediately. He purchased 10 houses and 29 lots on Clark and Kent streets in Buffalo. In 1896 he transformed what was once a tavern into the original parish
church. Two years later, in 1898, Fr. Hyacinth was able to build a three story building to house the church, school and parish hall. In 1900 Fr. Hyacinth
constructed a large convent for the sisters, and nine years later, in 1909, he was finally able to build the splendid and spacious church that is now Corpus
Christi. Ten years later, by 1919, the parish debt had been completed paid off. Corpus Christi would become the headquarters of the new province for many
years to come.
Fr. Hyacinth would play a great part in the formation, the attitudes, and the personality of Fr. Justin. Although a forceful man, Fr. Hyacinth was well respected
for 20 years. It was his fierce determination and love for Franciscanism that Fr. Justin emulated.
Although the young Fr. Justin was never too busy as assist the Provincial, he also did not neglect his double duty as parish curate. He was always in the midst of
parish activities especially with the youth, as testified by one member of the parish, "I remember him being very kind, he would sometimes wear a very long cape
and the little children of Corpus Christi School would gather in it. He was always with the children and you would forever see him in the school. When his Name's
Day came, he would bring in treats for the children. That was always a big day for the parish. In the evenings he would be seen talking with the boys at their
clubhouse. They really liked him. One of the things we always admired was his ability to work. When some of the girls were helping to scrub the floors of the
parish hall he was there scrubbing with us, bringing us water." Fr. Justin frequently preached Sunday Mass, heard confessions, and was always ready to help
the poor, but he especially encouraged the education of youth. One of his favorite activities was leadership in the athletic and fraternal organizations of
the parish and organizing social events and picnics. A photograph in the Buffalo Times shows the priest in overalls posing with a group of boys in the process
of repainting the grammar school.
Even his very first year in Buffalo he would gather the young men of Corpus Christi Parish and would personally teach them the Polish language, emphasizing
the importance of becoming qualified leaders who would be able to represent Polish American citizens in politics, medicine, and law. Education was the way
out of their cycle of poverty, and once out of poverty, he stressed they should always give back to the community. His was a service-oriented philosophy.
No accomplishment was for self alone.
In 1922, Fr. Justin attended the General Chapter in Rome. He was actually elected Secretary and Assistant General of the entire Conventual Franciscan Order.
He respectfully declined the honor, feeling that his abilities could best be used in his home Province.
The following year, 1923, the Province selected him to become their new Minister Provincial. Fr. Cyril Kita was elected as his Secretary and Assistant. During
his first term as Minister Provincial Fr. Justin devoted himself to implementing many of the plans articulated by Fr. Hyacinth Fudzinski for a total and
comprehensive formation program for the Province. With the consent of the Holy See and the General Definitory in Rome, the Province's canonical novitiate
was separated from the Immaculate Conception Province and returned to St. Anthony of Padua friary in Buffalo, New York (Corpus Christi Parish). Fr. Aloysius
Sobus was elected Novice Master. The friary in Athol Springs New York was made into a temporary house of studies for philosophy.
Fr. Justin's immediate interest seemed to be to expand the vocation recruitment of the province. He wanted to provide the best possible situation in which
candidates for the Province could be formed in that manner most appropriate to the special apostolate which the Province then exercised in the United States,
ministry among Polish immigrants.
The education of youth always on his mind, it was during the autumn of 1924, Fr Justin met with the Bishop Turner of Buffalo and received the bishop's
consent to solicit funds from the Polish Catholic community of Western New York State to undertake the construction of St. Francis Minor Seminary
(High School) in Athol Springs, New York. On January 11, 1925 the friars were sent to all Polish language parishes in the Diocese of Buffalo to make
an ap-peal on behalf of the new school. He also approached the parish-ioners of Corpus Christi and in one week they raised over $14,000. in cash and
pledges. He raised $40,000. in the diocese of Buffalo from Polish parishes. Fr. Justin himself worked closely with the business leaders of Buffalo's
Polish community and created the "The Drivers" (eventually called the "Justin Drivers") to promote a regular source of donations for the new school.
Construction of St. Francis High School began immediately. Ground was broken on July 12, 1925, and the cornerstone was blessed on Labor Day, September 7, 1925.
The initial building proved too small to satisfy the students' needs. Two large wings were added in 1928. And in 1950 Fr. Justin directed the expansion
of the facilities of the school with a spacious gymnasium. A third major building was constructed in 1958 for use as a dormitory for the resident students.
With the increase of vocations in the Province the necessity of building a novitiate was evident. The present facility, the top floor of Corpus Christi
friary, was proving inadequate.
In 1928, Fr Benedict Przemielewski, pastor of St. Casimir Parish in Baltimore, and an architect in his own right, informed Fr. Justin that the former
estate of Charles Carroll in Ellicott City, Maryland had come on the market. Not only would the property and old manor house be adequate, but the link
of a Polish Ameri-can Province should not miss the opportunity to link itself to such a rich American Catholic heritage. As the Continental representative
to Maryland, Charles Carroll had been the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Besides directing the efforts of constructing a high school and two seminaries, Fr. Justin personally spear-headed the drive to erect two new structures
near Corpus Christi Parish to meet the so-cial needs of young people on the East Side of Buffalo. One large clubhouse was built on Clark Street for young
women and another on Sears Street for young men.
In the final year of his first term as Minister Provincial, Fr. Justin accepted the newly formed parishes of Sacred Heart in Danbury, Connecticut, and
St. Anthony of Padua in Willimansett, Massachusetts. By the time the new Province Chapter opened on June 16, 1926, Fr Justin had compiled a most impressive
string of first term achievements, equally notable was the new spirit and morale of the friars as they gratefully elected Fr. Justin to a second term
of office. Fr Justin's second term of office proved to be every bit as stunning as his first three years as Minister Provincial had been. In 1926 he secured
for the Province the parochial ministry of St. Hyacinth Parish in Auburn, New York, and St. Teresa Parish in Rochester, New York. When Fr. Justin traveled
to Rome in 1926 he carried with him a large report on the ministry of the Province that he presented to the Minister General and his Definitory (Council)
and received from them permission to establish and con-struct a theological seminary for the Province. Almost as soon as he retuned to the United States
Fr. Justin met with the Most Rev. Thomas O'Leary, Bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts and received his consent to build a seminary for the Province
It had been second dream of Fr. Hyacinth to build a major seminary for the spiritual and educational formation of young men aspiring to be priests and brothers.
In 1914, Fr. Hyacinth had purchased 470 acres of land in Granby, Massachusetts through the generosity of Rev. Charles Crevier, pastor of Precious Blood
Parish in Holyoke, Massachusetts. In time Fr. Hyacinth transferred all of the Preaching Friars, the Mission band, to reside in the farm house in Granby and
in between their travels with parish missions they were instructed to help chop trees and clear the land for an eventual seminary. Fr. Justin purchased
the remainder of the Crevier estate and laid the cornerstone on August 8, 1926. On Sunday, June 26, 1927, Fr. Justin along with Bishop Thomas O'Leary
lessed the debt free building which was placed under the patronage of St. Hyacinth in honor of Fr. Justin's mentor and the founder of the Province.
The program of formation was placed in the capable hands of Fr Giles Kaczmarek as rector, and Fr George Roskwitalski as his assistant.
Even a brief survey of the remaining achievements of Fr Justin's second term of office as Minister Provincial gives us a sense of the driving pace that
the ministry of the Province was being expanded in these years. In May 1927 the Province accepted the pastoral ministry and administration of the new
St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Fairfield, Connecticut and St. Bronislava Parish in Chi-cago, Illinois.
In 1928 Fr. Justin's dream of a province publication became a reality when he entrusted Fr. Joseph Kordas with launching the of the publication of
a Polish language religious magazine, The Se-raphic Cronicle, first being published in Athol Springs New York, later in Heartland Wisconsin, and
then finally in Detroit Michigan. Also in 1928 Fr. Justin further strengthened the Province ties with the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph,
a community co-founded by the late Fr. Hyacinth Fudzinski, when the friars became the first chaplains to the Sisters' newly constructed Motherhouse
in Ham-burg, New York.
The year 1929 saw the organization of St. Joseph Parish in Peabody Massachusetts, as well as the acquisition of the parishes of Peter and Paul
in St. Joseph, Missouri.
That same year the entire Province was thrilled with the news that St. Josephat's Parish in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which had been a debt-ridden and dying
institution when the friars were given its care, had been elevated to the rank of Minor Basilica by His Holiness Pope Pius XI in recognition of the
magnificence, beauty and ministries of the church.
In the summer of 1929 Fr. Justin came to the Province Chapter again presenting the Province with a distinguished tract record of his ministry.
The Chapter signified the approval of Fr Justin's policies by electing him to his third term as Minister Provincial. Within months after entering his
third term, he accepted the administration of St Stanislaus Parish in St Joseph Missouri, and he also received word from the Diocese of Buffalo
that a parish dedicated to the honor of St. Francis of Assisi was to be established in Athol Springs, New York.
Then came the great Crash of October 1929. The collapse the of the New York Stock Exchange created almost as many problems to the Province and
the parishes and institutions it administered as the Crash did in disrupting the economic system of the Western world. A considerable portion
of the assets of the Province had been invested in the stock market. A precipitous decline in the value of these holdings meant that a large
part of the funds that the Province depended on to help maintain the charities and educational activities of the Province had been wiped out.
As the industrial and commercial activity of the United States passed into the Depression with its massive unemployment so also passed many
jobs that were the livelihood of the thousands of families of the parishes the Province served. Many of these same parishes had embarked
on large scale construction projects in the 1920s and now were saddled with mortgage payments that formed nightmare proportions for all
the friars involved in the parochial ministry. In many dioceses of the United States local bishops saw parishes collapsing as parishioners
lost their jobs and could no longer donate to their church or else entirely moved out of the region in search of further employment opportunities.
All the parishes accepted by the Province during Fr. Justin's third term as Minister Provincial were parishes facing critical financial problems.
In 1931 the Province accepted the pastoral ministry of St Stanislaus Koska Parish in Rockford, Illinois as well as the ailing Queen of
the Most Holy Rosary in Buffalo, New York. This latter parish presented a particularly difficult problem because of the presence virtually
directly across the street of the very hostile Polish National Church which was in the process of conducting a civil law suit against the
Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo. Fr. Simeon Kaczmarek was the first friar to become guardian and pastor and it was through his prudent
and charitable ministry that a parish and its people were saved from schism.
Fr. Justin Figas' optimism and trust in the Lord were very much in evidence during his third term as Minister Provincial. In a move that
might have seemed most foolhardy at the time, Fr. Justin approved Fr. Benedict Przemielewski's breathtaking design for the new novitiate
building in Ellicott City, Maryland. This building would contribute to the United States and the Order one of the most beautiful
ecclesiastical buildings constructed during the 20th century. But the new novitiate carried a price tag of almost a half million dollars.
The cornerstone of the novitiate was laid and the finished building was given a solemn dedication on May 6, 1931.
Two years later, on May 6, 1930, the cornerstone of a new no-vitiate building was laid by the Archbishop of Baltimore, Michael Curley. Fr. Benedict
was responsible for the design of this architectural gem at the beginning of the Depression, a lasting tribute to both him and Fr Justin
especially in such trying times to meet all their financial obligations.
During the months the novitiate was rising on the gentle hills of Maryland, the grim situation for the Conventual Franciscans around the
world brightened somewhat for Fr Justin when the General Chapter elected Fr. Dominic Tavani as Minister General. This was Fr. Dominic's
second but non-consecutive term in office as Minister General. In the years between holding the highest office in the Order, Fr. Dominic
had resided in the United States and had worked with Fr. Justin. Old friends discussed a rather unusual event that had happened to
Fr Justin a year before in Buffalo.
A local radio station had been carrying a Polish language comedy program on one of its broadcasts. Edmund and Leon Kolipinski, dealers
in furniture and electrical applieances sponsered a radio program on WKEN, Buffalo. One of the most favorite programs first broadcast
in 1926 was a Polish language comedy skit featuring an argumentative married couple named "Podeszwa and Kordula." When the couple
had begun talking about divorce on one of their shows, the husband character said he would have to speak with Fr. Justin about the
Church's position on divorce. There was such a humorous reaction to the mention of Fr. Justin's name, the best known Polish priest
in Western New York that the sponsor of the program decided to invite Fr. Justin to appear on the following show to offer a brief
talk about divorce. With the reaction measured by the mail received, it was easy to see how Fr. Justin's down to earth message was
appreciated. The sponsor was quick to see an opportunity to increase his audience and got Fr. Justin to speak at the end of each
broadcast for the remainder of the season. But the effects of the Depression were forcing an end to most of these broadcasts.
But the letters constantly being received from the listeners urged Fr. Justin to continue. He managed to return to the air in late
summer 1930 with a contract signed by H. H. Howell on August 25, 1930, which comprised a halfhour show between 6-6:30 on Sunday nights.
He would be paid $25.00 dollars per program.
Fr. Justin Figas had an almost uncanny ability to see more than other people saw even when they looked at the same thing. The local radio
broadcast of 1930 which might have remained no more than a minor curiosity in Western New York conjured in the mind of Fr. Justin the dream
of a much larger ministry. He knew of the publishing work of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, and would finally meet him in person in Poland in 1936,
a few years later. Fr. Justin thought why not a magazine of the airwaves in the United States? This novel idea got a kind of approval
from Fr. Dominic Tavani, the Minister General, who had much experience in seeing some of Fr. Justin's pipe dreams turn into beautiful and
fruitful realities. In 1931 with many Americans moving into Hoovervilles and standing in breadlines, and with the best economic
brains of the West buckling under useless schemes for getting the Depression licked, the first broadcast of the National Network
of radio stations carried the voice of Fr. Justin to virtually every part of the United States and Eastern Canada where there were
Polish speaking people to hearhim and be comforted by his message.
A year later, in 1931, Justin formed an independent radio net-work known as the Great Lakes Network, the first radio chain in the Polish
language in the United States. This chain of linking peple together in prayer through use of the radio is where the idea originated
in calling the program The Rosary Hour, and later, The Father Justin Rosary Hour.
Initially his radio shows were broadcast from the radio station itself, it was then moved to Corpus Christi Church in Buffalo, the site
of the Provincial headquarters. Shortly after it was broadcast from the chapel of St. Francis High School, and on certain special
occasions from the chapel of St. Hyacinth Seminary in Granby, Massachusetts. They would all serve as studios for Fr Justin's lively
broadcasts. Fr. Justin chose to the name his broadcasts "The Rosary Hour" in honor of the patroness of Poland and Patroness
Franciscan Order. The first program of his own network aired on December 6, 1931, between 6-7 pm. The format began with a musical
rendition of the rosary, written by Ethelbert Nevins, a Buffalo native, a brief identifying message, an introduction, a selection
sung by a choir, and then Fr. Justin was introduced. His talks varied in length between 20-30 minutes.
In 1931 Fr. Justin was delivering his weekly talks over a net-work of radio stations in Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland,
Pittsburg and Scranton, places were large Polish speaking popula-tions could be found.
After the first six broadcasts in the 1931-32 season, the Rosary Hour was forced to leave the air because of debt. But the value
of this evangelical service was so appreciated by the listening audience that a group of parishioners at Corpus Christi Parish
organized a special parish bazaar to liquidate the debts of the Rosary Hour and to restore it to the airwaves. The men and women
who worked for this special event organized themselves into the Rosary Hour League, branches of which would later be established
in many American cites to provide financial support for Fr. Justin's programs.
The Rosary Hour almost went out of business again in 1940 with the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe. Activists in the
isolation movement tried to legislate an end to all foreign language broadcasts on the grounds that they were potentially subversive.
The radio station management of WBNY in Buffalo defended the Rosary Hour saying that such a broadcast was a secure guarantee of patriotic
support for the cause of democracy. During the dark years of the Nazi occupation of Poland the broadcasts of the Rosary Hour served as
a living rosary uniting the people of Polish ancestry all of the North American continent in love of their religion, their homeland,
and the new nation that had contributed so much to their freedom and human dignity.
Fr. Justin made more than 750 broadcasts in the 30 years he was associated with the Rosary Hour. By the end of his life Fr. Justin
had a weekly program from the first Sunday of November until the last Sunday of April the following year. Fr Justin's last broadcast
season, 1958-1959, was carried by 73 stations across the country and reached a weekly audience estimated at five million people.
Each program consisted of a hymn, a talk by Fr. Justin on a range of topics, as well as his salty and succinct answers to questions
sent to him by the audience, and finally benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, often times give by a visiting pastor. Fr. Justin
ended his programs with the gentle reminder that his radio audience could help the work of the friars with their prayers and
contributions, and help they did. Donations sent to Fr. Justin's Rosary Hour kept the program operating at full strength and
supported the entire formation program of the Province. Not only had the morgages on the houses of formation in Granby and
Ellicott City been paid for in full by the time Fr. Justin left office in 1939 but the Province was even in a position to help
other Provinces of the Conventual Franciscan Order during the Depression.
Fr. Justin spoke on many topics besides those which focused on Catholic doctrine; he spoke on alcoholism, adolescent behavior, and
even economic problems. He believed that religion was the greatest force that we have. It is the greatest force for morality
and ethical living. The only real effective motive for the continuance of civilization. Fr. Justin also had great faith in the
youth of the nation. He always encouraged parents to have trust and faith in youth whom he felt were better than previous
generations. And even as he spoke about morality, he frequently turned his attention to those who did not live up to the
standards, especially remembering those incarcerated for some grievous against moral and ethical values.
The most famous instances of his charity for a prisoner are the case of a Buffalonian, Frank Palka, who was accused of killing
two police officers in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Fr. Justin was asked by Julia Palka, mother of the accused, to intercede
console her son. Justin complied. The first meeting was strained, but soon Frank let down his guard and said to Fr. Justin,
that it he lost his appeal he would like the priest to walk with him to the chair. The prisoner wrote to the priest to make
arrangements to be with him on the night of the execution. Frank Palka was electrocuted at Wethersfield Station Prison,
Connecticut on April 12, 1938. Justin heard his confession beforehand. Justin was the only person re-quested by the prisoner
to be with him during the execution. Two radio programs were dedicated to the memory of Frank Palka, in the hopes that other
young men would be deterred from the same fate.
Today the Rosary Hour has remained faithful to its original character, consisting of teaching in the faith, and treatments
drawn from current events in the life of the Church, Polish America and Poland. Each year the Rosary Hour receives over 80,000 letters.
When the delegates of the Province assembled in Chapter in Granby in August 1932, in the presence of the Minister General Dominic Tavani,
the friars elected Fr. Justin to a fourth term as Minister Provincial. During this fourth term the Province continued to expand the range
of its ministry and service to the Church. New parishes added were St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Rockford, Illinois and St. Francis
Parish in Kewaunee, Illinois. In addition to these parochial ventures the Province gave its Mission Band a permanent home in the
house of Ellicott City, Maryland, on the grounds of the novitiate. A residence and headquarters was purchased for the Kronika Seraficka
in Hartland, Wisconsin, and in 1933 in response to the urgent plea of Archbishop Stritch of Mil-waukee, the Province assumed the ministry
of a Polish language daily newspaper, the Nowiny Polski. Fr. George Roskwitalski was dispatched to be its manager. The
feared the demise of this newspaper feeling that it was a bulwark against the anti-Roman Catholic sentiment being stirred up by break-off
groups of Polish Catholics.
The number of vocations entering the Province during these years was most impressive. It was a time when people felt much despair.
Being an era less sophisticated in the ways of the world with fewer distractions than the present affluent times have to offer youth,
the young men in those times grew into manhood in a Christian society structured around the life of their parish community.
They were educated in the parochial school. Their sports were played on teams sponsored by the parish; they joined with their parents in all
the social and religious activities provided by their parish. But most of all they knew the friars. It was the close and almost
daily contact with the friars that drew them into the Conventual Franciscan Order. Jesus Christ can only remain an abstraction
when he is encountered solely on the levels of the scriptures and sacraments. But he comes alive in the hearts of people when
they see a Franciscan living the Gospel life and revealing in his own personal being and intimate relationship with God.
Amid the huge work load he carried on as a radio preacher, Fr. Justin, as spiritual father of so many friars, would take time
out time to meet with some of the boys of Corpus Christi Parish to teach them Latin and to organize and to share in picnics and sports
activities that brought him into contact with the future of the Province in the person of these young people. Fr. Justin and
Minister General Tavani opened the Province's 10th Provincial Chapter at St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, New York
on July 23, 1935. This Chapter marks a special moment. It elected Fr Justin to a fifth term as Minister Provincial, establishing
a record that has never been equaled by subsequent Minister Provincials.
He was also a father to the poor. I was common to see throughout the years Fr. Justin labored at Corpus Christi to have lines
of men waiting at the friary entrance to being given food and other charitable assistance.
None could see that an era was passing away, however. By the time of the next Province Chapter in 1939 the world would stand
on the brink of another major war and the Province of St. Anthony would itself be split into two, with a the birth of a new
Province in the Midwest. The record of Fr Justin's fifth term is also a repeat of all of his earlier years in office. Some new
parishes assumed were St. John Kanty in Clifton, New Jersey in 1935, and St. Casimir in Riverside, New Jersey in 1936.
During his terms in office his Province had become one of the largest Provinces in the Conventual Franciscan Order and
the largest in the United States. The Province had become a complex and diverse organizations, its members formed one
of the most im-portant elements in the pastoral care of Polish American Catholics in Canada through New England and extending
into the Great Plains of the United States. Even those parts of the nation where the ministry of the friars did not extend
in person the presence of the friars could be felt among Polish Americans through the words of Fr. Justin and the Rosary
Hour and the Polish language publica-tions of the Province and through the travels and preaching of the Province's Mission Band.
The 1939 Province Chapter delegates gathered in Ellicott City on July 24, 1939. They had not been told what was to happen.
On the opening day of the Chapter, Fr. Bede Hess, an American who had been elected Minister General in 1936, three years earlier,
read the degree of the Sacred Congregation of Religious announcing the creation of the St. Bonaventure Province. Fr Bede
immediately divided the Chapter delegates into two separate groups according to the territorial division of the Provinces.
Following the Nazi invasion of Poland, Fr. Justin was sent to Romania with a committee organized by the American Red Cross
to get a first hand account of how Polish refugees were living in the Balkans. The six week tour brought him into contact with
war refugees in 22 relocation camps. He wrote a book 1940 entitled "Wantonness in Hell." This first book describes the trip
with candor. The first pages describe the problems he encountered with the German and Soviet Councils in Washington D.C.
Trying to visit Poland he was given a cold shoulder by both the Germans and the Soviets, so he decided to travel to Italy
and then to Romania. There he spoke to thousands who gave him eyewitness accounts of what he called the "rape of Poland."
After his return to the United States he broadcast to millions of listeners not only a description of the utter tragedies
he encountered but stressed the glory and thankfulness he had for America. The trip had personal effects on him. After he
went to Europe, after seeing the problems of the Poles in Romania, his eating habits were never the same. He was always
on the thin side, but after he saw the poverty abroad during the war no one would ever get him to eat a good meal. That's
why he remained so thin. His attention would be drawn to it, but he would answer I know whet I am doing, one day he said
how can I eat when I think of the poor people. He was as close to starvation as anyone was. After the trip to Romania he
had aged, and it was sadd that his hair turned completely white. You could not believe he was the same man who left just
two months prior.
A second wartime mission was a trip to England to inspect the efforts of the Polish refugee armies. He wrote a second book
in 1943 entitled "From Canada to Great Britain by Bomber." In this work he poignantly includes the brave efforts of the
Poles and their struggles to aid the Allies to free Europe from the Nazis. Fr. Justin's literary style has been described
as replete with metaphors scenes in nature as a great admirer of all that God has created. Fr Justin's style is particularly
descriptive. Although Justin had great facility in writing he was more famous as an orator, thousands would flock to hear
him speak, frequently called upon to deliver speeches and sermons at ecclesiastical gatherings of American Poles in the
United States and Canada. His radio talks were gener-ally moderate in tone, his sermons and speeches were always full
of fire and thunder. His oratory style was simply direct and conversational but never shouting. His mannerisms were
dynamic, impul-sive, and emotional.
Fr. Justin was no longer provincial after 16 years, but he still had 20 more fruitful years of his life to live. The work
at the Rosary Hour would continue until his death in 1959. During the final two decades of Fr. Justin's life his attention
turned more and more to the formation of youth. He provided for the construction of a new dormitory and gymnasium for
St. Francis High School. The boys who studied there in his later years remembered Fr. Justin working in the flower beds
around the campus. He was usually wearing an old pair of army kakis that he adopted after rendering some services to
the Polish army in exile in the United States dur-ing the Second World War.
Honors and tributes were offered to him in abundance. President Roosevelt dispatched Fr. Justin during the war as
a personal envoy of the president. President Truman received Fr. Justin as a guest at the White House in May 1945,
when Fr. Justin came to ask for assistance for the rebuilding of Poland.
During the Second World War Fr Justin sent packages and religious goods to Polish American soldiers fighting around
the globe. The Polish government decorated him. And even 16 years after his death the administration of the city
of Buffalo, New York honored the name and memory of Justin Figas by dedicating a branch of the city's new library
system for him in recognition for his pioneering work as an educator in Western New York. Fr Justin wore all of his
honors well. They were there in the background. But one remembers more the plain clothes and the sparkling diminutive
man who wore them with such dignity and Christ likeness.
One dream of Fr Justin did not live to see was St. Joseph Inter-Community Hospital in Cheektowaga, New York. Knowing
that such a hospital was envisioned by Fr Hyacinth, he purchased 27 acres of land in 1947. Progress proceeded very slowly.
He organized many fund raising drives and gathered professionals to his side. Eventually ground was broken for the new
hospital on May 22, 1957, 40 years after the first thoughts of building such an edifice was mentioned by Fr. Hyacinth.
The new facility named the St. Joseph Intercommunity Hospital was dedicated by Bishop Joseph Burke of Buffalo
on August 25, 1960, 10 months after the death of Fr Justin. However, Fr. Justin was chiefly responsible in convincing
the bishop of Buffalo that the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph should administer the new hospital. Although he never
lived to see the hospital built his smiling effigy is in its lobby as a testimony from the sisters to make all aware
of what this friar had helped them to do. The Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph had early been placed in charge of
St. Anthony Home for the Aged in Hamburg, New York. That institution received much helped from Fr. Justin who in 1939
turned the first spayed of earth for the new complex.
He reached the heart before he reached the mind, many said about his down to earth preaching style. He spoke in many
places in the United States as diverse as the all women's school Smith College in Massachusetts and Soldier Field
in Chicago (the 1926 Eucharistic congress?) and even at the University of Notre Dame.
One notable sermon was delivered May 3, 1939 in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City at the request
of the Ambassador of Poland to the United States. The occasion was the Mass celebrated in honor of the dedication
of the Polish pavilion of the 1939 World's Fair. Preaching in English and Polish he said, "Although Poland
is threatened with fears of war, she has still found ways of contributing their share in the making of the World's Fair.
The Polish Pavilion portrays the character of a nation which has suffered during 146 years at the cruel hands
of oppressors. And yet has risen from the ashes like the phoenix of old only to soar high above them.
In the field of social justice Justin frequently reminded his audience of the labor conditions he first met
as a young boy in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. Justin always fired back with his personal concern for the laborer.
"As a mine boy in Pennsylvania my father was slaving for 80 cents a day. I made up my mind to denounce the
system under which the poor laborer is exploited, under which the laborer is unjustly deprived of the fruits
of his labor. Every chance I get I shall raise my voice in defense of the laborer and his family. Constantly
reminding the laborer of their right to a just wage he also cautioned them to be aware of agitators who taking
advantage of extreme need would incite them to acts of violence. He exposed his audience to the tactics
of communists, promoted unions, but also denounced the intimidation, deception and force of some union groups.
Fr. Justin's social philosophy revolved around the principal that even though all men were created equal there
must be a certain hierarchy of classes in the labor field. In this vain he reminded his listeners about the dignity
of manual labor. He also struck out against labor management who abused the rights of employees. "Those not called
to intellectual pursuits," he said, "must be deserving of everything good and noble. All persons, whatever their
situation, must work for the common good. A balance is destroyed through selfishness and dishonesty. There results
strife, chaos, and mutual discontent." Justin reminded laborers that although it is true that the palaces of the rich
are indeed built upon the bones of the poor, he also cautioned that the less fortunate must never be the cause
for social upheaval. Mutual understanding and mutual cooperation between the classes must be founded narrowly
upon the Commandments of God and the social teachings of the popes. (Especially during a time of growing communism).
He encouraged the formation of unions as long as those unions would be founded upon honesty, and legitimate
complaints would be resolved peacefully. He struck out against the violence that was in evidence across
the country in the 1930s.
While proud of his Polish ancestry, he fully appreciated and honored his American citizenship. His credo
of Americanism can be described "There are between 4-5 million Americans of Polish decent in the United States.
Our radio program reaches approximately 3 million of these. Many wonder why I deliver my Sunday message
in the Polish language. This is no secret, because the Americans of Polish parentage are specially noted
for three virtues, they love their faith, they love America, and they love the language of their forefathers."
A casual glance at his work as a priest, scholar, social leader, or religious superior, that we have before us
is an achievement in the annuals of American Catholicism. Fr. Justin is a national figure and his work is
a national institution. It matters little that his activities were focused in a foreign language. What is
important is that he did utilize every known means so effectively, to reach the hearts of millions
of Americans to look to him for leadership, counsel and direction at a time in history when such direction
was desperately needed. The testimony of his work is amazing. In this time of political and religious
struggle, when the Poles coming to America often felt persecuted, even at times by clergy. If it were not
for Fr. Justin's stern determination and demanding absolute alliance to the Roman Catholic Church, many
more would have joined movements disassociating themselves from the Church. His leadership enriched
the human spirit, and consoled those in the agony of doubt and wisely promoted the observance of law
and justice all in accordance with the Christian religion and his American ideals. In the last decade
of his life he suffered from a chronic emphysema.
During the last broadcasts in 1959 he was urged to sit during the broadcast (something he never did),
and he was also forced to use an oxygen respirator machine. His health continued to fail during the summer.
He was admitted to Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, on October 10, 1959. He died there Friday morning,
October 23, 1959 at 3:30 am, 13 days later. The official cause of death was congestive heart failure.
Fr. Justin died in the 73rd year of his early pilgrimage, and in his 55th year as a son of St. Francis of Assisi.
He exemplified the qualities of goodness and charity that all aspire. Justin was a pioneer in foreign
language radio programming in the United States. Justin was 5' 8" and completely grey in his later years.
He appeared as a mild and unimposing man. He always dressed in old and torn clothing, even his hat had holes.
He wore an overcoat obtained in Milwaukee in 1912. His shoes were usually torn and tattered. He was personable
and yet also had a stern temper, which softened in his last years. Some admired him, some were cautions around him.
Perhaps Fr. Justin expressed his own epitaph best when he said, "I am an average priest, a poor Franciscan,
a much misunderstood individual. People expect me to have no faults. But keep on searching for them. When
I have not prepared my speeches and my mind is chaotic, people say I am too deep. But when I have labored
zealously to memorize my sermons, then I am called superficial. When I feel physically ill some days and mentally
to tell the world that my Roman collar does not change my human nature. I am quite the same as other men, and
I enjoy a good time just as they do, but a long time ago I got sick of eating applesauce. I have grown immune
to knocks and criticism but I appreciate honest praise. I try to give the best that is in me, and believe that
God will reward me in the end. I ask no favors and seek only the opportunity to be a real man and a real priest.
INTERVIEW 4 ON LIFE OF FR. JUSTIN - BISHOP EDWARD KMIEC
INTERVIEWS ABOUT THE LIFE OF FR. JUSTIN FIGAS
Interviewer: Br. Daniel Geary.
INTERVIEW 5 ON LIFE OF FR. JUSTIN - FRED JABLONSKI
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POLISH VERSION OF "BEYOND THE AIRWAVES"
PONAD FALAMI ETERU
A DISSERTATION BY STANISLAUS HAJKOWSKI
The following dissertation was written by Stanislaus Hajkowski at the Catholic University in Washington D.C. It is entitled, "The Cultural Transition and
the Attitudes of Polish Immigrant Families Towards Divorce and Parental Authority in the United States 1931-1940. It was partly researched among other sources at the Father Justin
Rosary Hour Archives.
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JUSTIN PHOTO SLIDESHOW