STOCKBRIDGE — The Rev. Walter Gurgul, an ordained priest for 60 years who spent a year in a Soviet labor camp during World War II, before his family made a harrowing escape, died Dec. 6 at the age of 90.
Gurgul, a member of the Marian Fathers, had lived and ministered at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge. He died at Berkshire Medical Center, after spending his final year at Kimball Farms in Lenox, where he marked the 60th anniversary of his ordination July 4.
The Marian Fathers did not disclose the cause of Gurgul’s death, but he had been in poor health for the past few years.
A liturgy of Christian burial in Gurgul’s memory was celebrated at the Shrine on Thursday. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, attendance was limited to members of the Marian Fathers.
Gurgul, born in Poland, came to the United States in 1997 and served at the Marians’ parish in Plano, Ill., before arriving in Stockbridge. He had a general understanding of nine languages: Polish, Russian, German, French, English, Latin, Greek, Italian and Portuguese. After the war, Gurgul corresponded for the rest of his life with others who had been exiled to Soviet labor camps in Siberia.
“Father Walter,” as Gurgul was known locally, was described as “a gentle soul, a scholar, an athlete, and a dogged defender of the Catholic faith,” in an article posted on the Shrine of the Divine Mercy’s website. Most of his time at the Shrine was spent hearing confessions.
“He would spend hours at a time in the confessional,” the Rev. Kaz Chwalek, the provincial superior of the Marian Fathers in the United States and Argentina, said in the article posted on the website. “And he was a Scripture scholar. His homilies were very moving and drew deep into his knowledge of Scripture.
“Also, he just always tried to be helpful,” Chwalek said. “He helped teach Latin to our seminarians. He would clean the house late at night or very early in the morning — not because he had to, but because he wanted to. He would do so many little things that no one knew about.”
Gurgul — he was born Sept. 28, 1930, on a small farm in Belz, in eastern Poland, which now is part of western Ukraine — was baptized in the church that held “The Black Madonna” before it was enshrined in the southern Polish city of Czestochowa. “The Black Madonna,” also known as the “Lady of Czestochowa,” is a painting made during the Byzantine era that is a venerated icon of the Virgin Mary and has been a symbol of Polish identity for 600 years (the Black Madonna is known as the Queen and Protectress of Poland).
Gurgul, ordained as a priest in Rome in 1960, also was friendly with the Rev. Joseph Jarzebowski, the Marian who brought the Divine Mercy devotion to the Western Hemisphere. The Congregation of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, founded in 1673 in Poland, has 500 priests and brothers who operate in 20 countries.
“He had a profound effect on me,” Gurgul said of Jarzebowski in the Shrine’s article. “He was always talking about Mary. In fact, he used to greet everyone with ‘Ave Maria!’ ”
In winter 1940, Gurgul, the seven other members of his family and their neighbors were placed on freight cars and sent to a labor camp in Siberia after the Soviet Union invaded Poland. Hundreds of people died in the camps of either starvation or disease. His father, who worked as a haymaker, became sick, was taken to a hospital and never returned.
“It was bitterly cold,” Gurgul said. “And we were constantly reminded that we were ‘destined to die here like dogs.’ We starved for more than three days at a time.”
Gurgul attended school in the labor camps and did so well that he came to the attention of the KGB. Fearful that her son would be taken away by the KGB, Gurgul’s mother began looking for opportunities to escape. In summer 1941, the entire Polish community was freed by the Soviets, but it later learned that the Soviets were hoping to form a Polish Army to fight the Germans after Adolf Hitler had declared war on Russia.
The family finally escaped on foot in November 1941, with Gurgul’s mother and aunt pulling the children behind them on sleds 18 miles through the woods, to a railroad station.
“Where did they get their strength?” Gurgul once said. “It was their innate motherly instinct which drove them to that heroism, to save their beloved children.
“I remember the wolves and wild bears. It was bitterly cold and scary.”
From there, the Gurguls traveled south, to Uzbekistan, where they were taken in by the Polish Army. But, most of the family became ill with typhoid, which took the lives of Gurgul’s 2-year-old brother and 4-year-old sister.
After the family recovered, they encountered a Polish officer who had served in the army with Gurgul’s father in 1939. Walter and his older brother, Bolek, were sent to platoons, where Polish boys were being housed until 1942. Because of the British Protection Act, Polish survivors could be sent to British colonies, and the Gurgul family was split up, with Walter going to Palestine.
In Palestine, Gurgul attended grammar school in Nazareth and a Salesian high school in Jerusalem. When the British Protection Act expired in 1947, Gurgul rejoined his mother and surviving siblings in England, where he studied to be a Salesian priest. But, Jarzebowski and a few other Marians who had arrived in England had founded a novitate in the town of Hereford, and Gurgul joined the congregation in January 1953.
After becoming a priest in 1960, Gurgul spent two years in Rome, then asked for permission to study in Paris, which was granted. But, before leaving, Gurgul learned that a Marian had become sick in England, and he went back there to help him teach at a school in Fawley Court. Gurgul served as a teacher, sports master and headmaster at Fawley Court before the school closed in 1986.