Nova Scotia Polish Heritage Month a success despite pandemic challenges

While plans for celebrating Nova Scotia's first annual Polish Heritage Month were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the region's historic Polish communities says it’s another example of the resiliency that has come to define them over the years.

In some ways, it was a typical Sunday mass at St. Mary’s Polish Parish in Whitney Pier, N.S.

But gatherings like this have taken on special significance this month.

“September’s the month when we celebrate Polish immigration through Pier 21, and there is a tragic anniversary associated with September, and that is the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939,” says Tom Urbaniak, President of the St. Michael’s Polish Benefit Society.

Urbaniak says September was also the month in 1909 that the St. Michael’s Polish Benefit Society was formed in Cape Breton, four years before the St. Mary’s Parish was founded in Whitney Pier.

Last October, the Nova Scotia legislature unanimously passed a resolution to recognize each September as Nova Scotia Polish Heritage Month, starting in 2020.

Of course, a year ago, nobody expected that a global pandemic would be raging on in the midst of the first annual Polish Heritage Month- but some say that has made celebrating the community even more important.

“The Polish community has always stuck together through thick and thin,” says Bernie Larusic.

“It’s a feeling of togetherness,” says Stephanie Black. “Especially in this COVID-19, times when we were able to do everything virtually, which we didn’t think we could, but we were very successful to do so.”

The community in Whitney Pier has been able to enjoy cultural events all month, both virtually, and in person with physical distancing measures, though they admit, it has taken some getting used to.

“It is weird,” says Larusic. “I’ve been coming to this church for pretty close to 70 years now.”

The resiliency of the Polish community in Whitney Pier goes further than their ability to come together during COVID-19.

Nearly six years ago the Polish church burned to the ground in a devastating fire.

Members of the community say just as they were able to rebuild from the ashes after the November 2014 fire, new beginnings have also been born from this celebration of their culture during a pandemic.

“One of the beautiful outcomes of Nova Scotia Polish Heritage Month is that it has allowed this positive, intercultural sharing to only get stronger, and we’re going to see that even in these final few days,” says Urbaniak.

The final few days of Polish Heritage Month include a film screening at Sydney’s Highland Arts Theatre on Tuesday, and the unveiling of a plaque honouring Glace Bay’s Polish pioneers on Wednesday.