British Poles up in arms at exhumation of priest's remains


LONDON LETTER:Fawley Court meant a lot as a spiritual centre to Polish exiles, stranded in Britain in the 1950s and succeeding decades, writes MARK HENNESSY

IN WRITING The Wind of the Willows,first for his son and then for the world, Kenneth Grahame drew heavily on the landscape around him in Berkshire – the River Thames, Quarry Wood and Fawley Court, just across the river in Buckinghamshire.

The Grade 1-listed house, completely rebuilt in the 1850s, offered rest to William of Orange on his march from Torbay to London during the Glorious Revolution, while in the 1950s it was bought by the Marian Fathers, a Polish order, under the leadership of Fr Jozef Jarzebowski.

From then on, Poles living in Britain, lonesome for home, gathered at the house north of Henley-on-Thames every Whit Sunday for an incense-heavy Mass conducted by Fr Jarzebowski and other Polish clerics.

With funding from Poles who had fled to Britain during the second World War, Fr Jarzebowski turned the house and its 26 acres of grounds into the Divine Mercy College for Polish boys, so that they could be raised in the Catholic faith.

The priest had pledged his life to the promotion of the Divine Mercy after he had escaped a Soviet labour camp by travelling, with near-miraculous escapes, across Poland, through Russia, on to Japan via Vladivostock, before finally reaching the US. He came to England in 1953.

From then until his death in 1964, aged just 67, Fr Jarzebowski was one of the most prominent of Polish emigres. He was buried in grounds of Fawley in a spot that he had chosen himself, near the playing fields.

In time, a church, resembling a Polish mountain chalet, was built alongside by Polish aristocrat Prince Stanislaw Albrecht Radziwill‚ in honour of his sister, who had died in a Soviet gulag.

Fawley Court itself has long been regarded as a national treasure, even if its glory faded considerably during the years when it was run by the congregation, who closed the school in 1986. The church, now deconsecrated, is also protected.

In 2010, the estate was sold by the Marian Fathers for more than £13 million to businesswoman Aida Hersham, but a clause in the contract required the priests to exhume and remove the remains of Fr Jarzebowski and Prince Radziwill or else lose £3.5 million.

Relations between the Polish community and the Marian Fathers deteriorated. In 2009, the congregation told them not to turn up for the Whit Sunday service. One thousand, perhaps two, did so anyway. Shortly afterwards, campaigners claimed the priests erected fences to stop them entering. If the sale provoked anger, however, news that an exhumation of the priest’s remains was to occur – a demand sanctioned by the ministry of justice – provoked fury, leading to a lengthy court battle that ended with defeat a fortnight ago, although an appeal is certain.

Despite Fr Jarzebowski’s desire to be buried at Fawley, Lady Justice Hallett ruled that the secretary of state for justice’s decision had been taken for the right reasons, since the priest’s remains would be removed to a nearby cemetery to be reunited with those of other members of the order.

Acknowledging the scale of objections from the Polish community in Britain, the judge said the Catholic Church allowed for exhumations: “Unfortunately, rest in peace does not mean RIP for eternity in a fixed burial site.”

The Save Fawley Heritage Campaign remains furious, complaining that the court had not given sufficient weight to the wishes of his nearest, if distant, next of kin, Elzbieta Rudewicz, who took the court action.

“This is a great disappointment. None of us can understand why the Marian Fathers have sold this property which our families spent years collecting money to buy. It does not make sense when there are more Polish people coming to England than ever,” a spokeswoman said.

“It was a wonderful centre. I think the decision to sell was made by priests from Poland who saw the prospect of making a lot of money and don’t understand or respect the strength of feeling in the community here. They did not consult with the lay Polish community.”

Prince Radziwill’s remains will not be removed from the church’s crypt, since his immediate family has refused permission for an exhumation – a position which was not overruled by secretary of state Ken Clarke.

So many protests were lodged with the ministry of justice that it had to ask for the campaign to stop: “The message was clear, the Poles spoke as one asking for the right of Fr Jarzebowski to rest in peace undisturbed in accordance with his wishes,” the campaign said.

The house has, so far, proven to be a mixed blessing for its new owner, who has already successfully fought off a claim for a £5 million finder’s fee from a businessman who had earlier done a deal with the order for a higher sale price, claiming that he had a Bank of Ireland loan.

Still to move in, Ms Hersham, who first saw the estate “on a cold, wet, murky” day three years ago, insists that it will be restored to its former glory with the help of historical experts. “Being a romantic, I saw a chance in a lifetime to devote my time to something so beautiful.”