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Maria Chrzanowska: Polish Education Takes Root in Edmonton

by Andrzej M. Kobos

Maria Chrzanowska (née Agopsowicz, of a polonized Armenian family) was born in 1913 in Kuty, near Stanislawów, in Galicia. In 1932 she graduated with honours from the Teachers' College in Lwów and taught at a school near Kuty. In 1938 she married Jan Chrzanowski, also a teacher. In September 1939, when the Second World War broke out, Jan, who was a reserve officer, was called to active duty. After Poland's defeat by the Germans and the Soviets, through Romania and France he reached Britain where he served in the Polish Army.

When the Soviets occupied the town of Kuty in 1939, Maria's parents were deported to a remote area of the Soviet Union where they perished. She and her infant son were miraculously spared from being deported because the outbreak of the German-Soviet war in June 1941 prevented the new wave of Soviet deportations. Maria and her small son lived in Kuty throughout the war, until they were transferred to western Poland in 1945. A year later, she managed to escape to the West to join her husband in Scotland. In 1948, the Chrzanowski family immigrated to Canada and settled permanently in Edmonton, where Jan's brother, Czeslaw, had lived since 1927. Their son, Zbigniew, became a physician and their daughter, Teresa, a nurse. Jan was active in several Polish organizations including the Canadian Polish Congress whose Treasurer he was for many years. Maria became the driving force in Polish education in the city.

After a few abortive efforts to teach Polish children in Edmonton before, during, and after the Second World War-notably in 1947 by Józef Kaczmarek and Wladyslaw Zientarski1-a permanent Polish school was established in Edmonton in 1954 by Rev. Dr. Tadeusz Nagengast, Wanda Buska, Zofia Hedinger, Janina Jankowska-Zygiel, Mieczyslaw Janusz, Zygmunt Majkowski and Jan Sowa. The school was named after Henryk Sienkiewicz, the 1905 Polish Nobel Prize winner in literature. Since its inception, the school has had support from the Polish community. Mieczyslaw Janusz organized many fundraising social events.

In 1956, Maria Chrzanowska began teaching at the Henryk Sienkiewicz School. She has always had a passion for teaching. In 1964 she became the school's principal, a post she retained until her retirement in 1987. During those years she reorganized the school, which soon became one of the best Polish schools in Canada and a model for bilingual ethnic schools. Maria found appropriate accommodation for the school which operated on Saturdays. She engaged a dedicated and professional teaching staff, among them several Polish priests and nuns, who have played a very important spiritual role at the school, and a former flying instructor, who was an invaluable asset in teaching young boys. She arranged for a fruitful collaboration with the parents' committee. She was instrumental in securing government grants for the school from the Multiculturalism programs. The 1980s brought a large influx of Polish immigrants related to the "Solidarity" movement. These were mainly young families and as a result the enrollment at the Henryk Sienkiewicz School increased considerably. (In 1987 there were 240 students.) Maria Chrzanowska managed to find new, well-trained staff members among the new immigrants. Apart from teaching, Maria Chrzanowska was the key person organizing extracurricular activities for the students, such as amateur theatre with Polish repertoire, choir and dance assemblies, and exhibitions of Polish art and children's art work. Children's activities crossed the school boundaries, e.g. they frequently performed in Polish folk costumes at different Polish and multicultural festivals and celebrations, always to great applause. Her students competed successfully with several thousand Polish ethnic school students in Canada.

Over the years, about 3,000 children of Polish immigrants have passed through this school where they were taught Polish language, history, and culture. Years later they still joyfully remember the school and "Pani Maria," their teacher and principal. They also gratefully acknowledge that this fine school and Pani Maria were crucial to their maintaining the Polish language and customs. As Maria put it: "Knowing more than just the local language and retaining one's heritage gives life a treasured richness." Maria once wondered: "Will all that we wish to pass on to our students-our beautiful language, the basic knowledge about Poland, that is, her l,000-year-old history, and culture-will all these strengthen their pride in belonging to the great Polish nation?" Clearly, Maria's dream to uphold Polishness among Polish children has been fulfilled and it was appropriate to recognize Maria Chrzanowska's inspiration, dedication, and lasting contribution to maintaining the Polish heritage by naming the second Polish school in Edmonton, which opened in November 1991, "The Maria Chrzanowska Polish School."

Maria Chrzanowska was also active in the Alberta Ethnic Language Teachers' Association (later named the Northern Alberta Heritage Language Association) and in its Board of Directors. Within this organization she shared her experience with other teachers and helped them with their problems. For all her years of service, Maria Chrzanowska, The First Lady of Polish Education in Edmonton, received the Alberta Achievement Award from the Alberta government in 1974, and the Heritage Language Development Award in 1986, for her service in preserving and developing language education. In 1990, she was presented with a Special Recognition from the Northern Alberta Heritage Language Association.

Since 1956, Maria Chrzanowska has participated in several Polish organizations in Edmonton. Maria was also an active member of the Polish Scouting movement in Edmonton. For a long time she was responsible for youths' affairs in the Canadian Polish Congress, Alberta Branch. From 1961 to 1995, Maria Chrzanowska directed the Polish radio program at Edmonton's CKUA.2

1 Józef Kaczmarek was a distinguished Polish community leader in the late 1940s and 1950s (see "Józef Kaczmarck: Heroic Underground Officer and Community Leader" elsewhere in Polonia in Alberta 1895-1995: The Polish Centennial in Alberta). Wladyslaw Zientarski (1911-1985), a former teacher in the wartime underground "secret teaching" in Warsaw and a Nazi prisoner, was a well-known Polish community activist and community historian in Edmonton.
2 See "Polish Programs in Edmonton," elsewhere in Polonia in Alberta 1895-1995: The Polish Centennial in Alberta.

Information provided by Maria Chrzanowska; Maria Chrzanowska; , "Nieznana karta z dziejów polskiej szkoly," in Towarzystwo Polsko-Kanadyjskie (Edmonton) 1927-1987 [Polish-Canadian Society, 1927-1987], Maria Carlton ed. (Edmonton: TPK, 1987); Maria Chrzanowska "Wspólpraca parafii Matki Boskiej Rózancowej ze szkola polska im. H. Sienkiewicza," in History of the Holy Rosary Parish in Edmonton 1913-1988, ed. John Huculak (Edmonton: Holy Rosary Parish, 1988); Maria Chrzanowska, "Zakonczenie roku szkolnego w szkole im. Henryka Sienkiewicza," Dialogi, no. 8, Edmonton 1986.

Reprinted from Polonia in Alberta 1895 -1995: The Polish Centennial in Alberta (Edmonton: Polish Centennial Society, 1995) eds. Andrzej M. Kobos and Jolanta T. Pekacz, with permission of the Canadian Polish Congress Alberta Branch.

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