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Traditional Polish service in Carnegie has its devotees during Lent

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The Gorzkie żale, also known as “Bitter Lamentations,” is a program consisting of Lenten hymns, poetry, chants and meditations. Participants are invited to ponder the sufferings of Jesus and his mother, Mary, during his torture and execution. Fr. Miro Stelmaszczyk, right, presides over the Gorzkie żale at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, assisted by Peter Muszalski as acolyte. Because his parents speak Polish at home, Muszalski has been bilingual in Polish and English since early childhood. Submitted photo Submitted photo

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By Matthew Defusco
Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Parishioners at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton attending a special traditional Polish service called “Gorzkie Zale,” or “Bitter Lamentations,” find solace in its somber tone.

“It gives me strength,” said Bernice Zyzak, 82, who has been attending a Gorzkie Zale service since she was a child.

The trial of Christ on the day he was crucified is chronologically outlined in the service and expressed through poems, meditations and hymns.

Zyzak, of Mt. Lebanon, along with 30 to 50 others, attend the service held every Sunday in addition to the regular Mass at the newly renovated St. Luke's school building on Third Avenue in Carnegie.

The ceremony is held during Lent at 3 p.m. and goes through Palm Sunday.

The service includes deliberately chosen hymns and chants that describe the sufferings that Christ endured as well as meditations from the Virgin Mary.

Much of the service includes traditional symbolism, including incense to represent honor and prayers, white robes worn by the liturgy to represent a cleanliness that is achieved through baptism and the chair on which the priest sits, which represents the authority to preach on behalf of Jesus.

Even the time of the service is symbolic, echoing the time of Christ's death, said the Rev. David Poecking, pastor at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

“The feeling that you get from this is a certain determination to plod on through one's sufferings,” he said.

By keeping the Polish language and tradition, the service pulls together elements of Christ and Mary's sufferings with the struggles that surround Polish history.

“The Poles, well, they had more than their share of suffering,” Poecking said.

“There's this feeling of intense suffering (in the service),” he said. “The Poles have frequently identified their suffering as a people with the sufferings of Jesus and Mary. Certainly that's part of the whole Polish spirituality.”

Much of the service is in Polish or Latin while some of it is spoken in English. But the differences in language and tradition shouldn't deter any Christians from attending, everyone can get something out of it, Zyzak said.

Most of the people who attend might know Polish in some capacity but for those who don't know any at all, programs are handed out that have both English and Polish translations.

The service starts with the procession of Fr. Miro Stelmaszczyk, who presides over it, and Peter Muszalski, 17, of Rosslyn Farms, who serves as an assistant, or acolyte.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Pittsburgh are the only two churches Poecking knows of that continue this service, which started during the 18th century in Warsaw.

The service changes slightly each week with different hymns and chants but always ends the same way.

“Our Gorzkie Zale concludes with adoration and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, most any Catholic — not only Poles — would find the service familiar and rewarding,” Poecking said in a release about the ceremony.

Matthew DeFusco is a reporter with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-871-2311 or

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