Seminarian, Diocese of Superior
Special to the Catholic Herald
It was the night of Aug. 9, 1942, and Leon Gutowski lay hidden under a barracks from Nazi guards who would likely kill him if he were found. Cold, emaciated, and bleeding, he prayed as the night wore on.
His night ended in prayer, like many nights before. The place, however, was far different than 10 years earlier. In August 1932, Fr. Leon Gutowski was likely concluding his night in the church or rectory of St. Ann’s parish in Saxon, where he served as pastor.
Fr. Leon Gutowski was ordained a priest of Jesus Christ for the Diocese of Superior; he died as a priest of Jesus Christ during World War II in Germany’s Dachau concentration camp.
From rural Poland to rural Wisconsin
Born Aug. 15, 1896, to his parents Adam, a brick-maker, and Elzbieta, Leon Gutowski was raised on a 20-acre farm in the town of Sierpc, nearly 80 miles northwest of Poland’s capital city, Warsaw.
At the age of 16, Gutowski immigrated to the United States, following his older brother Teodor, who had settled in the U.S. a few years prior. Gutowski settled in Elkhart, Indiana, a town of nearly 20,000 people, about15 miles east of South Bend and the University of Notre Dame.
In order to earn a living, Gutowski worked various jobs, but specifically found financial stability as a painter. It is unclear what particular area of painting he worked most often in, but he was able to save enough money to begin pursuing his childhood dream: to become a Catholic priest. After five years of working in Indiana, Gutowski entered St. Lawrence High School Seminary in Mount Calvary in the fall of 1917.
Upon completing his four years of high school study, Gutowski become connected with the Diocese of Superior (it is unclear how exactly this took place) and was sent to Montreal, Canada, for additional studies in philosophy and French.
To complete his seminary formation, Gutowski was sent to study theology at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, where he entered the same class as one of the Diocese of Superior’s most well-known clerics: Joseph Annabring.
The two prayed and studied together all four years, from 1923-27. While academic records indicate that Annabring received high marks and was known as an intellectual, Gutowski made passing grades and was noted by the seminary staff to be “regular” and a “hard worker.”
A decade in the diocese
The year of 1927 was significant in the history of the Diocese of Superior. The diocese welcomed a new bishop, Theodore Reverman, from Louisville, Kentucky, who was installed Feb. 9. Bishop Reverman then ordained Gutowski, Annabring, and Glidden native Bernard Fries on May 3. Finally, the Cathedral of Christ the King in Superior was dedicated on Christmas Day.
Upon ordination, Gutowski’s first assignment was as chaplain of St. Mary’s hospital in Rhinelander. He served there until November 1929, when he was assigned as pastor at St. Ann’s in Saxon, where he ministered until 1936. In 1936, Gutowski crisscrossed the north-central portion of the diocese, spending time at St. Michael’s in Iron River; Ss. Peter and Paul in Moquah; St. Florian’s in Ino; St. Peter’s in Dauby; and St. Anne’s in Sanborn.
There have not been many recorded stories of Gutowski’s pastoral career in the diocese, though records and biographical information indicate that Gutowski had comprehensive language ability, including English, German, Italian, Polish, Russian and French.
These language skills were likely a great aid to him, particularly in areas of high immigrant concentration. This 10-year window from 1927 to 1937 was most clearly marked throughout the U.S. by economic distress during the Great Depression.
The call home
More than 20 letters that Fr. Gutowski wrote from his years in seminary and as a priest are still present in diocesan records. These letters contain vibrant and devout language and are quite commendatory to the bishops of Superior (Joseph Koudelka, Joseph Pinten, and Reverman) that he was addressing.
His final three letters are especially illuminating. In a letter dated July 21, 1936, Gutowski makes a request of Bishop Reverman to return to Poland.
“For many years, I was dreaming to return to my native country ‘Poland’ to give myself to study for two more years, and, if it is God’s will, to remain there, to serve my own people; or to come back to the ‘Land of Liberty’ to Our beloved Diocese of Superior, and to spend my time for the love of God and the salvation of immortal souls…”
“Now after many years of prayer and meditation, I am convinced that I have that ‘Calling’ from God to return to Poland.”
Gutowski mentioned the Polish ocean liner M.S. Pilsudski, which was to bring passengers from New York City across the Atlantic Ocean on Aug. 22, 1936. It is unclear whether Gutowski indeed made it onto this ship. On Sept. 30, 1936, Gutowski resigned his post as administrator of St. Michael’s in Iron River and the missions of Ss. Peter and Paul in Moquah; St. Peter’s in Dauby; and St. Florian’s in Ino, in a letter to Bishop Reverman.
The last letter exchanged between Gutowski and the Diocese of Superior came from Poland on Oct. 5, 1937. In it, Gutowski explains his work of teaching schoolchildren and serving various parishes and schools in the Diocese of Plock, a suffragan diocese of the Archdiocese of Warsaw. Gutowski mentions that he is still in need of excardination or transfer papers from the Diocese of Superior so that he might be incardinated into the Diocese of Plock and be able to serve as a pastor.
“It would be impossible to return home (to the Diocese of Superior) right now, but I would not say that I will never return. The excardination does not mean that I definitely broke off from the Diocese, but only that they are necessary for the ‘Pastor’ without it I cannot have any parish. Please consider my petition.”
Upon his return to Poland, Bishop of Plock Antoni Nowowiejski assigned Gutowski to parishes in Dobrzyn and Wisla (1936-37), Ploniawy (1939), and Zareby (1939-41). Bishop Nowowiejski, who also died in a concentration camp, was beatified by St. Pope John Paul II in June 1999 along with 107 other Polish men and women killed by the Nazis in World War II.
The parish of St. Lawrence in Zareby was Gutowski’s final priestly assignment. On June 12, 1941, Gutowski led parishioners in a Corpus Christi procession that caught the attention of German troops in the area and he was arrested five days later. Just over two months later, on Aug. 29, he would be handed a white-and-black striped uniform with the prisoner number 27112. Gutowski would never again see either the Diocese of Plock or Superior.
A year in Dachau
Historical records indicate that 1941 was perhaps the most brutal year for Catholic priests in Dachau. There are two recent books, “Priestblock 25487” (2007) and “The Priest Barracks: Dachau 1938-1945,” (2017) that detail the horrific conditions, particularly extreme famine, that priests endured that year.
Fr. Jean Bernard, the author of “Priestblock 25487,” entered Dachau just three months prior to Fr. Gutowski and was unexpectedly released five days before Gutowski died. One can infer, based on the timeline and because German and non-German priests (Bernard was Luxembourgian) lived in separate barracks, that Gutowski also witnessed many of the scenes depicted in that book.
Two Polish priests that knew the English language, thus everyone who was learning it turned to him, while Father Gutowski always obliging, explained, verified, but never once seemed annoyed. He earned this general respect and recognition,” Kubal said.
Kossakowski said, “From the first moment his calm, balance, opinion on God’s will, and ascetic outlook told us that this was an ascetic priest. Of course, during the entire time he was devout.“
According to Kossakowski, Gutowski told prisoners: ‘If I survive this well, or not, then one must sacrifice themselves for God.’
When fellow prisoners spoke of the conditions of camp, he would respond:
‘Co Bóg da, to bedzie.’ (Translated to English) ‘What God gives, it will be.’
“It was hard for him, yet he never complained, because on the contrary he remained devoted to the will of God,” Kossakowski said.
Gutowski survived the misery of 1941 but as the summer of 1942 wore on, his health continued a steady decline. Among the belongings recovered after his death were found a pair of letters that he had written to his brother Modest and also his coat and shoes. A local historian gave details about these items.
“His beige coat was returned after his death, which contained a large bloodstain the size of a dish on the back portion, as well as civilian shoes where one could find sharp granite rocks lodged in the soles. The shoe’s soles were cracking by the minimal touch of force.”
The date of his death, like those of many prisoners of concentration camps, is not entirely certain. What is known is that he was granted a disability transfer on Aug. 10, 1942 and was transported to Hartheim Euthanasia Center where he was soon murdered in a gas chamber.
Since it is likely that Gutowski was killed within days, his death came almost one year to the day that St. Maximillian Kolbe was martyred (Aug. 14, 1941) some 370 miles away at Auschwitz.
A symbolic grave for Fr. Gutowski lies above the ground at St. Lawrence parish cemetery in Zareby. Two thousand seven-hundred and twenty Catholic priests (1,780 of them Polish) were prisoners in Dachau between 1938 and 1945. One thousand and thirty-four of them (868 of them Polish) died while in the camp.
Writer’s note: I would like to sincerely thank several people for helping me tell Fr. Gutowski’s story in English for the first time. I first came upon Fr. Gutowski’s name and connection to the Diocese of Superior in October 2017. At that point, church historian and Marquette University professor Fr. Steven Avella helped point me in the right direction and connected me with Martin J. Kozon, doctoral student at UW-Milwaukee who translated various Polish texts into English. I would also like to thank the Diocese of Superior for allowing me to access Fr. Gutowski’s priest records. Fr. Michal Marian Grzybowski’s book on the martyrs of World War II from the Diocese of Plock was of immense value in understanding the key moments of Fr. Gutowski’s life, particularly his time in Dachau. Finally, the library staff of the Higher Theological Seminary in Plock, Poland and a local Polish historian who I have had the privilege of communicating with in a delightful English-Polish back-and-forth exchange of information and photos.
If you have any additional information on Fr. Leon Gutowski or any possible connections to relatives or priests that might have more information, please contact me at ude.s1542384442fs@yc1542384442artd1542384442. I pray that, in the months and years to come, more light might be shed on the life of this heroic priest.