Saturday, April 30, 2011

John Paul II – King Maker – Edward Piszek

An old friend, a Catholic in good standing, recently told me that the “Catholic Church is all politics”. The friend, in the middle of some sort of annulment of a previous marriage thing, is going the distance with the RC bureaucrats because of love. Love is a powerful energy in this world. As for the politics thing, I bit my tongue. A friend is a friend.

Being a cousin of the late Bishop of Allentown Pa, I have heard the family stories not published and the stories of the internal Vatican politics it took to carve five counties in upstate Pennsylvania out of the archdiocese of Philadelphia to become the private fiefdom of my cousin who, when his chances to become a Cardinal of Philadelphia got blown in the 1958 election of John XXIII, the consolation prize from his powerful friends in the Vatican was Allentown.

Getting on with the politics in the RC church, they are Beautifying John Paul II, who is on a fast track to sainthood. Of course JPII changed the rules for sainthood, cut out the long bureaucratic wait thing, in favor of streamlining a thoroughly medieval process. And of course, saints and relics and such went out of fashion with the Reformation for us Protestant types. Whatever.

Here is a story of the man, the Polish American Edward Piszek, who was not so much a king maker as he was pope maker in the case of John Paul the Great.

I don’t know if it is not PC to call Edward Piszek a Polack. There was a time when perhaps Polack had a negative connotation in the immigration pecking order of things here in America. The latest ethnic group to arrive always seemed to be at or near the bottom of the pecking order of society. I heard that word used in my youth for the Polish amidst the still strong ethnic enclaves of Philadelphia. More later on that term.

It is perhaps out of a need to succeed as the son of immigrants that John Piszek succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. I remember an article in the Sunday Magazine of the Philadelphia Inquirer in the mid 70s that specifically was tracing out Edward Piszek’s philanthropy role in the great white (papal) hope of Polish Americans at the time in the person of John Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia.

Here you have two Polish Americans, both originally from the midwest and both ambitious and successful in their perspective fields of business and religion in Philly.

The magazine article had its liberal, perhaps cynical, but definitely Wasp-ish, bent openly analyzing the ambitions of two Polacks on the make in a still then Wasp society pecking order of things in Philly.

The article seemed to emphasis how Piszek was upset that the wasp name Mrs. Paul, his business partner wife's name, had the success whereas in the beginning he did not think that a Polish name like Mrs. Piszek’s fish fingers or sticks had much marketing potential. So it goes. Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda.

Anyway, Cardinal Krol was campaigning to be the next pope as the article outlined. He was not buying votes. He was however making frequent trips to East Asia and Africa and making financial donations to the building of schools and hospitals in the five and six figure money category, which was a lot of bread or fish sticks back then. And of course, the philanthropist Piszek had the check book to make Krol a viable candidate for the papacy, even though he was American and not Italian.

From a source, I cannot remember who in Philly told me this story, this Philly urban legend of sorts; it had to do with the papal election in 1978 after the death of Paul VI. I am told the Italians put up a good and or dirty fight to get a fellow Italian, Albino Luciani, elected John Paul I.

The story goes that when the Italians seemed to be getting ahead on votes in the papal election, votes committed to distant runner Cardinal Krol got released by Krol, asking those released voters to consider, closing up fast runner, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla over Luciani. The story goes that Krol, when he released the votes, told, urged his cronies, to “Give it to the Polack”. Or so I remember the story.

John Paul I only reigned as pope for something like thirty three days. The runner up in the first papal election, Wojtyla, had the momentum and or mojo going to push him across the finish line at the next papal election.

The rest is history. Not much about Piszek on Wikipedia. His role in the politics of making Karol Wojtyla pope and now saint is forgotten in history.

Ed Piszek Obits
Piszek, 87, a Fort Washington resident who died of bone cancer March 27, also told his son to "give God the credit. I was under his tutelage. I was his messenger. I was his Johnny Appleseed."

Two cardinals presided and a procession of priests participated in Piszek's Funeral Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, where hundreds came to pay their respects.

Among them were baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial, who teamed up with Piszek to bring Little League baseball to Poland, Piszek's ancestral home; and former Phillies pitcher Larry Christenson, whom he called "my best buddy."

Pope John Paul II, Piszek's friend for nearly 20 years, said in a note from the Vatican that he was "deeply saddened" by his death. "I am confident that his memory will inspire others to give of themselves freely and charitably," he added.

A self-made man, Piszek turned a mistake into a multimillion-dollar business when he made too many crabcakes during his shift at a Kensington bar in 1946, and decided to freeze some.

He launched Mrs. Paul's Kitchens with partner John Paul. In the 1950s, Piszek bought out his partner and ran the company for about 30 more years before selling it to Campbell Soup Co. in 1982.
I always say you learn a lot more about somebody from his Obituary than you probably already thought you knew. That is not true in this case. In the above Obit articles, I only see Cardinal Krol in one sentence that also mentions Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, a very small understated footnote in history.

Edward Piszek died in 2004 at age 87. He called himself the “Polish Ben Franklin” considering his considerable patronage and philanthropy to the City of Brotherly Love.

If Piszek were still alive, he would be 94, and sitting in the front row as Benedict XVI Beatifies the Polish Pope.

Whether alive or not, I have no doubt that his spirit as pope maker and now saint maker will be in Saint Peter’s square on May 1.

It’s is a hell of lot of story associated with one lonely fish stick or I should say billions of fish sticks.

And so it goes.