Ten years ago, the Polish church of Our Lady Mother of the Church in Ealing, west London, was active but quiet. Served by the Polish Catholic Mission, which sent priests to England to care for Poland during World War Two, many of the parishioners were getting on in years. The Westminster Diocesan Directory for 2000 listed 1,970 Sunday Mass attenders. That all changed dramatically in May 2004 with the accession of Poland to the EU. Within weeks, nearly 5,000 began attending Sunday Masses, spread across eight services from 8.30am to 10.30 at night. Whole families are often seen kneeling and praying outside the church walls, rain or shine, as the building is filled to overcapacity.
Ealing is one of the largest Polish parishes in the UK, but the statistics for the nearly 200 Polish Mass centres across the UK, served by 105 priests reflect the same story.
Mgr Tadeusz Kukla, head of the Polish Mission said a staggering 1,750 young Polish couples planning to marry in Poland, had come forward for marriage preparation since January this year.
With the new arrivals have come new problems and over the last four years, Polish parishes has been developing a range of ministries to serve their burgeoning flocks.
Marian Father Pawel Nawalaniec, Parish Priest at Ealing, said two new Masses have been added in the past five years and one new priest has joined the parish in the past year, bringing the total number to six. He said: "We don't know how many parishioners we have. There is a regular group but many people are just here for a short time. We've set up groups for people suffering from alcoholism, for children of alcoholics, drug users and gambling addicts. There is advice for people with other problems. We have lectures and regular catachesis. There is a Polish Saturday School for the children. This May we started OAZA, a Polish religious youth organisation for 14-15 year olds. Last year, guests from India, France and Malaysia ran retreats. More are planned soon.
Wiktor Moszczynski, spokesman for the Federation of Poles in Britain said: " Lately there has been more involvement with the community and social services. The mayor and deputy mayor have attended special events."
Schooling has been a problem. Moszczynski said: "The sheer number of children arriving meant that there just weren't enough Catholic school places. The situation has calmed down now but when they first began arriving the schools were completely swamped."
Many Polish children have ended up going to non-Catholic schools. and parishes around the country are developing catachetical programmes for them.
"It was even suggested that a Polish academy should be set up, but most don't agree with this and feel we should integrate. " he said. "
Moszczynski said he hopes the arrival of Polish Catholics in the UK will enrich and complement the Church in England. But he said: "Integration must be a natural process. Some people only know their prayers in Polish. In 1989 Pope John Paul II in his homily on World Migrants Day stressed how important it was for migrants to be able to worship in their own language. Many are only here for a short time. As the children of families who stay here grow up, they will become more involved with the wider community and of course will integrate."
Mgr Kukla echoed this view. "The economy in Poland is getting stronger now and many Poles are not planning to settle here for good. Those who do will integrate in time. It is a natural process - don't force us. What we are much more concerned about is that Poles in England keep their faith. Only about eight per cent of Polish workers here are attending Mass. People are working very hard and they are very tired and disconnected from their families and communities. It is easy to drift away from church."
Mgr Kukla said Polish priests around the country are going out to farms and factories to meet Poles who are often working very long hours in difficult conditions.
"There is a real need for priests to go out to the people. We would welcome some help from the English Church in this task," he said.