Maria Chrzanowska: Polish Education Takes Root in Edmonton

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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

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
=.=passage omitted =.=.=.


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.
Note: there is a considerable number of AGOPSOWICZ and AGOPYANS now
accross Canada