Maria Chrzanowska (1913-2003)
Polish Education Takes Root in Edmonton
Mrs. Maria Chrzanowska (nee Agopsowicz) was born on August 16, 1913 in Kuty, near Stanisławów in Galicia, Poland’s former eastern territories.
Her early childhood coincided with the First World War. As a young woman, she attended the Adam Asnyk Seminary in Lvov and graduated with honours from the Teacher’s College in 1932. She worked several years in the teaching profession before marrying Mr. Jan Chrzanowski, also a teacher.
Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, the couple was blessed with a son, Zbigniew. 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. For seven long years, while he fought for the British, he remained separated from his family.
When the Soviets occupied the town of Kuty in 1939, Maria’s parents were deported to 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 Czesław, had lived since 1927. Their son Zbigniew, became a physician and their daughter Teresa a nurse. Almost from the very beginning of their new life in Canada, Maria and Jan Chrzanowski were involved in Edmonton’s budding Polish community.
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 in Edmonton before, during and after Second World War, notably in 1974 by Józef Kaczmarek and Władysław Zientarski a permanent Polish school was established in Edmonton in 1954 by Rev. Tadeusz Nagengast, Wanda Buska, Zofia Hedinger, Janina Jankowska-Zygiel, Mieczysław 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.
In 1956 Maria Chrzanowska began teaching at the H. Sienkiewicz school as 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 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 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 completed 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 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 give 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 1000-years-old history, and culture-will all these strengthen their pride in belonging to the great Polish nation?” Clearly Maria 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 was also active in the Alberta Ethnic Language Teachers’ Association (later named the Northern Alberta Heritage Language Association) and in its Board of Directors.
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 presenting 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 youth’s affairs in the Canadian Polish Congress, Alberta Branch. From 1961 to 1995 Maria Chrzanowska directed the Polish radio program at Edmonton CKUA.
On July 2, 2003, Maria Chrzanowska, passed away and her husband of 65 years Jan, died a few month later on November 16, 2003. Maria Chrzanowska will live on in the hearts and memories of her students and the school, who loved her and recognized her tireless efforts throughout the Polish community in Edmonton.
Sources: “Polonia in Alberta 1895-1995” by Andrzej M. Kobos
- Maria Chrzanowska with her husband Jan in 1990
- Sienkiewicz Polish School – Maria with teachers and students in 1973/74
- Sienkiewicz Polish School – Maria with her class students in 1983/84
- Maria & Jan Chrzanowski in 2002