Minted in Faith
When time allows, Krzysztof Witkowski of Bishop Theodore Kubina Council 14955 in Częstochowa, Poland, enjoys giving tours of the museum that he founded last year. The tour begins in a darkened room with relics of Blessed John Paul II: a lock of hair and a fragment of the cross that the pope held on Good Friday 2005, just days before his death. Here visitors have time to pray before starting their journey through the museum.
Approximately 30,000 small bulbs light more than 6,000 coins and medals, all with the same subject: Pope John Paul II.
Inside the gallery, visitors are then surrounded by display cases comprised of blue backdrops, glass shelves and velvet-lined boxes. Approximately 30,000 small bulbs light more than 6,000 coins and medals, all with the same subject: Pope John Paul II.
‘A LIVING PORTRAIT’
According to Witkowski, every artifact in the Museum of Coins and Medals Commemorating John Paul II has a story. The displays begin with coins that were released by the Vatican, followed by those from Poland. There are coins representing the majority of the world’s countries, as well as numerous smaller territories, islands and cities. And although every coin in the massive collection is important and valuable, each representing a piece of the legacy left by the beloved pontiff, there are some that carry special significance.
Notably, the first coin dedicated to John Paul II is from neither the Vatican nor Poland, but from the Dominican Republic, where the pope made his first apostolic visit in November 1978. The smallest group to honor the pope with a coin was a population of 120 Catholics from Tristan da Cunha, a remote volcanic island located in the south Atlantic Ocean.
There are also a few dozen coins from the United States and Canada. John Paul II is on a limited edition U.S. half-dollar and on souvenir pennies that were impressed by a crank-operated machine. There is even a medal that was struck to celebrate the opening of the museum itself.
The museum was dedicated Aug. 11, 2011, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the World Youth Day that took place in Częstochowa. At the dedication ceremony, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, archbishop of Kraków and the long-time personal secretary of John Paul II, called it a museum of living portraits from around the world, bringing countries and cultures closer together. Papal photographer Arturo Mari was also among the guests for the event.
The museum is located just three miles from Jasna Góra, the nation’s spiritual capital and one of the most significant religious sites on earth. In 2011, there were some 3.2 million pilgrims including visitors from more than 80 countries who came there to honor the Virgin Mary, who is revered as the Queen of Poland under her title Our Lady of Częstochowa. For centuries, numerous of faithful have made the trek each year by foot, traditionally in August.
When Pope John Paul II returned to his native land in June 1979, he spoke to the nation from Jasna Góra, where he previously made pilgrimages as a child, student, priest, bishop and cardinal. The pope later reflected that next to the Vatican, Jasna Góra was for him the main pulpit from which he spoke to the world.
GUIDED BY PROVIDENCE
Witkowski’s personal devotion to Our Lady of Częstochowa grew in 2004, when he suffered a stroke that left the entire right side of his body paralyzed. He confided in Our Lady, and his recovery led to a renewed gratitude for life. This experience, and the death of Pope John Paul II the following year, had a great impact on him.
But Witkowski’s interest in coins and medals dates back even earlier. Years before, his father had become very ill and began selling parts of his large collection to afford medicine and treatment. One part of the collection, though, was untouchable. Eventually, the only pieces that remained of the collection were 55 medals honoring John Paul II, and Witkowski inherited these upon his father’s death.
As time went on, Witkowski kept the collection in his office in Częstochowa, where he owns and manages a company that sells radio and telecommunications equipment. For some time, Witkowski considered the idea of building a place of remembrance for John Paul II but was waiting for the right moment.
One day, visitors from Russia asked about the person who was represented in all of the photographs and medals in Witkowski’s office. The experience impressed upon Witkowski a duty to introduce John Paul II to those who did not know him. And to those who did know John Paul II, he saw the need to remind them about the late pope’s life and teachings.
“When I created the museum, I was directing it at young people, at children,” said Witkowski. “I want this museum to speak to young people and tell them about who John Paul II was for our generation. I want to remind them about his words on love, about how love is about caring for another person.”
Witkowski has also found inspiration in being a member of the Knights of Columbus. Since the Order expanded to Poland in 2006, Knights there have adopted Our Lady of Częstochowa as a special patron as they work to preserve the nation’s religious heritage. And the Order’s close relationship with John Paul II is reflected in a series of commemorative medals struck by the Knights and featured at the museum including one released on the occasion of the restoration of the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica, a project initiated by the Order in 1984.
BUILDING THE COLLECTION
In April 2010, the collection totaled only 365 coins and medals, a sum Witkowski was initially happy with because he “had a medal for every day of the year.” At the same time, he knew that his collection was not large enough to justify an entire museum, which he assumed would take 10 or even 20 years to realize.
A turning point, however, came when Witkowski bought several thousand John Paul II-related coins and medals from Wojciech Grabowski, a well-known collector from London. An older man with a passion for the arts, Grabowski wanted to leave his rich collection, which he began decades earlier, with someone he could trust. Witkowski’s love for John Paul II and his plans to display the medals in Częstochowa made him the ideal candidate to receive the collection.
During the months that followed, the collection expanded even more. With passion and determination, Witkowski convinced other collectors to let go of their prized possessions so as to share them with others in one place. In this way, treasures once stored away in closets and on shelves found their way to galleries where they would help tell the story of John Paul II to thousands of admiring visitors.
In addition to the darkened relic room and main exhibit space, the museum houses an auditorium. Special meetings and lectures will take place there monthly from March 2012 to May 2020, leading up to the 100th anniversary of John Paul II’s birth. The first guest presenter was Archbishop Mieczysław Mokrzycki of Lviv, Ukraine, who served as a secretary to John Paul II for nine years.
There is also a cafeteria where visitors can relax and eat a kremówka, a cream pastry popular in the pope’s home city of Wadowice, or Italian ice cream made according to a recipe from Castel Gandolfo, home of the papal summer residence.
Finally, visitors walking through the exhibit space can view a short movie that explains, among other things, the development of the museum. Immediately afterward, there is a light show that symbolizes the light of Christian faith. Indeed, these features are simply more facets of an unconventional exhibit that seeks to open the doors of faith to its visitors. For Witkowski, presenting the legacy and teachings of John Paul II through coins and medals ultimately encourages visitors to become pilgrims on an even larger spiritual voyage, one that can move them from darkness to light.
For more information about the Museum of Medals and Coins Commemorating John Paul II, visit the multilingual website www.jp2muzeum.pl.
PAWEŁ PIWOWARCZYK writes from Kraków, Poland, where he is a member of John Paul II Council 14000.