Poland’s contributions to the defense of Christendom are perhaps seen most dramatically in King Jan III Sobieski driving the Turks from the very gates of Vienna. The Poles once again played a central role in the pushing back of another evil wave sweeping Europe, the “errors of Russia” spoken of by Our Lady at Fatima in 1917. The Solidarity movement is well known, but the principles of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) upon which the movement drew had a long presence in the country. One of the key players in implementing CST in Poland was Dr. Franciszek Stefczyk, the father of Polish credit unions. Recently, the process of advancing Dr. Stefczyk’s cause towards canonization has formally begun with the approval of Mieczysław Mokrzycki, Archbishop of Lvov.[1]

Franciszek Stefczyk (1861-1924) was a historian and teacher at a rural school located near Krakow. He was the father of three children working to establish credit unions and active in the founding of the Polish nation.[2] Educated at university in Austria, Franciszek became familiar with the ideas of Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen [3], the founder of Austrian and German credit unions.[4] His concern was for the poor of rural Poland, particularly those living near his native Krakow.

Drawing upon Raiffeisen’s model and his own deep faith, Stefczyk founded his first credit union in the village of Czernichow where he taught in an agricultural school.[5] His mission was to work for the relief of the poor farmers not through “social and economic philanthropy,” but rather to allow the peasants to help themselves.[6] This proposal respected both the human dignity of those involved as well as the principle of subsidiary. The three goals of his credit unions were: a) to educate the farmers in wise money management principles, regardless of their means [7], b) to create a source of cheap credit and thereby free peasants from bondage to usurers who limited their economic development [8] and c) he sought to build and strengthen the communal bonds and encourage self-help in local communities.[9] Dr. Stefczyk did not demand that the power of the State enforce his utopian dream. Instead, while working with the government and most importantly with the aid and blessing of both Catholic and Orthodox clerics, he ensured that credit unions built the utopia from the ground-up.[10]

Stefczyk was amazingly successful. Working with small, poor farmers it was expected that these early operations would face large amounts of risk. However, this was addressed by Stefczyk through the very smallness of his credit unions. By starting his operations in small communities, he ensured that all owners/borrowers knew each other very well. This virtually eliminated all risk of scam artists or excessive risk taking and provided additional incentive against defaulting on loans.[11] This model was so successful that of the first 600 credit unions, none closed due to default.[12]

Central to his work was Stefczyk’s idea that more than a source of credit, these community organizations would prove to be “schools of character.”[13] Stefczyk stated this philosophy by declaring that

[T]he main source of strength and moral influence… is the spirit of Christian charity, which is expressed and active in cooperative activities. If you love your neighbor and tame your own selfishness, if everyone in the economic and gainful employment take care to learn not only of his interests but the interests and needs of his neighbor, then such work will not burden and demean another but serve to raise the general welfare.[14]

For a man who created a system that by the time of the Second World War would include over 3,500 local cooperatives serving almost 1.5 million Poles, Dr. Franciszek Stefczyk led a humble and quiet life never amassing a fortune or allowing power to interfere with his life as Catholic, husband, father, and social pioneer.[15] In the month before his death, he was accepted as a professor of economics at Jagiellonian University; however, he did not live to teach there, dying the same day that he was formally given the position.[16]

The Nazis destroyed most Polish credit unions with those that remained being nationalized and looted by the Soviets.[17] Following the rise of the Solidarity movement and the collapse of Soviet power, the credit union returned to Poland. One credit union, founded in 1993, is named Kasa Stefczyka in honor of the man who may one day be named the first credit union pioneer saint.[18] With the archbishop’s approval the investigation into Dr. Stefczyk’s life will commence and, pending the outcome of the investigation, his cause will move forward. In addition to the benefits of this Polish credit union pioneer being in heaven with his prayers ascending to the Throne of God night and day, there is the more profane benefit of greater exposure to both the credit union movement and CST which a beatification and canonization would entail. With the possibilities in the present economy offered by such a system, the Poles may once again prove instrumental in preventing the spread of evil in the world.


End Notes

[1] Morrison, David. “Church to Consider Polish CU Founder for Sainthood.” CU Times. 22 January 2012. http://www.cutimes.com/2012/01/22/church-to-consider-polish-cu-founder-for-sainthood

[2] Okraska, Remigiusz. “Ziarnko do ziarnka” Polski RadioPl. 20 November 2007. www.polskieradio.pl/23/266/Artykul/174049,Ziarnko-do-ziarnka

[3] For more information on Raiffeisen see: the website of the International Raiffeisen Union http://www.iru.de/?lang=en

[4] Okraska

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Stefczyk qtd in Okraska

[15] Okraska

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Polish Credit Union Pioneer Nominated for Beatification.” WOCCU. DATE. http://www.woccu.org/newsroom/releases/Polish_Credit_Union_Pioneer_Nominated_for_Beatification

[18] “Historia.” Kasa Stefczyka. 3 January 2012. http://www.kasastefczyka.pl/historia

 

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