This picture is of Father Bronislaw Gostomski who died in yesterday’s appalling plane crash that took the lives of so many prominent Poles, including the President, Lech Kaczynski. It was drawn by my eight year old daughter who had known him literally all her young life.
We came home after a gloriously sunny day spent at the fair in our local park to find an OB van parked in our street and press camped outside the church opposite our house. We knew nothing of the plane crash or the fact that the priest who had been in charge of the church for the past eight years had perished in it. It was a BBC World Service reporter who told me the news and it felt like a punch to my gut.
I’ve learned from reading reports since that Father Gostomski was both a Canon and personal chaplain to the Polish President. We knew him simply as Father and as the man who brought order and unity to a sometimes disparate congregation. Polish accession into the EU brought hundreds of thousands of Poles to London, swelling the congregation at the church to often unmanageable proportions. This has had a profound impact on what is a narrow street in a residential area of West London and on the streets around.
To try to ameliorate the detrimental effect on the neighbourhood and the growing tensions between locals and the Polish congregation, I was asked to sit on the Ward Panel committee run by the Metropolitan Police. Father Gostomski was also a member and it was then that I began to appreciate his straightforward, positive approach coupled to immense energy and drive.
It was this charisma and personal warmth that enabled him to raise over a million pounds to restore the church as well as £10,000 in a single day to help the citizens of Haiti. It was his positivity and deep faith, I am sure, that also fuelled his recovery from throat cancer. He was given the all clear only a week or so before he boarded that plane. But it was through our frequent chats outside the church or in the street that I came to know a man who loved fishing so much he wanted to retire by a lake with his rods and who was not averse to a great belly laugh when the situation merited it.
Father Gostomski was no pushover – several times I saw him physically eject a drunk from the church garden and he once saw off a bunch of menacing teenagers so effectively that they never came back. He would chastise his congregation when necessary, exhorting them to pick up their detritus, including flowers left in the remembrance garden which had since rotted. He was deeply loved, however, for his ability to draw old and young together – to unite the emigres who had been here for years and the new immigrants with their entirely different attitudes. He believed in community above all else and it is as a community that we will miss him.
We watched from our garden gate as 400 people gathered last night to remember him and all those who had died. We heard the strains of a violin playing before the portrait of him placed on the altar and I felt my heart ache. As the evening grew chillier my daughter stole away inside to draw her picture in privacy. I stood there until the last member of the congregation had left and the press had departed, taking their cameras with them. Then I crossed over the road and placed a candle beside the plain white Madonna that Father Gostomski had personally chosen to adorn the garden. I said a silent prayer for a good man and, as ever, I wondered why.