When Phillip Gzella was born three months premature, he was tiny enough at one pound 6 ounces to fit into the palm of his father’s hand. As Marian Gzella struggled with the precarious news often delivered to parents of preemies, doctors then warned that his wife Danuta may not make it through the night. She was septic. A man of great faith, Marian prayed.
To show his gratefulness, year after year Marian volunteers his time and expertise as the self-professed “Coffee Boss," making enough coffee and hot tea to fill the cups of up to 3,000 pilgrims — ten times over the four-day walk. Each August, pilgrims trek 57.5 miles from his parish of Saints Peter & Paul in Great Meadows, New Jersey to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Danuta helps prepare meals. Their son Phillip volunteers as safety coordinator. The couple’s two daughters come with their kids to carry on the tradition.
“It’s a time to have time for family,” said Danuta, who walks each year with intentions. This year she’s praying that Phillip, now out of college, can find a good job.
Jan Prusak is the "Walking Boss." He's in charge of all the logistics, which includes the transportation of enough luggage to fill the trailers of two 18-wheelers, enough porta potties for multiple stops and campsites. Then there's the task of making and delivering meals and beverages.
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Prusak, the Gzellas and many other volunteers who work behind the scenes with little sleep the week of the walk, moved from Poland to the United States in the 1980s and 90s and gravitated to this Warren County community where the church in Great Meadows was becoming the center of the growing immigrant community.
“We grew up with pilgrimages in Poland,” Prusak said, explaining how the walk to Czestochowa in his homeland is a centuries-old tradition. "The tradition in Poland survived communist time because after World War II there was tremendous pressure on the Church. Pilgrimages have lasted from the 15th century all the way til now. At the time, for me when I was growing up, it was a form of fighting communist regime, showing your faith, showing your power against their will."
Volunteers numbered about 150 this year and after 28 years, span three generations.
"All these people came. Young girls and everybody's helping us. It's so wonderful," said Maria Kaczmarski on the eve of the walk. She was making sure they had the 1,300 sandwiches needed for the next day.
"You just do it for other people," Kaczmarski said. "I usually do it for someone who has drifted away from the church and for me, I grow spiritually."