CHICAGO (AP) — Polish immigrants and their descendants around the world shared the anguish of their mother country on Sunday, mourning the 96 victims of a devastating plane crash as they crowded into Polish-language Masses.
Millions of Poles have emigrated over nearly two centuries, establishing large communities in the United States and Britain. They coped with Saturday's death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other military, church and government officials through vigils, prayer and writing.
"It was like losing a family member," said Blanche Weigand, whose mother immigrated from Poland to Chicago in 1950. "I'm from Chicago, but my heart is in Poland."
Weigand grew up speaking fluent Polish and eating her mother's pierogi, and stays in touch with her Polish cousins each week through Skype.
The nation is in mourning after the crash, which occurred in Russia near Katyn forest. The dignitaries had been on their way to Katyn to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre there of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet forces.
Weigand said the crash makes her want to go to Poland, while her 88-year-old mother hasn't been able to talk about the tragedy at all. Instead, she cries, is plagued by headaches and recounts painful memories of being captured by Nazis.
"She's reliving all of it and it hurts," Weigand said.
Families of Polish descent packed churches in Chicago, London and elsewhere. At London's St. Andrew Bobola Polish Roman Catholic Church, parishioners mourned one of their priests, Monsignor Bronislaw Gostomski, who died in the crash, along with Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last president of a Polish government-in-exile based in London during World War II and the communist years.
"When the Polish people have any kind of a tragedy, they pray, they go to church," said Anna Szpindor, who was born in Poland and went to medical school there but lives in South Barrington, Ill.
"They feel this solidarity, this unity in a church environment," the 55-year-old said before she entered Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Chicago.
In New York, several hundred people stood outside St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn, unable to squeeze into its Polish-language Mass.
There are also significant populations of Polish descendants in Argentina and southern Brazil. In Curitiba, Brazil, special Masses were celebrated Sunday morning to honor those killed in the plane crash, the Rev. Zenon Sikorski said.
The Argentine-Polish Cultural Association issued a statement saying it shares Poland's "profound pain over the tragic accident."
An estimated 300,000 Poles emigrated to Argentina between 1897 and 1950. Laborers mostly went to larger cities like Buenos Aires, Cordoba and Rosario, while those with farming backgrounds principally settled in the northeast.
Dozens of mourners in the Chicago area, home to the largest concentration of people of Polish descent outside of Poland, came Sunday to the largely Polish St. Adalbert Cemetery in suburban Niles, Ill. They paid homage at a memorial sculpture to the 1940 Katyn massacre, which was designed by Chicago artist Wojciech Seweryn, who was also killed in the crash.
The sculpture — featuring the Virgin Mary holding a wounded officer — was covered with hundreds of candles, flowers and Polish flags. Two journals lay at the memorial sculpture, filled with hundreds of entries in Polish expressing sorrow, grief and shock.
"It is a great disappointment for Poland, this tragedy happened with Polish officers in 1940, now with the president in 2010," one read.
Another read simply, "Never Forgotten."
Many immigrants said they still have strong ties to Poland, with family or property there. Many make regular trips home, and some plan to eventually move back.
"The Poles keep their ties to Poland, that's just a fact," said the Rev. Anthony Bus, pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, the first Polish parish in Chicago. It opened in 1867.
Maria Balcer, 65, a recent immigrant, sat in a pew at Polish National Catholic Church in Brooklyn and cried. She had been up until 2 a.m. watching television coverage of the crash, she said.
"The tragedy is terrible, a horrible feeling in my heart," she said.
Teresa Karwowska, 56, her husband, Antoni Karwowski, 56, and their family attended a Polish Mass on Sunday morning and planned to attend a memorial service that day for the crash victims.
"What happened on Saturday, it kind of opened people's eyes to what happened in the Katyn massacre," Karwowska said, in Polish translated by her son. She said the family would observe a week of mourning for the plane crash victims with no music, no sports and prayer.
Associated Press Writers Caryn Rousseau in Chicago, Karen Matthews in New York, Tales Azzoni in Sao Paulo and Debora Rey in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.