Nearly 20 years had passed since the Rev. Piotr Narkiewicz took his last English class at a university in Poland when he journeyed to the United States in 2012. His destination was St. Isidore Roman Catholic Church, which dates back to 1903 and is situated in Riverhead’s Polish Town.
Father Piotr’s English was admittedly limited. To improve the language skills he would need to interact with the people of his adopted hometown, he watched movies and cartoons.
“In cartoons, the language is very simple,” Father Piotr said during an interview last week, on the eve of the 2016 Polish Town Fair. “In the beginning, it was very easy to watch cartoons and then repeat the phrases.”
Father Piotr’s love of cartoons has been evident throughout his four years of service at St. Isidore and Our Lady of Ostrabrama Roman Catholic Church in Cutchogue. He’s been known to deliver a movie line during homilies; for example, while speaking about faith, he once said, “If we don’t have faith, God is not going to force us to have faith, because God is not the Darth Vader who will say ‘I find your lack of faith disturbing.’ ” And his puppet, Gienek, has been his familiar sidekick from Poland, even making an occasional appearance at the end of Mass to deliver announcements. (Gienek won’t appear during the Masses out of respect for the services.)
Gienek, who typically wears a traditional brown robe, accompanies Father Piotr nearly everywhere he goes. His Facebook page — yes, the puppet has its own social media account — features pictures of Gienek at the Eiffel Tower, a U.S. Open tennis match and the White House.
Gienek Washable (his last name came written on the label) has appeared in more than a hundred videos Father Piotr has filmed and edited. In each one, most of which are in Polish, the puppet tells a story meant to deliver a message.
“A lot of my friends live in another city, so the best connection with them is social media,” Father Piotr said. “They love Gienek, so I opened a Facebook account.”
Father Piotr, 46, received feedback early on from a friend who noted that his children were too young to be able to read the messages Gienek posted on Facebook. The friend recommended he make a video.
The priest didn’t have a camera at the time, so he used the next best option: a scanner to splice together images to create a brief video.
“Probably the first video made by scanner,” he said.
The videos soon evolved, although Father Piotr admits the jokes he makes in Polish don’t always translate well into English.
“Polish kids, they love it and they laugh because they know Gienek is like they are,” he said. “He is small, like a child, and he is asking very important questions and also trying to find the answers.”
Father Piotr frequently uses Gienek to entertain and enlighten local children. A former history teacher who entered the seminary at age 30, he often visits nearby St. Isidore School to speak to the young children there.
“The kids love the puppet. They love Gienek,” said St. Isidore principal Helen Anne Livingston. “[Father Piotr] does get very animated. He gets into character.”
Gienek helps Father Piotr hold the kids’ attention, especially if they start to speak over him. Gienek may yell out “Behave yourself!” or “Be nice!” That sparks a conversation between the puppet and Father Piotr and helps the students refocus.
Lisa Dabrowski, a Riverhead native who lives in Cutchogue and attends St. Isidore, said she admires Father Piotr’s creativity.
“I believe that he is able to communicate a message of inspiration not just for children, but for all ages,” Ms. Dabrowski said. “Perhaps what Father Piotr does helps is break down a barrier that some may feel exists between oneself and the church.”
In videos, Father Piotr sometimes uses a second puppet: Freddy, an antagonist to Gienek. He decided the second puppet should be an animal, one that lives in America that a Polish kid would recognize. He settled on a raccoon.
“In every movie with cowboys, there were guys wearing the hat with a raccoon tail and everybody knows that,” he said.
Father Piotr bought the raccoon puppet online and set up an online poll to determine its name.
Together, Gienek and Freddy get into various adventures, often with Freddy asking questions and Gienek providing the answers.
Father Piotr’s journey to the priesthood came during a difficult time in his life, he said. He had an apartment, a job, a car and a girlfriend, but he felt something was missing.
“In the back of my head I had this … that maybe God is calling me to be a priest, but I didn’t want to say yes,” he said. “I was afraid to leave everything behind.”
A gathering in Rome for World Youth Day in 2000 with Pope John Paul II changed Father Piotr forever. His fears quickly faded. It was if the pope were speaking directly to him amid the crowd of more than two million, he said.
Father Piotr quit his job, sold his house and entered the seminary. In 2008, he was ordained as a priest. Four years later, he and Gienek arrived in Riverhead.
Photo caption: The Rev. Piotr Narkiewicz shakes hands with his puppet Gienek. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
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