On October 19, 1984, Polish Roman Catholic priest Jerzy Popiełuszko, associated with the Solidarity trade union (Solidarność), was kidnapped and murdered by three agents of the Security Service of Communist Poland.
As a young priest serving in parishes around Warsaw, Jerzy Popiełuszko became a supporter of the Solidarity movement. In 1981, he joined the workers protesting in the Warsaw Steelworks as part of the nationwide strike orchestrated by Solidarność (Solidarity), the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union.
As the unofficial chaplain of the trade union, Popiełuszko interwoved spiritual exhortations with political messages in his sermons, criticizing the communist system and encouraging people to protest. He became famous throughout Poland for his uncompromising stance against the regime with his sermons routinely broadcasted by Radio Free Europe.
During martial law, the Security Service of Communist Poland (Służba Bezpieczeństwa) tried to silence and intimidate him numerous times. But when those techniques failed, they fabricated evidence against him and arrested him. He was quickly released on intervention of the clergy and pardoned by an amnesty.
But on the evening of October 19, 1984, Jerzy Popiełuszko was kidnapped by three agents of the Security Service who pretended to have problems with their car and flagged down Popiełuszko’s car for help. The priest was beaten, tied up, and thrown into the car boot.
With a bag of stones bound to his feet, he was dropped into the Vistula river near the town of Włocławek, northern Poland. His body was found a few days later but his body was tortured to the extent that he could only be formally identified.
News of his death caused an uproar throughout Poland with more than 250,000 people, including Lech Wałęsa, attending his funeral. He was buried in St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Warsaw, where millions of visitors have since then paid tribute.
Popiełuszko’s murderers – Captain Grzegorz Piotrowski, Leszek Pękala, Waldemar Chmielewski – and Colonel Adam Pietruszka, responsible for giving the order, were sentenced to jail but they were released not long after as part of an amnesty.
Jerzy Popiełuszko was posthumously awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest decoration, in 2009. The National Day of Remembrance for Steadfast Clergy, falling on October 19, was established in 2018. Popiełuszko has also been recognized as a martyr by the Roman Catholic Church, and was beatified in 2010 by Archbishop Angelo Amato on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI.
A monument to Popiełuszko was erected by Chicago’s Polish community in the garden of memory next to St. Hyacinth Basilica.
Agnieszka Holland’s 1988 drama To Kill a Priest tells the story of Popiełuszko’s murder, with Christopher Lambert, starring as a fictionalized version of the chaplain, and Ed Harris, who plays the secret police captain set to assassinate him.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.