Catherine L. Benicewicz

Daughter of immigrants sought to keep alive the once vibrant history of the Poles who lived in Curtis Bay and Brooklyn

  • Catherine L. Benicewicz
Catherine L. Benicewicz (Baltimore Sun )
August 05, 2013|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Catherine L. Benicewicz, a retired substitute teacher who sought to keep alive the history of the Polish community that inhabited Brooklyn and Curtis Bay, died Saturday of kidney failure at Harbor Hospital.

The lifelong Brooklyn resident was 94.

The daughter of Polish immigrants, Catherine Leocadie Tarnowski was born in Baltimore and raised in Curtis Bay. Her mother was a homemaker while her father worked for 40 years at Davison Chemical Co., where he mixed vats of sulfuric acid.

As a young girl, she attended the Polish school in the Polish Home Hall that was established by the United Polish Societies in 1925 in a former firehouse at Fairhaven Avenue and Filbert Street.

On the first floor of the two-story building was "our Polish school," Mrs. Benicewicz told The Baltimore Sun in a 2003 interview.

"A one-room school with ... four grades and one teacher. We all spoke Polish at home, and we needed to learn English. We learned reading, writing and arithmetic, and then after four years we went to what we called 'the English School,' " she said.

Mrs. Benicewicz worked in the daytime while attending Western High School at night, graduating in 1937. During World War II, she was a clerical worker for the National Biscuit Co.

In 1945, she married Casimir E. Benicewicz, a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. carpenter she had met 11 years earlier when women and children worked in the fields of Anne Arundel County farms picking beans, tomatoes and berries.

The couple then settled into a detached brick house on 12th Avenue in Brooklyn Park, where they raised three sons.

For years, Mrs. Benicewicz, who was fluent in Polish, English, French and Spanish, worked as a substitute teacher at Brooklyn Park High School. She also was busy collecting and preserving the history of Brooklyn and Curtis Bay.

As the industrial complexion of the area began to change by the 1980s, when factories closed or were automated, younger people moved away, leaving only the elderly.

"By then, the Poles who had lived in the area for years had moved to the suburbs," said a son, Lawrence D. Benicewicz, a retired Anne Arundel County public schools science teacher.

It had fallen to Mrs. Benicewicz and her husband to care for the Polish Home Hall that had once been the cultural and social focal point of the community, but which had now come on hard times.

"To my parents, it was something of a shrine," her son said. "She wanted to preserve the culture and history of that part of town."

By 1994, Mrs. Benicewicz and her husband could no longer care for the Polish Home Hall, whose role in the community was fading. Two years later, it closed for good.

Her husband died in 1997.

She loved to reminisce about the old days when the hall throbbed with life, and when dances and plays were held in its upstairs ballroom.

"Upstairs in front of a hand-painted village scene, children staged plays to celebrate Poland's Constitution Day. Polka bands played to celebrate just about anything. The music and sound of stamping feet bounced from the pressed tin ceiling to the polished maple floor," The Sun reported in the 2003 article.

"The grown-ups pushed their chairs aside, Mrs. Benicewicz said, 'and by the end of the night, the chairs would all be full because the children would be sleeping on them,' " according to the article.

The building was rescued from obscurity in 2001 when the newly formed Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition took over its restoration.

"She was still fundraising and attending all events for the Polish Home Hall," her son said.

Mrs. Benicewicz was an avid fan of classical music and opera.

"She was an excellent seamstress and for more than 40 years was a seamstress for the Baltimore Opera Company," her son said. She also loved to travel and had visited Paris twice and Poland.

"She wrote profusely about what was going on. She was sharp as a tack and very intelligent," said Barbara Gudenius, a Charles Village resident who is retired as chairman of the English department at Western High School.

"She did not watch TV and read voraciously. She was a very insightful person and was up on world events and very current in her thinking," said Ms. Gudenius. "There was nothing feeble about her. She never faded, and wanted to stay in her own home and lived independently."

Mrs. Benicewicz was a longtime communicant of St. Athanasius Roman Catholic Church, Prudence and Church streets, Curtis Bay, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Mrs. Benicewicz is also survived by two other sons, Anthony C. Benicewicz of Catonsville and Mark G. Benicewicz of Los Angeles; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

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