Homeless in Poland, Preparing an Odyssey at Sea
WARSAW — Two dozen homeless men are building a ship to sail themselves around the world at the St. Lazarus Social Pension here, in the yard of a former tractor factory. Sparks fly from the rusty 55-foot hull as they weld it into form, even after losing the priest who led and inspired the mission.
These men with sharply lined faces and blurry, old tattoos have set out to prove their seaworthiness, and to prove that they have some value to society, even if society has largely written them off.
“Some people smack themselves in the head when they hear, and probably think we’re crazy,” said Slawomir Michalski, 51, who was a welder in the famous Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk and joined the strike led by Lech Walesa in 1980 that helped shake the foundation of Communist rule in Poland and the entire Soviet bloc. It was a singular moment in Polish history and one that adds resonance to tales of shipbuilding here.
But their story strikes deeper chords because, for all the modern tools in the building and corporate sponsors providing the raw materials, their endeavor echoes mythic themes of escape, adventure and redemption that can seem out of reach in a world of biometric identity cards and debt-collection agencies.
In the process, the 25 hard-luck Poles working on the project are wrestling with the notion of building a dream boat away from the hulking megayachts of the technology mogul Larry Ellison and the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, but closer to the ideal of another snakebit sailor who had to rough it: Odysseus.
But their odds of success grew slightly longer when the unique and seemingly inexhaustible Boguslaw Paleczny — a Roman Catholic priest and a touring musician who appointed himself as the foreman of the project — died of a heart attack in June at the age of 50. The men say that his death has stiffened their resolve and that their tale will end up more Capra than Quixote with these forgotten members of Polish society circumnavigating the globe.
There will be room for only a dozen people on the voyage, including a professional captain. While some of the homeless men called it a lifelong dream, others said they preferred working on the ship to sailing the seas in it.
As a member of the Order of St. Camillus, Father Paleczny, who wore a typical black cassock marked with a red cross, ran an outdoor soup kitchen at the foot of Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science in downtown Warsaw, a free clinic at the end of an underground train platform at the main station, and the St. Lazarus home (which employees said he refused pointedly to call a homeless shelter).
Father Paleczny also made money as a professional musician, which included a tour of the United States by car, stopping mostly at Polish parishes. He had even bought with his own money the two brick buildings that became St. Lazarus and signed them over to the order.
“After setting up the home, Father Boguslaw realized these people didn’t have any goals for the future, they didn’t have any dreams,” said Adriana Porowska, 31, who worked at the home as a social worker and has been running it since Boguslaw Paleczny’s death. “If you asked them what they’ll be doing in a year, they have no idea.”
The idea to build a ship first came to Father Paleczny while he was hospitalized with tuberculosis three years ago. After talking with a sailor bunking beside him, Father Paleczny contacted the author of a shipbuilding book in September 2006 and asked if he would donate plans for the homeless men to build a boat.
“When you walk into the mission premises, well, they have good conditions there, but the men, they walk around, they seem lost,” said Bogdan Malolepszy, 74, the author he contacted. “So I drew this design, and they started building it.”
For now, instead of skimming the open blue waters of the Baltic Sea, the prow of the ship faces a tattered blue tarp here in Warsaw. On a recent afternoon on deck, one man used an anvil to hold down a strip of steel as his partner welded it into place.
“I would say that the quality is proper, correct, but there have been some minor hiccups,” said Andrzej Sobolewski, 64, the director of the Plock branch of the Polish Register of Shipping who is an inspector. “But with Mr. Malolepszy’s help we’ve been able to get over them, and we, for our part, have been trying to help with additional inspections.”
Mr. Malolepszy said, “It would have no chance in a regatta, but safety comes first, then comfort.”
The crew has changed over the nearly three years that the project has been under way. Some men have drifted away from St. Lazarus, and others have found work, including one at a shipyard in Norway. Two months ago, two men got jobs at a shipyard in Poland, but it seemed that they would return to the home as the economic crisis bit into orders there, said Ms. Porowska, the social worker.
“It’ll be one year soon,” Edmund Polkowski, 52, said with pride. “I spent time behind bars, and then you have to find your way somehow.”
The project has survived on a combination of Father Paleczny’s earnings, donations and sponsorships. He could not persuade anyone to give him the steel for the hull free, but he negotiated the price down to about 80,000 Polish zloty, a little more than $27,000.
When he needed nine tons of lead for the ship’s ballast, he called foundries in Poland asking for donations until one, the White Eagle Ironworks, agreed. There is a sign in the front of the shipyard for a paint company, Oliva, which gave them expensive specialty paint.
The project has gained momentum as the ship has grown. “The closer to the end of the building, the more offers for help we’re getting,” Ms. Porowska said, adding that it was now easier to get donations for the ship than to renovate the second brick building into a clinic.
Father Paleczny had planned to sell the name of the ship to a sponsor. Since his death, the men at the home have a different plan to honor their friend and benefactor.
“It will be all the more beautiful when it’s on the seas,” said Mr. Michalski, the welder who worked in the Lenin Shipyards, “and the sails are up, and it’s been christened on its maiden voyage, and it carries his name around the world.”
Michal Piotrowski contributed reporting..