If Polish credit union industry officials succeed, a Polish credit union pioneer may become the very first credit union saint.
Franciszek Stefczyk taught school in the Polish countryside and is credited with starting Poland's first credit unions in the early 20th century, none of which survived World War II and the subsequent Soviet-dominated period.
"Dr. Stefczyk, who has been referred to as the ‘Polish Raiffeisen,' was an ardent Christian, a great Polish patriot and a pioneer of rural cooperative credit unions," said Janusz Ossowski, president of Poland's Cooperative Research Institute. "He was a person of wonderful qualities of spirit and mind whose entire life bears testimony to the belief that the rules of business can be reconciled by the Gospel if those rules are based on true values and the idea of helping one's neighbor."
Beatification, often years in the making, is based on specific criteria established by the Roman Catholic Church. In December, World Council First Vice Chair Grzegorz Bierecki, president/CEO of the National Association of Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions and a senator in Poland's parliament, nominated Stefczyk for beatification to Rev. Mieczysław Mokrzycki, archbishop of Lvov. Mokrzycki accepted the request, expressed his support and pledged to take further action based on the church's canonization laws.
"Franciszek Stefczyk was an eminent personality, setting the example for Poles," Bierecki said. "He was a man who, through his personal example, showed how the Gospel can be put into practice, and he deserves canonization."
But deserving or not, the effort's possible success cannot be taken for granted, according to Father Ireneusz Skubis, a Polish priest who wrote about the effort in a Polish Catholic weekly in May 2011. Skubis made the point that not only did the research into Stefczyk's life need to be meticulous and extremely thorough, the final step to beatification cannot be taken without the church attributing a miracle to Stefczyk's intercession.
“ I am personally certain that the man who really wanted to bring a relief to the poor by creating famous Stefczyk Fund, which would weaken the usury and which wanted to give fair life to the poor and he also gave his life, which he devoted to the poor, to God,” Skubis wrote. “It is proved, among the others, by obituaries after his death and funeral. Telling about this event, I want to note that it would be good if Poland had a new Blessed man who is so particularly connected with the human poverty."
"Today, when we are also so often emigrating in the quest of a better life, Franciszek Stefczyk could be a valuable patron for us, giving an example of a beautiful and a particular love to our neighbor–this imagination of mercy for which John Paul II appealed.”
The effort might be helped, however, because of preserved records and memories from early Polish credit union history. Grzegorz Buczkowski, leader of the Cooperative Savings and Credit Union Mutual Insurance Company, the Polish equivalent of CUNA Mutual Insurance, recalled some of how credit unions began.
“There was a very strong tradition of cooperative finance in pre-World War II Poland, going back to the 19th century,” Buczkowski explained in a 2009 article. “Small farmers and laborers at that time suffered from being unable to access the financial services they needed, and the answer–as elsewhere in Europe–was a cooperative one. Poland 's co-ops had their own inspirational leader, whose role was comparable to that played in Germany by Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen.
“Franciszek Stefczyk was a country teacher who became the organizer and chief apostle of financial cooperatives, both in the time when Poland was partitioned and after it regained its independence in 1918. The financial cooperative movement grew to include over 3500 local institutions, the vast majority of which were based in rural areas, serving close to 1.5 million members,” Grzegorz said.
But he also noted that that all changed with World War II, not only from the fighting but also, after the war, the new communist government nationalized the cooperatives and combined them with the state savings bank.