WILMINGTON – St. Hedwig Parish found out during Holy Week that it would not be able to host its annual Polish Festival on the Wilmington riverfront this year, but a member of the committee that works year-round on the event said it will be back.
“We’re alive and well,” said Ed Lipka, a spokesman for the committee. “We’re going to be somewhere.”
Lipka, a lifelong member of the parish in Wilmington’s Browntown neighborhood and a graduate of the parish school, said the committee understands why the Riverfront Development Corp. and the Delaware Stadium Corp. had to make this decision. The riverfront is in the midst of significant development, with two hotels being constructed, and various road projects under way to improve access.
The construction requires space for materials and staging of equipment, and there was no way for St. Hedwig’s to have access to the property for the September event. The tents arrived a few days before the festival opened, and it took the committee another couple of days to get everything cleaned up afterward, so it was more than just the six days the event was running.
Lipka said the parish holds no ill will toward the RDC.
“We were caught off-guard, but we understand. We’ve been treated extremely well. We have no animosity,” he said.
This would have been the 63rd annual festival, which, he added, makes it the longest-running ethnic festival in the city of Wilmington. According to Lipka, who once wrote a history of the event, it began as more of a bazaar in the streets around the church, and the food wasn’t primarily Polish, even if the vibe was.
“We were just trying to spread our Polish culture. It was a way to evangelize and to spread our faith and our heritage,” he said.
As it grew, it got longer and moved from September to May.
“We decided to move it back to September because May was always too doggone rainy for us,” he said.
Around 2006, they moved to the waterfront, and the city was trying to attract more people to the site. The RDC, led by Mike Purzycki – now Wilmington’s mayor – invited St. Hedwig’s to move from the neighborhood. Lipka said it was an opportunity for the festival to grow, which it has, and a way to help secure the future of the event.
He said the relationship between the parish and the RDC and Delaware Stadium Corp. is a good one, and they hope to return to the riverfront if possible. Construction on a bridge and roads is expected to continue through the fall of 2020, so the situation will take some time to sort out.
“They want us back there at some point,” Lipka said.
Once the news was made public in late April, the committee heard from others in the area suggesting alternate sites. The members also are doing their homework for the future. In the meantime, Lipka said they will be doing some smaller events to help fill the revenue gap that will be created. Some possibilities are picnics and perhaps working with other parishes on events, he said.
“We don’t know. We’re exploring those opportunities. We’re going to see this as one-door-closes, one-door-opens opportunity,” he said.
For 2019, at least, volunteers won’t have to prepare 100,000 pierogies, along with kielbasa, galumpkis and chrusciki. But, as Lipka learned as a child, the stay is only temporary.
“My grandfathers both came from Poland, and what I learned from them was their desire to be determined. It’s a never-die situation. Whenever something needs to be done at St. Hedwig, people step forward.”