LOWELL — The air inside the basement hall was warm and smelled of potatoes, farmer's cheese, and onions. From her position at the end of a long table, Pauline Golec scooped up the filling of Polish pierogies and helped mold them into neat balls.
It was Thursday morning at Holy Trinity Polish Church's parish center on High Street and Golec and other volunteers were preparing Polish dumplings for the church's annual Polish Food Festival. The event will be held at the enter on May 18.
Golec, of Dracut, and others seated at the table talked about anything and everything. There were a few men in the room, but women dominated the space. Several volunteers said mostly everyone there had a connection to Poland, whether directly or through their ancestry.
"It makes me feel happy," Golec said of contributing to the festival. "In some way, it's a connection to my parents, to my grandparents, to the tradition that I come from."
This is just one facet of Golec's decades-long contribution to the city of Lowell. The retired teacher helped found the Lowell Polish Cultural Committee in 1981 and currently chairs the Lowell Festival Foundation Scholarship Committee, which awards scholarships that acknowledge the contributions of the ethnic-food providers at the Lowell Folk Festival. Just the day prior, Golec was at the Tsongas Industrial History Center, teaching fourth-graders about the immigrant experience through a program called "Yankees and Immigrants."
Because of her work, Golec has been named one of the "Lowell 100" — a group of individuals being honored Wednesday evening by the International Institute of New England at Lowell Memorial Auditorium.
The International Institute sought nominations from the community of individuals who have championed refugees and immigrants in Lowell.
"I am honored and humbled," Golec said. "I'm accepting this honor on behalf of so many fine folks that I've worked with either in the Polish community or at the Folk Festival."
According to IINE President and CEO Jeff Thielman, this is a first for the International Institute.
"We want to celebrate our 100th anniversary and we want to do it in a way that thanks the city of Lowell for being so welcoming to immigrants and refugees," he said.
A group of women from Lowell and the surrounding area founded the International Institute in 1918.
"I think the International Institute of New England is a sort of lifeline for refugees arriving in this city," said Emma Tobin, the IINE's Lowell program director & director of research initiatives and impact assessment. "For many, many families who arrive here, we're literally the first people they meet in the United States when they get off an airplane."
Tobin said the International Institute offers many services for newly arrived refugees and immigrants, including helping with resettlement for refugees through the United States Refugee Admissions Program.
According to Thielman, the honorees making up the Lowell 100 (some of whom are deceased) all have a way of welcoming people from all over the world to Lowell. Among them are arts & culture leaders, civic leaders, and revitalization leaders.
"They themselves, in many cases, have been foreign-born people who have made a difference in the community," Thielman said of the honorees.
Gordon Halm, executive director of the African Community Center of Lowell, is one such honoree. Born and raised in Winneba, Ghana, Halm founded the African Festival in Lowell back in 2000. The Dracut resident said he was very moved upon hearing that he had been selected.
"I was very, very humbled because I know greater people have come ahead of me and done hard work, I would say," Halm said. "For me to be part of them and among the chosen few, I was very humbled."
Another honoree is Safeena Niazi, a Lowell resident who is originally from Afghanistan. Niazi, 35, works as an interpreter for the International Institute and dreams of working in human resources. She didn't expect the honor.
Maria Cunha, a program director at Middlesex Community College, is another Lowell 100 honoree. Her family immigrated to Lowell's Back Central Portuguese neighborhood from the Azores in the late 1960s and she served as an IINE case worker for more than a decade.
Cunha said she was honored to be recognized, but wanted to acknowledge others who she said made it possible for her to do this work, including her parents.
"Having worked there and knowing the work that they do is amazing,"
Cunha said. "One hundred years and they're still serving immigrants in the city. "
Back at the Holy Trinity Polish Church's parish center, Dracut resident Anna Szczechura was folding pieces of dough over the pierogi fillings. She waswere nominated by Golec to be part of the Lowell 100. For years, the couple has worked to serve both the Polish community of Lowell and the community at large.
Asked how she felt about being in the Lowell 100, the 86-year-old Szczechura said was naturally honored.
"But I don't know... I feel that there are probably other people that would have been better chosen," said Szczechura, chuckling slightly. "But it is what it is, and I have to accept it."
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