POLISH SUNDAY IN NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE
At the end of the eighteenth century Poland was partitioned among Russia, Prussia and Austria and erased from the political map of the World. The dearest dream of generations of Polish people was to liberate their country. In order to achieve this goal many uprisings were organized, but all were unsuccessful. Canada's Sir Casimir Gzowski took part in one of these revolts. However, the Polish people never abandoned the idea of national freedom.
During the First World War, Polish immigrants in United States and Canada, led by Ignacy Paderewski, came up with the idea of forming a Polish Army in Canada. This project was discussed with the Canadian, French and American governments. Over twenty two thousands volunteer Polish soldiers trained in Niagara-on-the-Lake between 1917 and 1919. They were trained by Canadian officers in a programme paid by France. This army fought first in France, and later helped to liberate Poland after 123 years of enslavement. The nation's dream finally came true.
On the second Sunday of June each year the people of Niagara-on-the-Lake witness the arrival of representatives of Polish communities from Canada and United States including members of Canadian Parliament, Polish Consuls, Mayors of Niagara-on-the Lake and Niagara Falls, heads of Polish-Canadian and Polish-American organizations and veterans.
They come here to pay homage to those Polish soldiers, who being ready to fight for their country succumbed to the outbreak of deadly influenza during military training. They were buried in the St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery. Their graves provide a lasting memorial to this great patriotic enterprise.
This tribute is paid also to the people of Niagara-on-the-Lake, who provided these foreign soldiers with unprecedented social, cultural, material, medical and emphatic support while being stationed here and who contributed greatly to the cause of Poland's independence.
Members of local Women's Institute launched the regional relief campaign, conducted by Mrs. Elizabeth C. Ascher, the social activist and journalist, to help civilian population in war torn Poland. The community of Niagara-on-the-Lake was second only to Montreal in providing such help to suffering Poland.
Elizabeth Ascher, long time member of St.Mark's, was called the Angel of Mercy by Polish soldiers for the charity she provided to the soldiers of the Polish Army during the influenza outburst. She was later instrumental in the establishment of the Polish Military Cemetery on the grounds of the Catholic parish of St. Vincent de Paul as a final resting place for the Polish soldiers who perished during the epidemic. She remained the caretaker of this cemetery until she died in 1941.
Poland and Polish veterans trained in Niagara-on-the-Lake did not forget these extraordinary deeds. In 1922 Mrs. Elizabeth C. Ascher became the first Canadian civilian decorated with the Order of Polonia Restituta in recognition of her kindness towards the soldiers and her devotion to the Polish cause. It was considered to be the highest honour accorded to a foreigner by the government of the restored Poland. Elizabeth C. Ascher received this medal as a symbol of the deepest gratitude from the Polish Nation.
Elizabeth Ascher was awarded the Medal of Haller in 1923, and later, the Medal of Haller's Swords in 1925 at the request of veteran soldiers from America. The Polish Government also awarded her the Cross of Merit in 1934, and later, the Medal for Long Service in 1938 which was granted to mark the tenth anniversary of her being promoted to the rank of the Honorary Colonel of the Polish Army. In 1930 she became a life-long honorary vice-president of the Polish Army Veterans Association of America. She was also a life member of the Polish White Cross.
Every year, during the Polish Sunday, wreaths and flowers from the Polish community are placed on Elizabeth Ascher's resting place in St. Mark's Anglican Church cemetery.