Obituary: Bishop Alfred Abramowicz

FOR 35 years, Alfred Abramowicz headed a powerful Polish-American lobby group funnelling money into religious and charitable projects in his ancestral homeland. As National Executive Director of the Catholic League for Religious Assistance to Poland from 1960 to 1995 he had intimate knowledge of the Church in Poland as it fought back against the Communist regime to become the sponsor of the opposition.

The league supported religious publishing in and for Poland, the building of churches, the training of priests and supporting impoverished pilgrims to Rome.

Like many Catholic clerics of the older generation, Abramowicz had no qualms about untracked transfers of church funds in cash. The Church's extensive network of contacts helped transfer money into Poland reliably - out of the reach of the Polish state. When Abramowicz undertook his first trip in 1960 as a League representative, he brought $50,000 with him in $100 bills, causing quite a commotion at the customs desk at Warsaw airport. He handed that money over in person to the head of the Polish Church, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski.

Abramowicz's frequent visits brought him into close contact with the powerful Wyszynski and with the then Archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who would become Pope John Paul II in 1978. When Wojtyla visited the United States in 1969, Abramowicz was a key organiser of the future pope's programme.

Born to Polish immigrants as the only son in a family of six, Abramowicz was brought up in a tightly knit ethnic community where life centred around the church. He entered a junior seminary in his early teens, going on to a major seminary in Mundelein, Illinois.

Ordained priest in the Polish-dominated Archdiocese of Chicago in 1943, he spent six years in parish work before being sent to the Gregorian University in Rome. On his return he spent most of his time until his appointment as auxiliary bishop in 1968 on the marriage tribunal.

But Poland remained his core concern. From 1962 to 1966 he headed millennium commemorations in the archdiocese for Poland's adoption of Christianity. In the late 1970s he served with Cardinal John Krol as co-chairman of the National Czestochowa Trust Appeal, called into being to rescue the scandal-ridden shrine built in the Pennsylvanian town of Doylestown on the initiative of a Polish-born priest. Krol and Abramowicz viewed the shrine as a symbol of Polish pride and objected to investigations into the disappearance or embezzlement of up to $20m.

Abramowicz longed for and strongly urged the recovery of unity between Polish National and Roman Catholics in the United States. In 1987 he became a member of the dialogue commissioned by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops with the Polish National Catholic Church, which split from the Catholic Church at the beginning of the century.

As a clergyman with a strong attachment to his own ethnic community (which made up one-fifth of the American Catholic Church), he fostered the ethnic identity of other communities in the ethnically diverse American Church. As auxiliary bishop, he presided over the largest vicariate in the archdiocese, with 77 parishes under his care.

Alfred Leo Abramowicz, priest: born Chicago 27 January 1919; ordained priest 1943; National Executive Director, Catholic League for Religious Assistance to Poland 1960-95; Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago 1968-95; died Chicago 12 September 1999.