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Biskupice

Biskupice is a village on the south side of the Gielczew river, on the main road from Lublin to Wlodawa shortly after Piaski. The land near the river is meadows, but to the south it is slightly undulating open arable land. This used to be a town but now it is a village, it had town rights between 1450 and 1869, but they were taken away because of the 1863 National Uprising. The street plan and the possession of a central rynek (market square) indicates even on a map that it was once a town, and the fact that the roads have names confirms it. The day we visited was the fourth Sunday in September, which was the odpust (saint's day) for the local church.

Biskupice is quite accessible as it lies on the railway line between Lublin and Chelm, and is our preferred method of getting there. The Lublin - Chelm is a local line with some industrial use such as from the cement works near Chelm. There are two types of train you are likely to encounter; single and double decker. The single decker are quite normal, if a bit run down and well used by graffiti artists and the door opening and closing is automated. The double decker buses are usually painted a dark green as if they were waiting call up by the Soviet forces. On the lower level you are at a height to observe shoe fashion at stations with raised platforms, while on the upper level you have a good view across the country reminiscent of old Canadian trains. The windows on the top deck are vertical at the bottom and then lean in for the top half - and almost always dirty! The seats are particularly unergonomic so it is lucky they are generally used for local routes. As the doors are manually opened, and are of the sliding type, it is quite possible to stand at the open doors on a nice day so long as the conductor doesn't catch you. Despite being a day with few trains, the train's departure from Lublin was still two minutes late.

Biskupice's railway station is some distance from the centre of the village, and my theory is that to save putting in a small cutting between two shallow valleys they placed the station at the highest point to take advantage of the slope to slow the trains into the station. Anyway, that is the theory I developed while standing on the tracks while waiting for the train to come. The station is located by the Piaski - Wlodawa road, and the bridge over the railway conceals Biskupice, so the station master was not surprised when we asked him for directions. The station itself is quite basic and reeking of the late 1960's, the waiting room no longer has glass in the windows and is home to the local lads when the station master is off duty. There was an empty can of beer standing neatly by the door in the waiting room when we were there.

We took a short cut across a field and joined the road into the village on the south side of the river. Here there were some newer housing plus some Communist era buildings including a large 'Dom Handlowy' (a general store). Outside was one car, three bicycles and a drunk a little unsteady on his feet. Whoever was behind this building obviously had delusions of grandeur as it is far too big for such a village, and located too far from the center. Even in these days where goods are easy to come by they have problems displaying things, in the time of shortages in the 1980's it must have resembled a small and empty warehouse. It was poorly constructed and decked out in the typical yellowy cream for the walls and dark brown for the metalwork and door frames - really depressing. The floors were tiled, but when repairs have been done that necessitated lifting some tiles then the tiles have been put back in a really amateurish way. The lower floor was divided into two, to the left was food and drink, and to the right household goods. The range of goods was limited, as one would expect for an agricultural community of this size, but included flowers and vases for cemetery use. The upstairs part was locked off, but presumably was intended for clothes and furniture. This place should not be missed if you want to experience life in Communist Poland!

Near the Dom Handlowy we saw our first party of drinkers under a tree, this is a very common sight near such shops, even though these days Biskupice does sport a bar with billiards. Almost next to the drinkers tree was quite a large kapliczka (roadside shrine) of rendered brick construction with an unusual concrete saint. Even more unusual was the complete absence of any flowers, even of the plastic kind. All there was was a small metal crucifix in front of the statue that looked like it had first fallen off something else. On the other side of the road was an old railway carriage which someone was using as a shed.

The road winds on past several houses and small farms, including another small shop, until the river is reached. The Gielczew river flows lazily through a wide and flat bottomed valley, there are several ponds and small lakes and much damp meadowland. The main part of the village starts on the other side of the river where the land is a little higher. One of the ponds has a rubbish container next to it, and the pond is full of rubbish and has been partly filled in with dumped building rubble. From here we could here the sound of fireworks, so we knew that the Odpust fair was well under way.

There was a fine two storey wooden building on the left which was home to the local nagrobki (monumental masons). By the front door was a small shelf with half a dozen examples of the types of stone one could choose to have ones grave made of. Outside the front of the next house was the smallest post office we have yet seen in Poland, and on the front was a plate showing it was a branch of the Trawniki post office. Beyond this was the coffin makers, so one could order a coffin, grave and inform ones friends all in the same corner of the village.

The village has many wooden buildings and some of brick, most cottages being only of a single storey construction. One typical style of the Trawniki region is using small brick sized pieces of limestone with red brick at all the corners and around the windows - a modern version of this is to use white brick instead of the limestone. Even in the center there were small farms, some with piles of aromatic manure but all with wooden or limestone barns one storey high. Most roofs of village buildings were of corrugated asbestos, sheet steel or if the owner was really short of money then asphalt, there were a few abandoned cottages without roofs and these were ones that were once thatched. Only one sadly decayed cottage still had the remnants of a thatched roof, yet once most of the buildings would have been thatched. At the edge of the rynek was a small brick built fire station, just large enough for one vehicle and a little storage.

At the top of the slope was the remains of a large rynek (market square). Since the loss of town rights there has been some encroachment of buildings but it still exists and is home to a very small weekly market. In the centre is a 1990's monument to the AK (partisan Home Army), in part of the former rynek that has been turned into a very small park. On a post there was a sign stating that on one Tuesday every month there would be someone there to buy rabbits, but only those of 5.5 lb (2.5 kg) and over and only between 9.30 and 10.30 in the morning.

The Odpust fair was full of stalls selling children's toys, and was located where the weekly fair is held, outside the front of the late Baroque church. This Odpust is one of the best we have seen, just a local event for locals. The most popular toys were guns, and the local kids were having wars around the rynek as we arrived. Despite the church mass going on there were 'bangers' going off every few seconds, these bangers were extremely popular with boys and available in various sizes - the largest were about 3 inches long and an inch in diameter, painted black with a white skull and crossbones. Along with the toys there was also wata cukrowa (candy floss) and szczypki. Szczypki is made from sugar and must be extruded in some way; ours were nicely uneven. The name comes from the word 'szczypać which means 'to pinch', called this because all that sugar makes you cough - pinching the throat. Szczypki does not seem to be made by any large company, much of what was on offer was locally made. Each stick is a different colour, but the brown was the best as it had a buttery flavour.

The church dates from the first half of the 18th century and has the typical twin Baroque towers, but otherwise the exterior is quite plain. This church replaces an earlier wooden one from the 15th century, and is in the name of St Stanislaw. St Stanislaw is a Polish saint who lived in the 10th century, and was killed during missionary work amongst the Prussians. This was convenient for the Polish branch of the Roman Catholic Church as it gave them a local saint, and because the Prussians chopped him up it saved the Church from doing so in order to distribute him around cathedrals and monasteries as 'relics'. Inside it has a main altar and four smaller side altars in the Rococo Baroque style, completely over the top inside an otherwise quite plain interior. The church is about 50 feet high, and the main altar almost brushes the ceiling with plenty of greeny veined marble and masses of gilt carving. The main altar picture is the type where a screen can be pulled down to conceal the sometimes valuable main picture. This one was of St Mikolaj (St Nicholas), which is unusual in a church dedicated to another saint, not that you could see much of it as it had gilt clothes added. The very name of the village comes from the word 'bishop', and there may be a link between this and the picture of St Mikolaj, who was an Italian bishop.

The side altars were similar in design to the main one, but in a brown veined stone. There had been a harvest festival recently and on some of these side altars were objects made of straw and corn, designed to be carried to the church from the fields. From the local village of Lysolaje there was one of a stable and another of an outline of Poland cut out of polystyrene and painted gold with a cross on top and corn around the base. From Struza there was a 2 foot high figure of a peasant woman made out of straw and another one of a small wagon.

Around the former graveyard wall are small altars, none of which are in use here these days. However, above one of them is a small cross and the words 'Tylko pod krzyza znakiem Polak bedzie Polakiem' (Only under the sign of the Holy Cross will a Pole be a Pole) - very religonistic! Behind the church is another Baroque building, a single storey priests house. Since 1980 the priests have had a new house, and the older building looks like it is only used for storage and is not in good condition. It also shows signs of being greatly extended as some of the interior looks much older than the 18th century exterior. Many people cycle in from the surrounding countryside to attend mass and there were bicycles parked everywhere: by the church wall and in friends gardens. One woman put her small child not in a child's seat on the back of her bike but a small basket that had only 3 inch high sides - she kind of wedged him in and I hope he didn't fall out!

Late for the mass, but just in time for the procession, three priests arrived in a silver 1.6 16 valve Astra. Odpust is a busy time as so many people want absolution and Holy Communion. They should have arrived much earlier, they were still pulling their white surplices on as they hurried to the church at the start of the procession. The Odpust mass is quite like the normal weekly mass and generally there is a guest priest to give the main sermon, and then at the end there is a procession. For the procession young boys and girls wear their First Communion clothes and carry things like huge rosaries. Village women, generally older ones, and some men carry the church's collection of choragwie (banners) and portable icons and behind this are the priests with the monstrancja. They went once around the church, followed by the congregation, and then back into the church. Also in the procession there was a local brass band, and they continued to play back in the church: what they lacked in finesse they certainly made up for in enthusiasm.  Many people have to stay outside because the church is simply too small to contain everyone, especially as family who live elsewhere also turn up for odpust. The final few minutes of the mass are quite noisy, with singing and the ringing of bells. 

There is a junior school in the village, one building from the 1960's and another which is quite recent. This indicates that unlike other villages elsewhere they are in no danger of losing their school. Next to the school is a pre-school based in a pre-war house. I don't know if this still functions as the grass was uncut and the many pieces of miniature playground equipment looked unused and there was several piles of builders rubbish were the children should play.

There were a lot of cats in the village too, most of them quite thin. None of them would come up to you, they would just peer warily at you to see if you looked friendly or not and kept their distance. If you lifted your arm they disappeared rapidly and so it is not hard to deduce the cause of their wariness - locals throwing stones at them. There were also many chickens, ducks and geese around. 

The village had very little in the way of real business, other than agriculture and other village services, but there was one company that was relatively large and had its finger in many pies: it sold coal, cement, steel sheet and rod, bricks, pipes, roofing, tiles as well as having a general transport service. It even had a sideline in scrap metal as there was an old Fiat 126p on its side in the compound. Elsewhere in the village we saw an old barn being converted into a garage, the floor was concreted and a pit installed, and a forecourt area hard surfaced.

One street off the rynek is 'Mila' (pleasant) street. At the end of this was a little green with one of the nicest little wooden cottages in the whole village, owned by a little old hunchbacked lady. This was the best end of the village, even if it did have a cockerel running desperately around. Another timber house had a large veranda and all the walls were covered with tobacco leaves hung up to dry. This was once a common sight in Poland, but becoming quite rare as most cigarette companies prefer to do it themselves. There was also a well, one of many still in use in the village, we looked down and there was about a thirty foot drop to the water. They were using a wire cable and there was a nice and shiny galvanized bucket hanging from it. The well was lined with concrete rings, as so many of them are now as they require a lot less maintenance, but the roller was still made of wood and the handle locally made. This road, as with quite a few in the centre, was tarmaced but many of the side roads had nothing better than a loose, black cinder surface, or no surface at all.


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