Hundreds of grief-stricken Polish nationals packed into St Anthony’s Church yesterday morning for a service in memory of those who perished. The number of those wishing to pay their respects was so large many were unable to get into the building.
The Mass was celebrated by Fr Andrzej Kolaczkowski, who ministers to Belfast’s Polish community.
The names of those who lost their lives in the tragedy were read to the congregation at the start of the service.
While the heart-rending list was read, members of the congregation laid roses and carnations at an altar bedecked with a Polish flag and a picture of the late President, who was aged 60, and his wife.
Fr Kolaczkowski said the tragedy was hard to come to terms with.
“The loss of one person has a huge effect,” he said.
“But the loss of 96 people who also played an important role in Polish politics and Polish social life is very, very daunting.”
Parish priest Fr Stephen McBrearty said local people attending St Anthony’s have a great deal of sympathy for their Polish counterparts.
“Many of our own parishioners are heartbroken,” he said.
“Many know the pain of loss and it was wonderful to see the level of support being shown.”
Fr McBrearty said up to 200 Polish nationals attend a special Polish Mass every Sunday morning at St Anthony’s.
Yesterday’s Mass followed a vigil at Belfast City Hall on Saturday evening.
Maciek Bator, director of the Polish Association of Northern Ireland, said Polish people living in the province are devastated.
He said: “We Polish people living in Northern Ireland are devastated and shocked by the unimaginable tragedy that touched the Polish nation.
“The tragic deaths of the Polish president and his wife and the representatives of the Polish ruling elite have left us deeply saddened.
“In these painful moments, we would like to show our solidarity with the Polish nation, families of the victims, their relatives and friends.”
Justyna Samolyk, also of the |Polish Association, who lives in Belfast, said the community was in deep shock.
“He (Kaczynski) was a great man — he devoted his life for Poland and was very active in the Solidarity movement,” she said. “He was really popular, so a tragedy like that was really moving.”
Similar memorial services took place across the UK yesterday.
Thousands attended services in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff.
A two-minute vigil took place in Poland, with people standing in silence while church bells and police sirens were sounded. A week of mourning has been declared.
The President had been travelling from Warsaw with a number of top Polish military brass and some of the country’s leading historians to Russia to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre of 20,000 Poles by Soviet forces during World War II.
It is believed the plane struck trees in dense fog before crashing to the ground as it approached Smolensk airport.