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POLISH HERITAGE AGLOW IN GREETING FOR BISHOP <br> CULTURAL CHANGE EVIDENT AS PRELATE IS 'HERE AT LAST'

A country and western band greets passengers in the Nashville airport.

Here, it's the Polish Heritage Dancers of Western New York -- at least if you're the son of Polish immigrants and the newest Catholic bishop of Buffalo.

The dancers -- nine children and three adults, all in traditional Polish performance garb -- serenaded Bishop Edward U. Kmiec with a rendition of "Sto Lat," conveying the sentiment "live to 100," on Monday afternoon in the lobby of Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The song -- "kind of like 'For He's a Jolly Good Fellow' in Polish," according to Kris Abramo, one of the singers -- delighted the travel-weary Kmiec.

"Thank you, you look so beautiful and wonderful," the bishop told the group.

He arrived from Nashville, where he had been prelate for a Tennessee diocese of about 70,000 Catholics. Upon his installation Thursday in St. Joseph's Cathedral, Kmiec will become the 13th bishop of Buffalo, overseeing 265 parishes and more than 700,000 Catholics.

He sounded relieved to have finally arrived.

"It's good to be in Buffalo. We're here at last," said Kmiec, who was named to the Buffalo post by the pope more than two months ago.

Kmiec met with reporters for about 40 minutes. He said he will keep a low profile until the installation Mass. Diocesan officials said he would preside Wednesday at an evening prayer service in St. Louis Church for priests of the diocese.

The bishop acknowledged that he was surprised by his appointment at age 68. Bishops are asked to retire when they turn 75.

"I thought perhaps I was getting on the older side and might have been past the time for a new assignment," said Kmiec, who served in Nashville for 12 years.

The Trenton, N.J., native has been a priest since 1961, and he served for 10 years as an auxiliary bishop in Trenton prior to the Nashville appointment.

While he acknowledged "the challenge of a larger diocese is there," Kmiec also suggested that it would be easier to adjust to this move than to his last one.

Trenton is similar to Buffalo. Both are old industrial cities with a heavily Catholic, ethnic presence, including a large population of Polish-Americans.

"There is a sense that, 'Yeah, I've got an idea of what it might be like here,' " said Kmiec, who also made some brief remarks in Polish.

But Kmiec said he would not make any assumptions about what to do in the diocese, preferring to develop a "pastoral strategic plan" with the help of many people.

He said he would rely on being himself and offering himself in friendship throughout the diocese, an approach he has taken in both Trenton and Nashville.

When asked whether he had prepared for a Buffalo winter, Kmiec smiled and mentioned how he was given a pair of cowboy boots upon his arrival in Nashville. Then he added, "You can't buy the kind of boots you need in Buffalo down in Nashville, I can tell you that."

Kmiec did not hesitate when queried on when he would begin the real work of the diocese.

"Friday morning," he said.

Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz, who has been overseeing the diocese as administrator for the last five months, described Kmiec as having "a lot of the spirit of a younger Pope John Paul II" in his ability to connect with people.

In addition to the Polish singers, Kmiec's arrival drew a handful of other Catholics and a horde of media.

Mary Pawlak-Metzler, who sang, along with her two children, said she was excited about the new bishop, the first of Polish heritage to head the Diocese of Buffalo.

"It's great representation in this area," she said. "There's a huge Polonia here."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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