ASHTON — A converted convent in Sherman County is drawing visitors from across the state as part of the 2017 Nebraska Passport Program.

The convent, once home to seven nuns, is now home to the Polish Heritage Center in Ashton, which is one of 80 stops on the passport tour.

The Polish Heritage Center has been taking donations from people across the United Sates since the center officially opened in 2000, museum Manager Phyllis Piechota said. Those donated items stuff the six small main level rooms and three basement level rooms of the center.

Musical instruments line the floor of what was once a bedroom, trinkets fill the front gift shop and polka music hums in the back library where a large banner adorned with a picture of Pope Paul shares the walls with old family portraits of the Beskis, Pawloskis and Baduras, to name a few.

Visitors may also rifle through the many genealogy books and old newspapers stored in the library. In the main display room, tourists are taken back in time with art and hand-beaded costumes from the homeland, and old kitchen utensils and dining ware donated by Polish families.

Piechota especially treasures the art pieces, particularly the mosaics made of amber grain, straw carved pictures and hand-painted eggs, also known as pisanki.

“You know, I come here so often and there’s always something that I don’t remember seeing because there’s just so many different things,” she added.

Another art piece, carved figures dining during the wigilia, is a representation of Piechota’s favorite family memories. The wigilia is a 12-course meatless dinner that Ashton community members have every other year on the first Sunday in December. A narrator takes diners through the significance of each course, Piechota said, which includes fish prepared in different ways, vegetables, elaborate desserts and a beet soup, known as borscht.

Because the Polish Heritage Center is overflowing with artifacts and family memorabilia, the center’s board members have built a 100-foot by 60-foot building near the current heritage center to house the items.

“We just didn’t have enough room,” Piechota said. “You know, things are situated in places where you can’t get around easy enough to really enjoy it.”

Half the cost of the new $257,000 building is paid, board treasurer Judene Jakubowski said, but that figure doesn’t include the $7,000 for landscaping and plumbing and the additional expense for carpeting and floor tiles. She said the board is installing the flooring. Piechota said when the artifacts are moved to the new building by next spring, the board hopes to sell the current building.

Jakubowski said the remaining cost of the new building was paid with a loan, and the board is continually fundraising to defray that cost. One of their largest fundraisers is the Polish Fest every September. She said the board also received generous donations and memorial funds.

Piechota said it’s important to keep the Polish heritage of Ashton and its surrounding communities alive.

“I think that’s one of the ways we can keep the customs and traditions of the Polish people relevant because this whole area of central Nebraska was settled by the Polish and the Germans,” she said. “And so I think it’s just important for our children to remember how this got settled and why we are here.”

According to the 2000 census, Sherman County was home to the most Polish descendants per capita, Polish Heritage Center board member Larry Molczyk said.

Molczyk also believes knowing one’s heritage is important.

“I think you have to understand where you came from to know where you’re going,” he said. “If one has a sense of where they came from, it’s a root, it’s part of their rootedness, which positively or negatively identify themselves and move forward.”

That history is on display for all to enjoy in Ashton, and the Nebraska Passport Tour is helping to bring it center stage. Piechota said about 150 people had their passports stamped at the center in May. The number of visitors nearly equals Ashton’s population of 189.

“The wonderful thing about the passport, I think, is the fact that people find out there’s so many areas they ordinarily wouldn’t visit because there’s really not a lot to offer,” she said. “And so with this we’d never have so many people without it.”

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