Skip to comments.Journey of faith runs through R.I. (young Polish immigrant ordained to priesthood)
Posted on 06/06/2006 6:58:58 AM PDT by NYer
"In a way, because his own family is so far away, the people of the parish think of him as an 'adopted son' and are pleased to be considered part of his American family."
The Rev. Peter Gower, St. Mary of the Bay and St. Jean Baptiste
A series of seeming coincidences leads a boy in Poland to a parish in Rhode Island.
WARREN -- If it weren't for "the call," the Rev. Przemyslaw Lepak's life would be a world away.
Sitting in the St. Mary of the Bay parish house a week before his ordination to become a Catholic priest, Lepak, 27, said that in another life he would probably be a lieutenant in the Polish army. By now he'd be married and raising a flock of children, he said.
"I'd have a whole soccer team," joked Lepak, of Skarszewy, Poland, who is known affectionately as "Shemek," a nickname for men named Przemyslaw.
God, he said, had other plans.
"I got the missionary spirit," he said.
Lying prostrate on the floor before hundreds of family, friends, and clergy during a ceremony at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence, Shemek, along with the Rev. Carl Bertrand Fisette and the Rev. Gregory Paul Stowe, was ordained to the priesthood Saturday morning.
Choir voices soared while Shemek, through tears, donned vestments to signify joining the priesthood and laid hands on Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, his father, Henryk, sisters Iwona Lubecka and Beata Stolc, and his aunt Maria Blok. His family, who had never been on a plane, came from Poland to witness his ordination.
"I was crying the whole time," Shemek said. "It was the confirmation of God's decision."
The new priest celebrated his first Mass, at St. Mary of the Bay in Warren, on Sunday. He dedicated both ceremonies to his mother, Krystyna, who died in 1993 from complications from asthma.
"I felt that she was there ... just looking down," Shemek said.
His ordination is a sharp change from what could have been. Shemek was an athlete who played high school soccer and basketball in his hometown. Though active in his church from a young age, Shemek had applied to and was accepted into the Polish military academy. But during a ride home from the school after passing his entrance exams, he said, everything changed.
The call to priesthood is a hard thing for those who have experienced it to describe. Shemek says it's the feeling you get when you're sad and lonely. You want to be near your mother, someone whose presence brings comfort and inner peace.
The church symbolized that feeling for him. In that car ride, he realized the church is his "mother," his home.
"I got that feeling that God was offering me this opportunity to love and serve the people," he said.
Shemek, who has chosen to work in Rhode Island, has been assigned to St. Kevin Church in Warwick. He will take up his new post on July 1.
When Shemek began working at St. Mary of the Bay and St. Jean Baptiste as a summer assignment five years ago, it was a homecoming for him and the parishes, who both have the Rev. Peter Gower as their pastor.
"In a way, because his own family is so far away, the people of the parish think of him as an 'adopted son' and are pleased to be considered part of his American family," Gower said.
Shemek had good reason to feel at home. St. Mary, which was once the only Roman Catholic church in the area, housed parishioners from Poland, France, Italy and Portugal.
The ethnic groups in time grew large enough to support separate churches, and the Polish immigrants branched off and founded St. Casimir Church in 1908. When that church closed last fall, Father Gower welcomed the parishioners back to St. Mary of the Bay and to St. Jean Baptiste.
Many of the furnishings in St. Casimir's, such as the tabernacle and the chair from which the Rev. Matthew Strumski presided for 33 years, now adorn the two churches. Gower hopes that seeing the familiar accoutrements will bring comfort to St. Casimir's Polish parishioners.
"So there's that element of their church in our church," Gower said.
Gower has also invited Strumski to both churches for Christmas and Easter services and other church events in an effort to reach out to the St. Casimir family.
When Shemek arrived to work at St. Mary of the Bay and St. Jean Baptiste in the summer of 2001, most of the Polish parishioners where still at St. Casimir, which had not yet closed, but he still felt a kinship with the two church families.
"That was when my beginning started," Shemek said.
On a recent sunny afternoon at the St. Mary of the Bay parish house, Shemek sits with his family on the back porch.
Lubecka looks at her tall, curly-haired younger brother and shakes her head in disbelief.
"He's so cute and he wants to be a priest!" she says in Polish.
Stolc teases that her brother had "plenty" of girlfriends back home. He blushes. They're always teasing him, he says.
Despite briefly considering the army, Shemek's religious roots run deep. Two male relatives serve as Catholic priests, he said, and his mother instilled a deep love of the religion in the family.
Very Catholic and very religious, "she kept us all together," he said.
In their household, in a middle-class town with about 10,000 residents in northern Poland, Shemek's father worked for a dairy company, and his mother, who suffered from severe asthma, was a stay-at-home mom.
Sundays at home meant church at St. Michael the Archangel ("I don't remember any Sunday that we would miss") and spending time together as a family. On nice days they would have a picnic or barbecue outside, followed by a large family soccer game. Relatives young and old played, said Shemek. His father was the goalie and Lubecka was a forward. Shemek played every position.
"He was pretty good," Henryk said in Polish.
During the summers, Shemek and his sisters would live with their grandparents on their huge farm in the country. They'd swim in nearby lakes, and tend to the sheep, pigs, cows, horses and ducks.
To pass the time, the three would also hold sheep-riding tournaments, where they'd hop on the animals' backs and race to the "finish line," after getting them to run in a chosen direction.
"You just kick them in the ass," he said, laughing.
Throughout his childhood, Shemek's mother struggled with her illness. Lacking the means and the access to much-needed medicines, she spent two weeks in the hospital twice a year to receive medical treatment.
"It was hard," he remembers.
The church provided comfort, and Shemek cherished serving as an altar boy. He said he looked up to the priests who regaled him with stories about working abroad as missionaries and reprimanded him for misbehaving during religion class.
The priests also helped Shemek after his mother died, when he was in the eighth grade. The priests came to the hospital to be with the family and provided support during the funeral, he said.
In shock from the loss, Shemek said it was several days before he could fully comprehend his mother's death. When the grief hit, Shemek went to church to perform the altar service and ran into one of the priests who had provided his family comfort over the past few days.
Seeing that the 13-year-old was in pain, the priest held him.
"I was in tears; he was in tears," he said.
Shemek understood that the support he received was from priests doing their job. He began to see that job, providing comfort to those in need and helping them find solace in Christianity, as a worthy profession.
"I said to myself, that's probably what God wants me to do," he said.
Five years later, Shemek, who had applied to and was accepted to a seminary school in Pelplin and to the military academy in Torun, still couldn't decide which direction to take. During that car ride from the academy his path became clear, and he withdrew his application from the military school.
Henryk said he was surprised and stressed to learn that his only son, and the only person who could carry on the family name, had chosen the priesthood. Henryk also knew the personal and emotional toll involved in the spiritual journey his son would undertake.
"I'm still stressed," he said in Polish.
Henryk wasn't the only person caught off-guard by Shemek's decision. At the time, Shemek was engaged to Agnes, his high-school girlfriend. She cried when Shemek told her he wanted to be a priest. He cried, too.
"I was hurt," he said. In the end, Shemek said their directions weren't the same.
"The day I entered the seminary, I began my very special journey with Christ," he wrote in a profile for the Diocese of Providence.
At the seminary school in Pelplin, Shemek spent two years studying philosophy and working as a librarian. His path again was revealed to him when he came across a newspaper from Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary, a Polish school in Orchard Lake, Mich. Shemek remembered the stories of other priests who had served as missionaries in other countries, and something clicked.
"That was something exciting for me and interesting," he said.
After getting permission from his rector, he transferred to the seminary and, speaking no English, the young student was on his way to America.
Getting his first glimpse of the states during a layover in New York City in August 2000, Shemek was bombarded by a mix of races and cultures. It was a much different picture than in his home country, where 99 percent of the population is of Polish descent.
He also remembered passersby speaking English so quickly it seemed to Shemek as if they were saying one long word.
"I will never get it," he said to himself.
At Saints Cyril and Methodius, he took English classes and learned about American history, culture and religious customs. His English came slowly, and in his first few months he would ask "who are you?" instead of "how are you?".
At the Michigan school, he befriended the Rev. Marek Kupka, who was then a deacon and is now an assistant pastor at St. Francis de Sales Church in North Kingstown. Kupka, who was living in Providence, invited Shemek to spend the Christmas holiday with him. He also showed Shemek the different Catholic churches in the area.
Drawn to the welcoming nature and diversity of the people, as well as the beaches, Shemek soon fell in love with the state.
"It's just beautiful," he said, "the variety of people, the seashore, the education of the people."
For the past five years, Shemek has spent every summer at different churches in Rhode Island. After he was ordained as a deacon in Providence last May, he preached Mass, visited hospitals, and performed baptisms and First Communions at St. Ann in Providence.
The summer before, Shemek completed a five-week training program at Rhode Island Hospital through St. Brendan's Church in Riverside. There he attended to the sick and the dying, much like the priests back home comforted his family when his mother was sick.
"When I see the suffering of the people, I realize how much they need us," he said. Shemek hopes to continue volunteering part-time at the hospital.
In 2003, Shemek lead a children's Bible-study class at the Immaculate Conception Church in Westerly, and served food at soup kitchens with St. Joseph Church in North Scituate the summer before that.
But it was his first summer in Rhode Island at St. Mary of the Bay and St. Jean Baptiste where he felt at home. The guidance of Father Gower, the friendship of sacristan David McLaughlin, and the parish's hospitality provided a great comfort for the young Polish seminarian who spoke little English.
"I felt from the beginning that I was adopted," he said of his new church family.
As a daily English lesson, Gower had Shemek read passages from the Bible to the parish every day. Shemek had no clue what he was saying.
McLaughlin, who was in charge of setting up the altar and managing the altar servers, took Shemek under his wing.
"I think he took me under his," McLaughlin said.
Shemek considers McLaughlin to be his adopted father. When Shemek was ordained as a deacon, he sat in the front row, a space normally reserved for family.
Throughout his other summer assignments, Shemek kept coming back to St. Mary of the Bay, for dinners at parishioners' houses, and for baptisms and Christmas and Easter dinners. Shemek likes to say that while Father Kupka made him come to Rhode Island, Father Gower made him stay.
"I'm supposed to be here. The people brought me here," he said.
Our parish adopted a Polish seminarian several years back. We finally got to see him ordained last Saturday. His mother, sister, brother in law and some friends were here from Poland. He celebrated his first Mass at our church. It was a beautiful moment for him and the church.
Praise God, a laborer for the vineyard.
What a great story of interaction between families, parishes, continents! God bless Father Lepak!
Another one from Poland ... do you suppose this is a growing trend?
I would certainly hope so. Our now former seminarian was ordained in the Diocese of Charleston (South Carolina). What a change from the climate in his native Poland!
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