Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 10, 2007
Fr. Joe was the hitchhiker priest
50 years ago, with no car in a rural parish, he had to find his own way.
By RAMON GONZALEZ
"I just blessed him and his car because at that time I did not know how to curse in English,"
But Leszczynski, the pastor of St. Clare's Parish for the past 11 years, is not complaining. He loves his vocation and believes he is still in good enough health to serve. On the other hand, he is afraid if he retires the parish might close.
"What keeps me here is the people and the fear that this parish might become like other parishes of the past," he says. "If I knew there is a priest coming here, I would thank the people (and leave)."
Leszczynski serves about 350 Catholics families in the Beverley area and for the past two years he has also been ministering to the rapidly growing Sudanese Catholic Community.
"Father Joe is very much loved in this parish but he is modest and doesn't want the recognition," said St. Clare's secretary Laura Walker. "He is very open, very easy going and makes everyone feel important. He never puts down anybody. He is a great priest."
Lori Butchart, a St. Clare's parishioner for 17 years, depicts Leszczynski as an extraordinary priest, totally dedicated to the service of God and his people. She said the fact Leszczynski has been at it for so long is outstanding.
"He is definitely a man of God," Butchart said. "If I had to use one word to describe him I would use the word conviction because he is solid, not wishy-washy."
Leszczynski was born in Poland in 1931 and together with his parents and three brothers he spent two years in a Soviet concentration camp in Siberia as a young boy. He was just nine years old and attended school in the camp.
"They wanted to make me a communist," he recalled. The Leszczynski family, along with thousands of Polish prisoners, was released in 1942. They left for Persia, where they lived for some time.
Shortly after, Leszczynski enrolled in the Polish Army as "a young soldier" but never saw combat as he was too young to fight. In 1947 the family reunited in England and two years later they immigrated to Canada.
Leszczynski studied English at St. Joseph's High School, where he pondered whether to become a chemical engineer or a priest. He saw a need for priests but wasn't sure until a priest friend of the family encouraged him to consider the priesthood. He did and enrolled at St. Joseph Seminary.
A year later, in 1952, at the request of a visiting Polish bishop, Leszczynski moved to Rome to complete his priestly studies at the Gregorian University. The idea was for him to be ordained in Poland and serve there.
But his return to Poland became impossible because of the political situation so he was sent back to Canada to serve the Polish Catholic community here. He was ordained at Holy Rosary Church in 1957.
Since his ordination Leszczynski has served in at least 10 parishes - beginning in Tofield, where he served from 1958 to 1960.
After two years in the Tofield-Holden area, Leszczynski served in rural places like Clandonald, Mundare, Viking, Provost and Vegreville and in several Edmonton parishes, including St. Patrick's, St. Edmund's and St. Agnes. He has been at St. Clare's since 1996.
Leszczynski can't remember ever missing Mass or cancelling a Mass on Sunday for any reason, except travel, and it pains him to see that many people nowadays take the Sunday Eucharist lightly.
One time he and his assistants were the only ones to show up at a Sunday service following a heavy snowstorm. "I locked the church and said, 'Lord, you know I was here.'"
Every human being goes through ups and downs and Leszczynski is no exception. His priesthood has had its share of difficulties and challenges but he decided from the beginning to stick with it.
Once, after two of his friends had left the priesthood, his mother said to him, "I heard that you might be thinking of leaving the priesthood." Leszczynski replied: "You know mom, there is this passage in the Scriptures which says 'Once you lay your hands on the plow, don't turn back.'"
Challenges aside, the priesthood has been rewarding and fulfilling for Leszczynski. "Probably the greatest joy has been to see people responding to the love of God and seeing them at the Mass," he said.
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