Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
June 1, 2009
This gentle shepherd has tended the sick and dying for 25 years
Fr. John Nowakowski
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — For a quarter century his quiet presence brought comfort to the sick and the dying at the Edmonton General Hospital. Now 77 and a bit frail, Father John Nowakowski makes his rounds around the confessionals at St. Joseph’s Basilica, bringing comfort to those seeking forgiveness.
He has been serving the Lord for five decades and the occasion didn’t go unnoticed. Family, friends, almost 20 priests and deacons as well as hundreds of parishioners gathered at St. Joseph’s Basilica May 25 to mark Nowakowski’s 50th anniversary of priestly service.
CELEBRATION OF 50 YEARS SERVICE
Archbishop emeritus Joseph MacNeil presided at the Mass and Msgr. Felix Otterson, a longtime friend of Nowakowski, gave the homily. The Knights of Columbus, dressed in their best regalia, did an honour guard for him.
Nowakowski joined the Edmonton Council of the Knights of Columbus in 1959 and became a fourth degree knight in 1975.
Words such as “faithful” and “steady” were used to describe his life of service.
Born the oldest of five on a farm near Vermillion, Nowakowski learned to be attentive to God as a child. His family would pray together regularly and attended Mass weekly, driving five miles every Sunday to St. Andrew’s Church, just north of Vermillion. He attended school at Mary Lake, Rusylvia and Clandonald.
At Clandonald High, a school ran by the Sisters of St. Joseph’s of London, Nowakowski learned about his faith and started seriously thinking about religious life. In an interview, he said the school had a big influence in his decision to become a priest.
The priests he had met along the way also played a role. They were kind and faithful and Nowakowski admired them, dreaming of being like them one day.
In 1948 he met the newly ordained Otterson, who visited the Clandonald School when Nowakowski was in Grade 10. He was impressed.
Nevertheless, Nowakowski headed for the University of Alberta, not the seminary, after high school graduation. In one year he got a teaching license and went to teach near Vermillion.
But the thought of serving God as a priest would not leave his mind. How could he ignore it? In those years religious life was an attractive vocation and many young men and women said ‘yes’ to God. In fact, his best high school friend, Joseph McGuckin, had already joined the Scarboro Missionaries.
In 1953, at age 21, Nowakowski went into the seminary. He was ordained in Clandonald May 28, 1959 by Archbishop Anthony Jordan. His first assignment was a two-month stint as assistant pastor at St. John the Evangelist Parish. Over the years he also served in Tofield and at Immaculate Heart Parish in Edmonton and again at the cathedral. For a time he also served as chaplain at St. Joseph’s Auxiliary Hospital. Then in 1968 he became chaplain of the Edmonton General Hospital, where he would spend the next 25 years.
That was the ministry that defined Nowakowski. His quiet presence and caring nature made him ideal for the position. That’s why MacNeil, who became archbishop in 1973, would not dare transfer him. “I talked with others and they all said, ‘this is where he belongs,’” the archbishop recalled in an interview. “He was a good chaplain; he liked it and he was well liked. He was a very good friend of the medical staff.”
Nowakowski’s day as a chaplain would begin at 6:30 a.m., when he would go around giving communion to the patients before saying Mass at the chapel. He would then visit some of the patients. And he was always on call because he lived close to the hospital. Many times Nowakowski had to get up in the middle of the night to give the last rites to a dying person. “The ambulance would come and you have to be ready for them,” he recalled.
Nowakowski retired from the General in 1993 and lives at the basilica, where he hears confessions and assists at Masses.
A QUICK RETORT
Asked if he has been happy as a priest, Nowakowski was quick to reply: “Would I have been around for 50 years if I wasn’t happy?”
In an interview and in his homily, Otterson, who has known Nowakowski for 61 years, described the priest as “faithful, committed and reliable.”
“He is a good priest—dependable and extremely faithful,” Otterson said. “If he says he is going to do something, he will do it. He has a tremendous fidelity to his work.”
Otterson also described Nowakowski as a gifted graphoanalyst, who for decades has analyzed handwriting for the police and the University of Alberta. Once he analyzed Otterson’s writing and told him, “You are impatient.” That was the last time Otterson showed him his handwriting.