Archive for March 6th, 2018

The Life & Works of Fr. Joe Walijewski

March 6, 2018

Five years ago this week, our own Bishop William Callahan announced the opening of the cause for the beatification and canonization of Father Joseph Walijewski, a priest of our diocese who lived from 1924 to 2006. On May 27th, a ceremony at our cathedral will mark the close of our diocese’s investigation into his life and the submission of his cause to the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Father Joe was one of ten children born to poor Polish immigrant parents in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Growing up during the Great Depression, he pitched in to help the family survive by selling newspapers. He only spoke Polish at that time, but he knew he would have to learn English to be successful, and he did just that.

After finishing his Catholic schooling in Grand Rapids, he came to Wisconsin to attend seminary in Milwaukee. Like many young people, he struggled with his studies, but he set to his task of learning Latin, Greek, and his other courses. His superiors thought he lacked ability. In his own words, Fr. Joe recalled, “I was deficient in my studies but I remained determined.” The young seminarian promised the Lord to commit five years of his priesthood to working in the missions if he could pass his courses. La Crosse’s fourth bishop, Alexander McGavick, saw potential in the young man and welcomed him to join our diocese. On April 16, 1950, he was ordained in our cathedral in La Crosse by our fifth bishop, John Patrick Treacy.

As a young priest Fr. Joseph served in Mosinee, Thorp, and Stevens Point. He heard a talk by Bishop Luis Aníbal Rodríguez Pardo about the desperate needs of his people in Bolivia. When Fr. Joe asked Bishop Treacy if he could be a diocesan missionary there, the bishop told him to pray on it for a year and talk to him again. A year later, Fr. Joe was back. He departed for Santa Cruz in 1956.

Upon landing in Bolivia, Bishop Charles Brown literally handed Father Joe a machete. Together they hacked through the tropical grass beyond the outskirts of Santa Cruz. “Build a church here and the people will come and build their homes next to it,” the bishop said. Holy Cross Parish is today at the heart of a city of 1.2 million.

Always a humble servant of the Lord, Father Joe lived in a barn with the livestock as he built his first church. Lacking funds and skilled workers, the strength of the walls for that new church fell short. The walls came tumbling down—not once, but three times. Yet Father Joe did not lose heart. He told folks this was fitting for a church named Holy Cross fell, for Christ fell three times under the weight of His Cross. Fr. Al Wozniak – a priest with an engineering background – went to lend assistance and our diocese’s parish mission in Bolivia stands firmly today. After ten years in Bolivia, our sixth bishop, Fredrick Freking, recalled Fr. Joe back to Wisconsin in 1966. Father Joe then led parishes in Heffron, Almond, Buena Vista, and Thorp.

In 1970, an 7.9 magnitude earthquake shook Peru, triggering the world’s deadliest landslide. A wall of glacial ice and rock—more than a half-mile wide and a mile long—slid eleven miles at speeds topping 100 miles per hour. It completely buried two cities in its path, seriously damaged others, and killed more than 74,000 people. The avalanche wiped out electricity, communications, and roads making it difficult to provide relief and rebuild.

The archbishop of Lima, Peru appealed for Father Joe to help. Father went to Peru to pastor a new parish in a rapidly growing neighborhood on the outskirts of Lima. That community is Villa el Salvador, the “City of the Savior.” There were about 80,000 impoverished people there when Father Joe arrived. Peruvians flocked there hoping to find work, food, and to escape increasing terrorist violence. Father Joe built their first church and the population of this city grew to 900,000, keeping Father Joe busy. He directed the construction of eight additional chapels.

In the early chaos following the earthquake, terrorist groups wreaked havoc on the local people. They targeted those serving as religious and civic leaders for execution. Our Lord seemed to be watching over Father Joe. He spared his life once when Father Joe ran late for his regular visit to a village eight hours away. The delay saved him from being rounded up and executed with the mayor and two others in front of the frightened villagers. Another attack against Father Joe came when terrorists rigged his Massey Ferguson tractor with dynamite. After the charge failed to detonate, friends asked Father Joe about his physical safety. He replied, “I don’t worry about it, and tell God that, when it is time to go, just be sure to send someone else to keep this work going.”

St. John Paul the Great visited Lima in 1985. The Holy Father was already running behind on a very active schedule. Yet he broke away from his aides, looking at Father Joe, saying, “I want to talk to this priest.” Father Joe told him about the homeless children sleeping under newspapers in the streets. Before the pontiff left Peru, he gave the local cardinal a check for $50,000 to support the local ministry. From those seeds, in 1986, Father Joe opened an orphanage, Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II, the “House-home of John Paul II.” It has since welcomed hundreds of boys and girls needing security, family, and Christian love.

In 2000, Father Joe was granted senior-priest status, but he was not finished working. He opened a retirement home for the elderly and would drive deep into the rainforests to celebrate up to five Masses with the Ashiko Indians every Sunday. On April 11, 2006, after fifty-six years of ministry, Father Joseph Walijewski died in Lima, Peru at age 82. He is now buried in the Grotto of the Assumption of Our Lady, which he had built, on the hill overlooking his Casa Hogar orphanage.

Fr. Joe Walijewski meeting St. Pope John Paul II in 1986

 

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