Anchorage archbishop calls childhood parish his ‘spiritual home’

| March 7, 2017 | 0 Comments

Archbishop Roger Schwietz processes in at the start of Mass March 5 at St. Casimir in St. Paul, passing through a Knights of Columbus honor guard. He concelebrated Mass with Archbishop Bernard Hebda and Father Michael Powell, the pastor of the parish. Archbishop Schwietz grew up in the parish and currently lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where he served until his retirement in November 2016. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

More than 100 people joined their voices March 5 to pay tribute to an archbishop who returned to his home parish to celebrate its feast day.

With a rousing rendition of the Polish song, “Sto lat,” which translates to “100 years,” parishioners at St. Casimir in St. Paul rose to their feet and showered affection upon Archbishop Roger Schwietz, the retired archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska, who returned to the parish of his upbringing to concelebrate Mass with pastor Father Michael Powell and Archbishop Bernard Hebda.

Archbishop Schwietz came to the Twin Cities to celebrate the March 4 feast of St. Casimir, plus the 100-year anniversary of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate serving the parish.

The Mass featured a four-member polka band that began with the Polish National Anthem. It likely struck a chord with Archbishop Schwietz, who owns an accordion and has demonstrated over the years his love for polka dancing.

After an upbringing immersed in Polish culture, Archbishop Schwietz became an Oblate in 1958 and was ordained a priest in Rome in 1967. The Oblates first came to the parish in 1916, when Father Andrew Stojar arrived from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to serve as pastor. The parish will celebrate its125th anniversary in December.

“It is still my spiritual home,” said Archbishop Schwietz, 76, who retired Nov. 9, 2016, but continues

to serve the Archdiocese of Anchorage as the pastor of St. Andrew in Eagle River on the outskirts of Anchorage. “We lived down Jessamine Street, just a couple blocks away from church. So, I used to walk down there early in the morning and serve the 6 o’clock Mass.”

He recalled how the seeds of his priestly vocation were sown in the St. Paul East Side neighborhood, with encouragement from Father Stojar, who got to know his parishioners the way beat cops in those days  got to know the residents of the neighborhoods they patrolled — by pounding the pavement.

“I got to know him really well,” Archbishop Schwietz said. “He was well known on the whole East Side. He used to go out for walks in the neighborhood, and he would talk to people. He was a real old-fashioned pastor.”

Archbishop Roger Schwietz greets Karen Zimlich after Mass. She and her husband, Joe, grew up in the parish. Joe was a classmate of Archbishop Schwietz at St. Casimir School and Cretin High School. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

After graduating from St. Casimir grade school, Archbishop Schwietz remembers going to Cretin High School in St. Paul and taking a streetcar down Forest Street and into downtown St. Paul, where he transferred to a bus that took him the rest of the way to Cretin, where he graduated in 1958.

“I remember running into him [Father Stojar]  when I’d come back from school and get off the streetcar,” Archbishop Schwietz said. “He’d be walking around the neighborhood. One of the times, I remember him asking me, ‘What are you going to do after high school?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about different things.’ He said, ‘You go to the seminary. You should be a priest.’ I still remember that. So, he was very instrumental in my vocation.”

Archbishop Schwietz eventually took his pastor’s advice, first entering college seminary the fall after his graduation, then joining the Oblates that same year and, finally, being ordained a priest in Rome in December 1967. He served as archbishop of Anchorage from 2000 to 2016. Before that, he was bishop of Duluth from 1990 to 2000. He now is just months away from his 50th jubilee.

More than 50 years removed from his childhood days at St. Casimir, he still tries to follow the example set by the childhood pastor whom he feels set the bar high.

“Father Stojar had kind of a gruff exterior, but a heart of gold,” Archbishop Schwietz said. “And you could just see through his exterior easily. He was there to help people. I think there’s a lot of that that I have tried to emulate in my life of caring for people and wanting to serve as a spiritual father to the people I serve. That’s why I love being a pastor again now. It’s really going back to what I really felt called to.”

Archbishop Schwietz reveled in the memories of his old neighborhood as he sat in the basement of the former St. Casimir School building adjacent to the church for a brunch following the 9 a.m. celebration Mass. When it came time for him to speak, he offered both thoughts on his vocation, plus a lighter look at life in the East Side parish.

He described how Father Stojar would come to his house to play cards with his father, Archie, who owned Schwietz’s Bar just a few blocks away on Payne Avenue (the building still remains). Father Stojar would always put a raw egg in his beer before he drank it.

Then, there was the annual Easter ritual involving the Felician Sisters who taught at the school.

“My dad would give the sisters a case of beer for Easter every year,” Archbishop Schwietz said. “So, my brother and I would take our wagon, go over to the tavern, and he’d put the case of beer in the wagon and then we’d take it down Arcade Street and down Jessamine to the convent. We’d ring the doorbell and the sisters would come out, and we’d give them a case of beer. It was all smiles all the way around. We were always well received with that case of beer.”

Some of the longtime parishioners at St. Casimir had their own favorite memories of Archbishop Schwietz.

“When he was at the parish in Duluth, my cousin [Father Anthony Wroblewski] was a pastor up there, and they would have Polish Days of May with a Polish dinner and a polka dance,” said parishioner Cathy Rajtar, 56, who attended St. Casimir School along with her six siblings. “He loved celebrating the Polish heritage, and he loved dancing. It was fun to try to get on his dance card and do a polka with him. His eyes would just light up. He loved it.”

Joe Zimlich, 77, described his boyhood friend and classmate as “one of the good guys.” He also noted that Archbishop Schwietz confided in him his desire to become a priest while the two were attending Cretin High School.

“That was his goal,” Zimlich said. “Sure enough, when he graduated from Cretin, he went to Carthage, Missouri, and became an Oblate priest. I was all for the idea. I always thought, ‘Yeah, he would make a darn good priest.’ He was always an OK guy. Everybody liked him.”

Archbishop Schwietz is one of nine Oblate priests to come out of the parish. While the Polish heritage continues at St. Casimir, it now serves several other ethnic communities, including Southeast Asian immigrants.

Those attending the event not only heard anecdotes about life on the East Side, but also got a historical look at the parish. Old photos and memorabilia were on display at a table in the basement of the school.

One sordid detail that Zimlich said most longtime parishioners only whisper about has to do with why the Oblates came in the first place. In 1916, the pastor of the parish, Father Henry Jazdzewski, was hearing confessions on the feast day of St. Casimir. A 15-year-old boy, William Hourish, had just finished and was leaving the church when a 38-year-old woman, Aniela Dudek, walked in with a gun. She allegedly had a long standing grudge against the priest and decided to settle the score.

After Father Jazdzewski stepped out of the confessional, Dudek walked up to him and shot him five times at point-blank range.

The parish closed for several months before Father Stojar arrived to begin 100 years of Oblate service. He served as pastor for 39 years until his death June 7, 1955.

By the time Archbishop Schwietz was born to Archie and his wife, Sophie, the parish was back to normal and life was good for their family on the East Side. One of the archbishop’s sisters, Judy Albers, came to the reunion and shared her memories of Roger.

“My mother dressed us like twins,” she said. “We’re 13 months apart, and I’m not going to say who’s the older one. We used to take accordion lessons together.”

Archbishop Schwietz still owns the accordian, but hasn’t played it in years.

But, on the day of this celebration, parishioners of St. Casimir didn’t seem to mind.

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