Sgt. Dave Struckman felt abandoned when none of the accompanying firefighters or police officers at the scene of an accident were available to help him pull two dead bodies from a car. He had no one else to turn to except the police chaplain, Father George Grafsky, pastor of St. Anne in Le Sueur.
“I called George and put him in one of the worst situations probably,” Struckman said. “He doesn’t have to do that, but I said, ‘I need your help.’ And together we pulled the bodies out.”
This is just one of the many ways Father Grafsky has helped Struckman and the Le Sueur County Sheriff’s Department perform what can be, at times, dreadful jobs. In a recent interview with The Catholic Spirit, Struckman mentioned multiple times that he is “blessed” to have Father Grafsky and two other chaplains as part of his department.
“A lot of things that happen out here are kind of forgotten about. We really didn’t have anything for us because we struggle at times on those scenes, too. That’s why I got George involved. It’s not only about the citizens that we protect, it’s about us, too,” Struckman said.
As a police chaplain, Father Grafsky sometimes helps families work through the pain of having lost a loved one to an accident or their house to a fire. He thinks of his chaplaincy work as a calling of sorts. But it’s a calling that evolved, much like his call to the priesthood.
Father Grafsky was born to a Catholic mother and a Lutheran father — a source of tension at times — and priesthood was not something he thought about at first.
Yet, God had a plan for Father Grafsky and gave him the push he needed. A Christian brother told him, “George, you should be a priest” so that he could help the church be the best it could be.
His father, after finding out his son wanted to join the priesthood, said “Well, if you’re going to be a priest then I should be Catholic.” The elder Grafsky joined the church a year before Father Grafsky was ordained in 1971 at St. Michael parish in North St. Paul.
Ministry of presence
His vocation journey wasn’t complete, however, since, not long after he was ordained, the St. Paul fire chief asked him to become a chaplain for the St. Paul Fire Department. Father Grafsky said yes, not knowing that it would become an important part of his ministry.
Since then, Father Grafsky has served with numerous police and fire departments in Minnesota including Pine Island, New Prague, Montgomery and currently Le Sueur.
“It’s a calling. Not every priest or minister would be good at it,” said Father Grafsky.
In addition to the sacraments he celebrates, he also brings a “ministry of presence” to the families, firefighters and police officers he serves — oftentimes he never even says a word at the scene.
“It’s about bringing faith to people, letting them know God is there. Renewing and re-strengthening their faith,” said Father Grafsky.
This can be a tough job to do, at times even for Father Grafsky. Struckman described a situation where there was a boy who drowned who had made his first Communion the day before. Father Grafsky stayed with the mother as she watched Struckman carry the boy out of the water.
“I said nothing. I sat there and listened, held her hand,” Father Grafsky said. “Being a chaplain isn’t always about let’s pray; it doesn’t work like that. They just want someone to scream at or to hold. It takes a special person.”
Saving more lives
For Struckman the emotional, humorous side that comes so naturally for Father Grafsky is a blessing for the sheriff’s department.
“We could not be emotionally involved. We are supposed to be these big iron people, but we’re not. And when George came into it, I started watching people and then I knew we needed help. Since then, we’ve saved a lot of jobs and lives,” Struckman said.
The one thing the priest probably did not expect as he followed this vocation path was to develop a close friendship with Struckman, who said Father Grafsky is like a “brother” to him.
He explained that the priest will regularly call him making sure he is not struggling by himself if he has dealt with a particularly bad accident or crime scene.
Struckman said Father Grafsky has become such an important person in his life and the lives of his fellow police officers that the chaplain is one of the first people to be informed if a horrible event has happened, even if he is in the middle of celebrating Mass.
“People say that if a siren goes off . . . my ears go red and I start talking faster. At Mass I’ve seen officers stand at the back of church and I go, ‘This can’t be good,’,” Father Grafsky said.
He said he continues to see his chaplain role as “amazing.”
“I know there are times I go and I’m like, ‘What . . . are we doing here?’ and the answer to that is ‘I don’t know but I just need to be here,’ ” said Father Grafsky.