Fr. Andrew Kowalczyk strolls through the 40-hectare retreat centre of the Congregation of St. Michael the Archangel in Melrose, Ont. Photo by Herman Goodden

Canadian Michaelites mark three milestones in 2012

By  Herman Goodden, Catholic Register Special
  • April 21, 2012

MELROSE, ONT. - Ordinarily committed to a prayerful life of service to others, 46-year-old Fr. Andrew Kowalczyk has clearly had to step outside of his comfort zone this past year as he has endeavoured to make the work of the Michaelite Fathers better known. 

Kowalczyk is the provincial of the Canadian delegation of the Poland-based Congregation of St. Michael the Archangel and has been organizing the triple jubilee celebrations the order observes this year.

It is 100 years since the death of the Michaelites’ founder, Blessed Father Bronislaw Markiewicz (1842-1912), 90 years since the formation of the Congregation of St. Michael the Archangel and 50 years sincer the Michaelites arrived in Canada.

Markiewicz left Poland for seven years to study with St. John Bosco in Italy. He returned to Poland and set up youth centres and orphanages.

“Our charism was working with young people,” Kowalczyk explains. “After the war when the communists took away the schools, we found that you do not have to run the educational facilities. The parishes were given to the Michaelite Fathers and we saw that you could gather the young people around the parishes and organize oratories where the young can come and do their homework, gather as a youth group, do theatre and music and have retreats.”

The Congregation of St. Michael the Archangel has 350 Michaelite Fathers throughout the world, said Kowalczyk.

“There are 260 priests and the rest are the brothers, deacons, seminarians and novices. There are also over 250 Michaelite Sisters around the world.”

In addition to Poland and Canada, today the Michaelites minister in Belarus, Ukraine, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Argentina, Paraguay, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Dutch Antilles.

Not well known in most of the country, in the diocese of London (and to a lesser extent Toronto) the Michaelites are a force to be reckoned with. Michaelites serve as parish priests at two London parishes (St. Mary’s and Our Lady of Czestochowa) and in the nearby communities of Lucan (St. Patrick), St. Thomas (Holy Angels) and Sarnia (Our Lady of Peace). Kowalczyk also runs the Michaelite Retreat Centre in Melrose (just 10 minutes outside London), a separate wing of which also serves as the Canadian order’s house of formation and motherhouse.

In Toronto two Michaelite priests work at St. Teresa’s parish.

Kowalczyk lives at the retreat centre in Melrose with two retired Michaelite Fathers and a newly arrived brother who it is hoped will become the curator of that facility which nestles on 40 hectares of wooded and agricultural land and has become so popular with church and youth groups that bookings for many retreats and conventions are made more than a year in advance.

Decades before the Michaelite Fathers came to Canada in 1962, some of Markiewicz’s Polish co-workers were sent to the United States to spread his philosophy and raise funds. Some of these workers were ordained and settled and worked there (though none remain in the United States today) rather than return to Poland during times of great uncertainty and stress.

In 1966 Poland celebrated 1,000 years of Christianity and Pope Paul VI was forbidden to attend by the communist authorities. The primate of Poland then invited bishops, archbishops and cardinals from around the world to come and see firsthand the persecution of the Church in Poland. Among those who attended was Bishop John Cody of the London diocese. Cody went at the behest of a London and Windsor-area priest who had come to know some of the Michaelites working in Detroit.

Kowalczyk speculates, “In my mind when Cody went to Poland he discovered a very different Church than the one he knew, a Church that was strongly standing against the injustices of the communist regime. I think he saw that their approach could be a great help here in Canada where so many Polish people were immigrating.”

As a direct result of the London-to-Krakow link established by Cody’s visits to Poland (he had been at least once before in the 1950s as well), one decade later then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla visited Our Lady of Czestochowa in 1976, speaking to a capacity crowd largely comprised of Polish emigrants.

Kowalczyk sees this triple jubilee as an opportunity to look back at the Michaelites’ roots and be strengthened by their accomplishments and to look forward and not be afraid to venture toward new horizons.

“We honour the pioneers of the Michaelite community coming to Canada, not knowing anybody, not knowing the language — just imagine coming from a communist country to a western country — that required great courage and sacrifice and openness on their part. Because of them, we are here today. We have this place.”

(Goodden is a freelance writer in London, Ont.)

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