Br. Anthony lost part of his arm in an industrial accident. To Br. Anthony, it wasn’t a tragedy however. Instead, he would tell people about his prosthetic arm, “This is grace.” Photo courtesy of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate

Br. Anthony found his home in God

  • April 14, 2013

Every immigrant who ever came to Canada dreaming of something better, something worthy of their best hopes, struggled, wished they had never come and wanted to go home has a soul brother in Br. Anthony Kowalczyk.

The first Polish Oblate of Mary Immaculate to live and work as a missionary in Canada was recognized as Venerable March 27 by Pope Francis. Br. Anthony’s cause for sainthood was launched in Edmonton five years after his death in 1947. Now all that stands in the way of sainthood is a miracle through his intercession, certified by canonical procedures.

Oblate Father Miroslaw Olszewski, vice-postulator of Br. Anthony’s cause, will travel from his Toronto parish to the United States later this spring to begin the process of investigating a young man who has inexplicably been healed of a potentially lethal blood disease.

Br. Anthony spent most of his life as a man out of place, alone and in exile. As a young tradesman he travelled from his birthplace in rural Poland to find work in Germany. In a Germany where the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismark, and his Kulturkampf policy imposed German ideals and uniformity and treated every Catholic as suspect, the 20-year-old found himself the odd man out as both a Pole and a Catholic. He answered the call to religious life by entering the Oblate novitiate in Holland, where he spent three years as the only Pole among the brothers.

He longed to be sent out on the missions, but plans to send him to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were suddenly called off and he was shipped to Lac la Biche, Alta. — more than 200 km north of Edmonton — to work among the Cree and Metis.

Br. Anthony’s initial experience in Canada was agonizing. Arriving here at age 30, he missed his family, his language, his culture and that sure sense of himself he had briefly enjoyed after his religious vows. Lac la Biche in 1896 could not have been further from everything Br. Anthony had ever known.

Most of his 51 years in Canada were spent in the French-speaking environment of College Saint-Jean in Edmonton. French was a struggle and English a bridge too far for the blacksmith and millwright. A recording of Br. Anthony speaking broken French has been translated as: “Me not educated, poor me. Blacksmith of my soul, me coadjutor brother. Me always say yes. Me listen to superiors. Me pray Holy Virgin. Me love the good God — me help good God. Me happy.”

Br. Anthony had been born in Dzierzanow — a village in what everyone knew was really Poland. But Poland didn’t exist in 1866. It was partitioned between Russia and the Kingdom of Prussia. When he was born, Br. Anthony’s country was more a state of mind than a state.

The young Kowalczyk’s first experience of being out of place came as he started school. The Prussians were trying to impose German on their Polish province and the boy couldn’t understand what the teacher was talking about. His mother protected him, teaching him in Polish at home. The educated people of Br. Anthony’s world were the parish priests of Lutogniew.

As the sixth of 12 children (seven of them made it to adulthood), Br. Anthony posed a problem for his parents. By the time he reached his teenage years he was a real contributor on his father’s farm. But there was no way his father could break up his tiny farm to give all his sons a plot of land. Anthony would have to learn a trade and make a life separate from his farming family.

So he was exiled to apprentice under a gruff, silent and non-Catholic blacksmith in town. That put him on a lonely path. To become more than an apprentice he would have to seek work in Germany — the industrial heartland of Europe.

At 20, he went to Hamburg then later Cologne. Kowalczyk found work in the big German cities, but also a feeling of alienation in Bismark’s Germany.

In his first factory job among hundreds of workers, Kowalczyk found himself one of only three workers who practised their faith.

“He found his vocation in an environment that was hostile,” explained Olszewski.

In Cologne he learned of the Oblates. He considered himself too old to begin his education again for the long road to priesthood. But the Oblates could put a skilled tradesman to work as a lay brother.

Languages were not Kowalczyk’s strength, but he was a humble, obedient and hard-working brother. His desire to work in the missions put him on the right path for an Oblate. But when his assignment to Ceylon was called off and he was sent a few months later to Canada, he was thrown for a loop. There was no time to prepare psychologically or spiritually for this new life.

Like many immigrants before and after, he covered up his longing for home and his disappointment with his life in constant, obsessive work. On a day when the mission superior at Lac la Biche gave everybody the day off to celebrate his name day, Br. Anthony insisted on going back to work in the saw mill. A piece of equipment fell on him and crushed his arm. It took six days to get him to a hospital in Edmonton. By then gangrene had set in. The arm had to be amputated below the elbow.

From the accident on, the truth of grace seemed to open up before Br. Anthony. The little Polish brother would point to his amputated hand and the prosthesis made of a leather sleeve and metal hooks and say, “This is grace.”

“His life was a victory of grace over nature. He forced himself to become mild, modest and easily approachable,” wrote Oblate Father P.E. Berton in his 1960 biography of Br. Anthony, Blacksmith of God.

When students at College Saint-Jean saw Br. Anthony, they saw his strength, his humility and his dedication to prayer. When any task became difficult, Br. Anthony would drop to his knees and pray a Hail Mary. When students asked him to pray for them at exam time he would urge them to pray an “Ave” (the students called him “Brother Ave.”) He dedicated himself and his work to Mary.

“Many young people found their vocation or were confirmed in their vocation seeing this brother praying, working,” said Olszewski. “He didn’t preach. He didn’t exercise the priestly ministry. But he was appreciated by the young people.”

For Canadian Oblates, Br. Anthony has long represented an ideal in religious life. Eighty-four-year-old Oblate Father Vaughan Quinn remembers hearing about Br. Anthony from the time he entered the order in the mid- 1950s, not long after Br. Anthony died in 1947.

“We heard about him on a regular basis, and prayed for him,” Quinn said. “I certainly remember going to his grave. Everybody having a personal pilgrimage to there.”

Br. Anthony is more than an example to Oblates, Quinn said. As a Canadian who lived 51 of his 81 years as an immigrant in this country, Br. Anthony is someone for all Canadians to be proud of.

As he immerses himself in Br. Anthony’s life, Olszewski finds that the humble blacksmith brings him back to the basics of religious life.

“He is reminding me that first of all I am a religious and I should live my vows, my promises,” Olszewski said. “And then I try to do my priestly ministry. But the basic thing is that I am a religious.”

It might be tempting to dismiss Br. Anthony as just a humble, shy, hardworking man — one of millions. But there’s more to him, said Olszewski.

“He lived his faith in a very special way. The virtues that he was practising — his faith, his love — were something special. So he was an ordinary man living in a more than ordinary way,” he said.

Everybody seeks a home. By outward appearances it would seem that Anthony Kowalczyk never found one after leaving his family in Poland. The German factories, the Dutch religious institutions, the Canadian missions were always foreign territory. But beneath those appearances, Br. Anthony found a home in God.

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