Vincentian Father Henry Grodecki’s grandparents came from Poland in the early 20th century. After spending their lives in Chicago’s insular Polish community, where Polish Catholic churches offered services in their native tongue, they never fully grasped English.
That’s one reason the new pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral in Anchorage has a deep respect for and understanding of immigrants.
And it’s why Father Grodecki thinks the Alaskans he’s met so far are a particularly warm and welcoming people.
“It comes from the fact that people (other than Alaskan Natives) haven’t been here for eight generations,” he said. He knew his new church was culturally diverse, but he was surprised by the diversity of the city.
“Everyone understands, in a way, what it’s like to be an immigrant,” he said.
It’s good to be relatively new to a place, Father Grodecki added, “because people are more hospitable when they realize what it was like to be strangers once, too.”
Growing up in the small town of Lemont, Illinois, now a bedroom community of Chicago, Father Grodecki was the son of a World War II veteran who fought in the Pacific theater. Too poor to attend the local Catholic school, the young man entered the Vincentian minor seminary in Lemont during his junior year in high school, and found a home with the order’s commitment to the poor. A younger brother still lives in the Lemont area, and a sister is deceased.
Minor seminaries — for high school men — are largely a thing of the past, but Father Grodecki said his experience was “mind opening,” exposing him to intellectual challenges he hadn’t previously encountered.
His new parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, has a large Hispanic population, a thriving Filipino community and a solid core of Anglos, among other groups. Father Grodecki, who arrived in June, has assumed leadership of a three-man mission team there, with the possibility of a fourth priest coming in the future.
Anchorage’s co-cathedral has been designated one of eight to 10 international missions staffed by the Vincentian Order, the pastor said. Others include churches in Angola, the Solomon Islands, Papua, New Guinea, Tunisia and Bolivia.
For Father Grodecki, who studied intensive Spanish in Bolivia, it’s his first actual mission assignment, and at age 70 he said he was surprised to receive the posting, which comes directly from Vincentian headquarters in Rome.
“I was so shocked to be asked to come here,” he said. There hadn’t been recruitment — “Rome doesn’t do that.” So the assignment came out of the blue.
“I said ‘yes’ easily,” he laughed. “It was time for me to be moved, and I was ready for an adventure.”
Father Grodecki’s predecessor, Vincentian Andrew Bellisario, was chosen last fall to be bishop of Juneau, and the post of pastor at Guadalupe had remained vacant since October.
Vincentians normally are assigned to three-year terms, with the possibility of a second term.
Early in his career, Father Grodecki spent six years as an assistant professor of theology at St. Thomas Seminary in Denver. Most of his pastoral work has been in small towns in Colorado and most recently Missouri.
“I was stationed near Branson,” he said, “and there’s a large Hispanic population there due to many large poultry processing plants.”
Missouri was a border state during the Civil War, with partisans on each side of the struggle. Branson, near the state’s southern border, considered itself Southern. Many of its inhabitants have been in the area for generations.
Growing cultural diversity has brought challenges, Father Grodecki said.
“But it’s getting better,” he noted. “Ultimately, kids are the ones who make it work. They go to the same schools, play the same sports, and the parents start to get to know each other in that way.”
The pastor often traveled miles to serve several small parishes.
“Three of those places were over half Hispanic,” he added.
Father Grodecki said that much about the charism of the Vincentian Order, founded by Saint Vincent de Paul, can be summed up in their motto: “He sent me to bring Good News to the poor.” It’s his guiding principle.
As pastor, he aims “to accompany the church here. It’s leadership by accompaniment.”
“It’s the people’s church,” Father Grodecki emphasized. “Even though people today are more mobile, they still tend to stay longer than the pastor. So, it’s the pastor’s role to help them become the best church they can be. Whoever is the pastor needs to concentrate on the needs of everyone.”
Father Grodecki said he is not an outdoorsman and won’t be spotted on the ski slopes. However, one hobby of his should fit well at Our Lady of Guadalupe. He loves to cook, and he’s delighted to see all the festivals and celebrations that mark the calendar at his new parish.
“Intercultural food brings people together,” he said.
He also loves classical music, needlepoint and is an avid reader.
Recently on his nightstand: “The Road to Character” by New York Times columnist David Brooks. The book explores the characteristics that mark someone’s eulogy rather than their resume, and draws on historical figures ranging from Saint Augustine to President Eisenhower.
“Brooks isn’t Catholic, but he sounds like one,” Father Grodecki said.
Spanish novels are on his reading list as well, to bolster his language skills.