Monday, September 5, 2016


FATHER JOSEPH WALIJEWSKI was a saint in the eyes of the poor he served as a La Crosse diocesan missionary priest in Bolivia and Peru, where he established several parishes and founded an orphanage.

Now the diocese is trying to have him declared a saint in the eyes of the church as well. Father Walijewski, who died of pneumonia and acute leukemia in 2006 at age 82, will become the second sainthood candidate from the diocese.

 “If Father Joe was not a saint, I don’t know who could be,” the Rev. Sebastian Kolodziejczyk said in a telephone interview from Peru. “He wasn’t just a priest performing the sacraments, he was a guy who took people to the hospital because he was the only one who had a car. He was building community. He was very simple, very joyful, very prayerful in living out the gospel.”

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on March 15, 1924, to Frank and Mary Walijewski, Father Joseph Walijewski, or Father Joe, as he was mostly known, learned the hard lessons of poverty through his own experiences growing up during the Great Depression. Like many other families at that time, his family suffered through economic hardship, but held fast to their faith, at once so simple and yet so strong that it served to fill in the want and lack of material goods.

Since his early youth, Father Joe sought to serve God as a priest of His Church, and especially desired serving God all his days in missionary work. Some experiences during his youth helped form this calling. As a young boy, he would wander down to the city train station to watch fruit being unloaded, in part with the hope that he might receive a piece of fruit which had either fallen by chance from the crates or was given to him outright through the generosity of the station workers. One day, a worker handed him a banana, his favorite fruit , and when he discovered it had come from South America, this far away land became a source of growing fascination.

On the few occasions he could afford to attend the cinema, young Joe was also inspired by the 1938 film "Boys Town," and its hero and founder, Father Edward J. Flanagan. Joe would watch the movie several times, marveling each time at Father Flanagan and his gift of working with and engaging children.

Joe successfully applied for admission at the Polish seminary at Orchard Lake, Mich., Ss. Cyril and Methodius. He continued to grapple with his academic responsibilities, but he made a promise to the Lord that should he complete his studies for ordination, he would dedicate five years of his priestly life to the work of a foreign missionary.

 His own Diocese of Grand Rapids would not accept him into its major seminary to study theology because he did not study in the diocese's minor seminary. He was encouraged to look to other dioceses for sponsorship. Broadcasting letters to various bishops throughout the Midwest, Joe received a reply from only one – Bishop Alexander McGavick of the Diocese of La Crosse, who was looking for Polish-speaking priests to serve the Polish communities in his diocese.

Accepted by the Diocese, Joe entered St. Francis Major Seminary, Milwaukee, but his struggle with academics continued. While many among the faculty had little hope for the struggling seminarian, Monsignor John Schulien, a theology professor who befriended Joe at St. Francis, defended the young man.

"Joe Walijewski may not be the most intelligent priest," he said to the other faculty, "but he will be a holy priest." The priest-professor's words were apparently convincing: Father Joe was ordained by Bishop John Patrick Treacy as a priest for the Diocese of La Crosse in 1950.

In his time as a priest for the Diocese of La Crosse, he served in two assignments as a parish priest in the diocese and two as a missionary priest in South America. From 1950 to 1956, he served various parishes around the diocese before heading to Bolivia. After serving in Bolivia as a missionary for 10 years, he returned to the Diocese of La Crosse in 1966. He again served at various parishes until 1971, the year he returned to South America, this time to Peru, where among other achievements he established Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II, the diocesan sponsored orphanage which continues to serve poor children of Peru to this day.

There was one more blessing granted to Father Joe before his death in 2006. His desire to die while working for the poor was widely known among friends and coworkers, and he had this wish granted when after celebrating Palm Sunday Mass at Casa Hogar, he took ill and was admitted to a hospital in Lima.
He exhibited heroism throughout his missionary career. A prime example of his saintliness was his dedication to “the children, the suffering, poverty-stricken, discarded children of Peru.”

“Here is a man who saw these children not as waste products of a society that could not or would not take care of them but as children of God,” said  La Crosse Bishop William Callahan
“He stepped up to help, with few resources.”

“Saints act impulsively (because) their sense is that God is going to provide,” he said. God’s provision included a $50,000 donation from Pope John Paul II that helped found the orphanage in 1987.

Also testifying to Father Joseph’s dedication is Dr. Steven Laliberte of Onalaska, an optometrist at the Mayo Clinic Health System-La Crosse who worked with the priest during several vision missions to the orphanage.

“His faith was so blindly focused that nothing ever dissuaded him from his mission,” Laliberte said.  That mission escalated to make the orphanage an outreach center and provide medical care to thousands of destitute Peruvians.

Blessed by Pope  (St.) John Paul
When Father Joseph died, tens of thousands turned out to honor him as his casket was carried through the streets to his burial in a grotto behind the orphanage. He is being considered for canonization.

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