Namesake of Our Council
Waiting for a miracle
50 years after Brother Anthony's death, many hope he will soon be canonized
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Oblate Brother Anthony Kowalczyk must be puzzled, if not embarrassed, by the attention he's getting.
Half a century after his death on July 10, 1947, the humble Polish immigrant, who spent 36 years working as a handyman at Edmonton's College St-Jean, is a popular Catholic figure.
He is venerated by people around the world, his name is synonymous with service, piety and deep faith, and the Vatican is considering him for sainthood.
Books on his life have been written. Videotapes have been made. Schools and convents bear his name. People pray to him for favors. Many visit his grave at the Oblate Cemetery in St. Albert and put flowers on it.
As Oblate Father Antonio Duhaime puts it, Brother Anthony is to the Catholic Church what Wayne Gretzky is to hockey -- a true hero.
"Everybody has heroes. Gretzky is the hero of hockey (fans). Brother Anthony is the outstanding hero of the Catholic Church," says Duhaime, who as a young college boy befriended Brother Anthony and even cut his hair for a few years.
How did this one-armed, uneducated handyman reach this status?
"He lived an exemplary life of humility, service and devotion to God," says Father Mitchell Fidyka, an Edmonton Oblate who is interim vice-postulator for Kowalczyk's cause.
"As an immigrant, he was familiar with the alienation and loneliness experienced by many who have chosen Canada as their home. As a man who worked hard with his hands, he is a model for the many who labor daily at difficult and unpleasant tasks."
Says Duhaime: "He was an extraordinary Christian who structured his life upon love, patience and service. He was nicknamed Ave for his devotion to the Blessed Virgin."
When will he be declared a saint? "We are just waiting for a miracle," replied Fidyka.
He says before Brother Anthony can be considered a saint, a scientifically-proven miracle attributed to him must be found.
The Oblates receive "hundreds" of claims from throughout the world but investigate those most significant. "We have lots of letters from Mexico."
Three weeks ago he received a letter from an Alberta woman claiming she was cured from throat cancer after praying to the brother.
"The problem with miracles is that you have to prove them," noted Duhaime. Cures (which must be from terminal illnesses) have to be certified by three out of five medical doctors to be accepted as miracles.
"Centuries ago a man like Brother Anthony would have been named a saint by acclamation," lamented Fidyka, 42. "Now the process is very long. So if you know of any miracles, let us know because it will help promote his cause."
The priest believes having a Polish pope might help the cause. He noted that Pope John Paul prayed at Brother Anthony's grave during a 1969 visit to Edmonton while he was still Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, Poland.
On June 1, 1979, the pope declared Brother Anthony "Servant of God" and recommended that the process of canonization be introduced and advanced to the next step. Proceedings for his beatification began in 1982.
Duhaime is convinced sainthood is near: "I'm sure he'll perform a first class miracle in the future and he will become blessed. We need saints like him who can inspire people to be God-accepting people. Our society has become too pagan."
Brother Anthony was the first Polish Oblate to come to Canada. He arrived in 1896 at age 30 and spent his remaining 51 years in Alberta. He worked as a handyman at College St-Jean, 8406-91 St., for 36 years.
A Mass commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death will be held July 6 at 3 p.m. at the grotto he built at the college.
Despite the lost of his right hand, he served as the college's maintenance man, janitor, blacksmith, stoker, laundryman, bell ringer and sacristan. He also tended its large garden, and was caretaker of his flock of 300 chickens, pigs and horses. He managed the heavy load with one hand and an artificial limb.
"Doing menial tasks was his vocation," observed the 82-year-old Duhaime, who served as vice-postulator for Kowalczyk's cause for 17 years. "He was a very humble man. He had a tremendous influence on the college."
Born in Poland in 1866, Brother Anthony was the sixth of 12 children born into a peasant family. Following his apprenticeship as a blacksmith, he worked in factories in Hamburg and Cologne, Germany.
He went blind from working in the factories but it is said his sight returned one day while he was saying the Stations of the Cross. In 1891, he left Germany to join the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Holland.
In May 1896, he traveled across the Atlantic to the Oblate mission of Lac La Biche. After his right hand was crushed while sawing lumber and amputated without anaesthetic, he was sent to Saint Paul-de-Metis.
There, a rigid superior, unwilling to lighten his workload, forbade him to receive the Eucharist on weekdays for three months. Crushed, Brother Anthony burst into heavy sobs one day.
In 1911, he was transferred to College St-Jean in Edmonton's Bonnie Doon area.
A friend of the students, he helped them fix their hockey sticks, sharpen their skates, repair their watches and mend the frames of their eyeglasses.
He also comforted new students who had left home for the first time and were lonely. His favorite prescription for homesickness was "Say an Ave."
Duhaime says when he came to the college as a student in 1928, Brother Anthony already had a reputation as a "living saint" with many people asking him to perform small miracles for them. And he delivered.
Once a boy lost his return ticket to Winnipeg and asked Brother Anthony for help. The brother immediately dropped on his knees in prayer. Then he went out the door and minutes later returned with the ticket in his hand. "He found the ticket in the snow."
Another time the skate-sharpener stopped working while two boys waited impatiently for their skates. Brother Anthony and the boys knelt in front of it, made the sign of the cross and began to pray. The skate-sharpener suddenly started on its own, Duhaime recalled.
The Oblate priest accompanied Brother Anthony during the last two hours of his life and attended his funeral. In the large crowd there was a lady who looked too jovial to be at a funeral. When Duhaime questioned her, she replied, "At last he is in heaven. Now we can pray to him as a saint."