Polish deacon hopes to advance the faith

HILTON HEAD — Deacon Jeremi Wodecki’s home country, Poland, is a place where the concept of a priest shortage is unknown.

He vividly described the large numbers of priests available in most cities and towns to serve the nation’s overwhelmingly Catholic population. That is why he decided to journey to the United States, a country with 66 million Catholics but a shortage of priests to serve them, to complete his studies for the priesthood.

Deacon Wodecki, 26, will be ordained along with five other seminarians for the Diocese of Charleston in Columbia on July 27.

“We have so many priests in Poland — my seminary had almost 200 people, and other seminaries have even more, 300 or 400 men studying to be priests,” he said. “I thought that the States had a greater need for me than Poland or even Germany, where I lived for many years while I was growing up. Germany too has a shortage but it’s closer to Poland and Rome, and it’s easier for them to get priests because it’s not that far away. I felt I was really needed here.”

Deacon Wodecki decided to switch from the seminary in Czestochowa, Poland, to the seminary of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Michigan. While there, he met Father Dennis Willey, now serving at Church of the Nativity on James Island. Father Willey talked to him about the Diocese of Charleston, its history and need for priests. It was then that the seminarian decided to become affiliated with the diocese.

Deacon Wodecki’s journey to the priesthood started during his childhood in Zawiercie, Poland, where he was raised in a devoted Catholic family that lived, over the years, in southern Poland and Germany.

“My family knew many priests, and I became friends with many priests,” he said. “They were always coming over to the house to visit. My family was pure Catholic, and my father helped build churches in Poland. He had a construction firm that did a lot of work with churches. His work and the example of the priests in our church, and the priests we knew, really had an influence on me. It got me to think seriously about my own vocation. I always felt I wanted to be a priest, and then I made my major decision at age 18, when I was still in high school.”

The Wodecki family’s rich faith also had an influence on his older brother, who is currently studying to be a priest affiliated with the Diocese of Venice in Florida, he said.

Having two priests in the family is not as unusual in Poland as it might be considered in some parts of the United States, Wodecki said. He was interested to learn that Father Hayden Vaverek, one of his mentors, has two brothers who are priests.

Wodecki said Father Vaverek, who is pastor at Holy Family Church in Hilton Head, has been a great influence on him during his years in the seminary. He has visited the church many times over the past two years and has been working there since the spring.

He has also visited churches in many other parts of the Diocese of Charleston, including Columbia, Florence, Charleston, James Island and Georgetown.

Deacon Wodecki said he has enjoyed learning more about the diocese and South Carolina, as well as adjusting to a lifestyle and climate very different than those he knew in Europe or at seminary in Michigan.

“It’s different here in the South — the people have a more easy going approach to life,” he said. “Up north there always seems to be stress and tension, and here the people are more calm. And I definitely like the weather very much.”

Deacon Wodecki said his biggest concern as a new priest will be to serve whatever needs the people bring to him.

“There are many expectations from priests nowadays,” he said. “In many cases, priests have to be multi-functioning machines to do what needs to be done in a parish. I would like to really get to know the people I’m to serve in my first assignment in order to find out what exactly it is they need from me.”

His genuine desire to serve people and listen to their needs has impressed Deacon John DeWolfe, who serves at Holy Family and has worked with Wodecki since he arrived.

“Compassion is at the top of the list when I think of Jeremi,” Deacon DeWolfe said.  “He really cares about people, and he’s going to be a very pastoral priest. He is very interested in serving the people of God, doing whatever it is the people of God need. Anytime anyone has come to him, he has taken a great interest in helping them.”

Deacon DeWolfe said he was especially impressed by the attention Deacon Wodecki showed to young people taking part in a Bible camp being held at the church over the past few weeks.

“He was very patient with all of the young people, listening to them and answering their questions, and you know how challenging some of those questions can be,” he said. “He also talked to them about the very real importance of vocations in the Church.”

Deacon Wodecki said he looks forward to serving what he sees as a vibrant Catholic church in the U.S. that needs more people willing to stand up and advance the faith.

“I see that the Catholic church here in the U.S. is really alive,” he said. “This is good to see because many people in other countries think the church in the States is dying out. The shortage of priests here gives the image that the church here is not functioning well, but in truth it’s a church that is very much alive and in need of vocations. We have great people here, great Catholics and great Christians, but we don’t promote the need for vocations enough. This is a living church that needs leaders, and needs priests.”