PALM DESERT, Calif. — Officially, Msgr. Donald J. Gorski has been retired for almost seven years, but unofficially, the 77-year-old priest is as busy as ever serving parishioners.
Born in Charleston in 1933, his family moved across the country when he was in fifth grade. But the Gorskis remained close to the loads of family they had here, the monsignor said, and when he decided to enter the priesthood, he returned to the Diocese of Charleston.
He was ordained in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in 1959 by Bishop Paul J. Hallinan.
From there, he spent time as an associate pastor at St. Peter in Columbia, Divine Redeemer in Hanahan, and St. Ann in Sumter.
At that point, Msgr. Gorski said, two events occurred that revealed a calling for mission work. As a youth, living in California along the border of Mexico, he said he was familiar with poverty. But it took a trip to central Mexico, “in the middle of nowhere,” to really bring it home.
Msgr. Gorski said the population there was about 90 percent Catholic, with only one priest to serve “umpteen” people living in dire conditions.
Their need spoke to him, as did Pope John XXIII’s words encouraging dioceses to send priests on missions. So Msgr. Gorski joined the Society of St. James the Apostle and spent the next six years in Zorritos, Peru.
The society and dioceses work together to send priests to mission areas for stints of five years, although they are often granted extensions, the monsignor said.
When he first arrived at the parish in Peru, he said it was completely inactive, with a council that never met, a men’s club with no members, and little attendance at Mass.
In short order, Msgr. Gorski initiated retreats and activities that brought people back in droves and transformed family life. He said seeing people’s lives changed through the power of God is one of the most satisfying aspects of being a priest.
Msgr. Gorski was recalled to South Carolina in 1976 by Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler and assigned to St. Mary in Greenville.
“I spent a lot of time in Greenville,” he said. “I have a lot of fond memories and close friends there still.”
In fact, this year marks the 50th anniversary of his ordination, and he plans to return to South Carolina in November to celebrate. His sibling, Sister Anne Caritas Gorski, who is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, celebrates her 60th anniversary this year, and Msgr. Gorski hopes she will come with him.
While here, he will attend the wedding of a former parishioner Nov. 21 in Greenville. The next day, a reception will be held in his honor from 3-5 p.m. at St. Mary Church.
He will also spend time in Charleston with his close friend, Msgr. Joseph F. Hanley, and will celebrate Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church on Nov. 28. Msgr. Gorski said “Father Frank” came to visit him in Peru many times, as did several other fellow priests.
“I have a bad reputation with the priests because they come to visit me and I put them to work. They think they’re going to rest,” he said.
The missionary priest returned to Peru in 1993. This time, the parish was active, and he concentrated on relieving the hunger and illness around him.
One of the most successful efforts is a feeding program that continues to provide meals daily for 600 people, mostly children, but also the elderly and sick, Msgr. Gorski said. They also raise funding for medical procedures for critical patients.
“I know there are people living right now that would be dead if we weren’t there,” he said.
The monsignor said when Bishop Emeritus David B. Thompson visited him in Peru and saw the need of the people there, he said, “Stay as long as you want.” This proclamation was reaffirmed by Bishop Robert J. Baker, so Msgr. Gorski remained in the mission until the end of 2005, when he returned to the states to visit his family, he said.
When he first arrived in Anaheim, Calif., a few years back, it was supposed to be for a short visit. But his two brothers, Bill and Joe, surprised him with his very own mobile home located near their homes. Then, a family member fell ill and needed constant care, and Msgr. Gorski took on that role.
“It was providential I was here,” he said.
Now, he takes care of his relative and a myriad of pastoral duties in his home parish of Sacred Heart Church in Palm Desert, plus five other parishes in the area. He said they have nine Masses on Sunday, and he often spends hours offering the sacrament of reconciliation.
Msgr. Gorski still visits South Carolina each summer, he said, when the heat in the desert climbs to 118 degrees and many of the residents leave for cooler climes. He also returns regularly to Peru, and with the help of his sister and generous donations, sends $9,000 a month to continue their programs.
“I am so glad I became a priest,” he said. “I find the whole thing extremely rewarding and satisfying.”