Serving the masses: priest no stranger to transitions

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Rusty Ridley
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
A warm smile, hearty laugh and Polish accent emanate from the chapel at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia and masses are served by a priest who is no stranger to transition.

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Jacek Kowalik, Catholic priest currently assigned to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, was born and raised in Parszow, Poland. Kowalik was raised in a Catholic home with four brothers and felt a calling to ministry.

"I knew I wanted to be a priest in my last years of high school," said Kowalik. "I always wanted to help and work with people.

"I was inspired by priests growing up and was involved at our local parish," he continued.

He received his education at the Society of Christ Seminary in Poznan, Poland and was ordained in 1979. The mission was to take care of the spiritual needs of Polish people living abroad. He worked as a priest for four years in Poland. As he transitioned within Poland he was commissioned to go to the U.S. and to work with Polish speaking parishioners. With three months to prepare, he attended cultural training in Warsaw. It was 1983 and the region was experiencing its share of volatility.

"The solidarity movement started right after my ordination, August 1980, and Poland was on the way to independence from the ruling communist party," he said. "But the church was very active."

Kowalik remembers having to seek shelter amidst escalating protests.

"I saw demonstrations in the streets and people seeking refuge at the church," said Kowalik. "The church was a backbone for people searching to be ethical, moral and spiritual. It was an exciting time."

Ultimately peaceful protests would follow.

"I was so happy to see that things were happening peacefully and was moving in the right direction, with the hope that one day the Polish people would be able to make the decisions and not be dictated by leaders of the communist party."

Kowalik was living out what he felt called to at a young age.

"Changes were happening so suddenly and the parishes were involved in supporting people who were having hard times, who lost their jobs or were ordered to leave," Kowalik said.

With passport and work visa in-hand and a one way ticket to America, Kowalik made his transition to the U.S. excited for the new opportunity, but with mixed emotions of leaving his family. However, they were supportive and encouraged him.

While serving as a full-time parish priest at Epiphany Cathedral in Venice, Fla., he also helped establish the Polish American Society and found himself not only offering Mass in Polish and tending to spiritual needs, but also tending to physical needs: finding people a place to live, employment, or obtaining a driver's license and help with translation.

He began learning English while in Poland, but became more proficient as he spent time serving the community in Florida.

"It was a challenge," said Kowalik. "I knew I might be in the States a few years and thought I would be sent to other countries."

After five years, he became a U.S. citizen in 1990 and as a first generation immigrant, saw the beginning of even more transition.

While Kowalik was serving at Epiphany Cathedral in Venice, Bishop John Nevins wrote a letter to diocese priests asking for volunteers for the U.S. Air Force chaplain corps because of the shortage of Catholic chaplains. He kept the letter for five years. Meanwhile, he met with active and retired chaplains from various branches of service.

"I was inspired by what they were saying and they encouraged me," he said. "They told me about how it was a special ministry."

He joined the Air Force Reserve Feb. 1, 1993 and his first assignment was to MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.

"It was a big transition for me," said Kowalik. "I travelled from Poland to the United States and established a home in Florida to serve at the parish and then to serving in the military."

Kowalik had choices to make. He was offered a position as the pastor at a newly established parish. But before he accepted the parish, he expressed gratitude to the bishop for having confidence in him, but felt called to the active duty chaplaincy. The bishop was very understanding and supportive and agreed. Kowalik made the transition to active duty August 1995.

"What I experienced in the U.S. and had been given so much by other people, I felt like I wanted to contribute more--to say thank you for what I received and show my gratitude," he said.

Even though he didn't go to different countries by the direction of the church, he found himself going to them with the Air Force, continuing ministry. He served at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas; Osan Air Base, Korea; and Laughlin AFB, Texas.

"I'm so happy I did," said Kowalik. "My life expanded through different interactions and was blessed by working in chapels with great people."

His mother and brother moved to Florida and he felt he needed to spend time with them. To this point, he had only seen them once a year on visits to Poland or talked to them on the phone.

After serving on active duty he transitioned back to the Air Force Reserve and served occasionally for weeks at a time. Because of increasing deployments after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Kowalik began volunteering for four to six months at a time to fill in for deployed chaplains. Kowalik volunteered to deploy to Iraq to relieve active duty chaplains. But the need for a priest arose at Yokota AB, Japan and he served there for four months. The deployment to Iraq never left his thoughts.

His years of transitions came to a pinnacle when boarding the aircraft from Ramstein AB, Germany to Iraq. Caught up with emotion, he realized that this was part of his military service he was missing and always wanted to do.

His deployment took him to Joint Base Balad, Iraq serving as a chaplain with the 332nd AEW, a wing having historical lineage to the Tuskegee Airmen. He not only served Airmen, but Sailors, Soldiers and Marines and has been involved in the largest military movement since World War II.

"I would serve with him anywhere," said Chaplain (Col.) Walter Smith, 332nd AEW wing chaplain. "He really loves to go out and be with the people."

Kowalik credits Bishops John Nevins and Frank Dewane with the mentorship, guidance and support needed to continue to serve in the unique role as an Air Force chaplain.