The Priest Who Saved My Soul

By Dan Flaherty

It was the early summer of 2000. I was sitting in a pew inside Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, an 1897 architectural gem perched on Polish Hill in Pittsburgh.

It would be fair to classify me as something of a lost soul.

Immaculate Heart of Mary is a magnificent old church, its architecture preserved from the ravages of modernism, its green dome towers above the city. The dome drew me every morning on my way to the Allegheny River to work the fruit stands. I’d felt a steady interior nudge to come up here and seek help for what ailed me.

The church doesn’t have air conditioning and summers in Pittsburgh are steamy, at least to a native Wisconsinite like myself. As I sat in the church on a Saturday afternoon waiting for confessions to start, a priest walked out, dressed in full cassock.

He stepped into the confessional; I followed him — and a threshold was crossed.

Out of Isolation

You see, at that point in time I was isolated. I had climbed out of an alcoholism driven by suicidal desires, and various other sins common to our day. I’d fought through an extensive social circle in which all religions were regarded as the same, something that had left me in a state of confusion and often with headaches. The battles included a pair of ugly verbal confrontations, one with my dad and another with a family friend; the memory can still shake me up to this day.

Though nominally Catholic, I had no idea what faith was really about. I’m not being flippant when I say that I considered being Irish Catholic—something of which I was, and am, very proud—to be more about watching Notre Dame football and liking Irish music.

The doctrinal underpinnings of the Faith might have been something I knew nothing about, but I did know one thing—I was looking for the “old Church”. The kind of Church that I’d heard about in stories from Irish Catholic relatives.  The kind of Church that I’d read about in Pat Buchanan’s Right From The Beginning, and Doris Kearns’ Goodwin’s Wait Till Next Year.  The kind of Church that I’d seen in movies like Bing Crosby’s classic duo of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary.

I wanted it enough that I’d packed up everything and relocated from Milwaukee to Pittsburgh to find a place to start anew. Something away from the community and circles I was in, in a city where a friend had moved four years earlier. I called him up to say I’d be there on the next train the following morning.  And in a day, I’d stuffed my clothes into a laundry basket and headed east. I found a job wrapping produce on the Allegheny River to pay the bills.

On the train there, I’d vacillated between anxiety — wondering how this would all come together — and rising confidence.  I was starting over.

A Man Named Joseph Swierczynski

On that day, I had no idea that it was the 35th anniversary of the day a man named Joseph Swierczynski had been ordained to the priesthood. In an age where liberalism ran wild, Father Joe stayed quietly traditional. He was devoted to the rosary, admired John Paul II, had May Crownings, conducted a Mass with the deepest reverence—the paten still went underneath the Host at Immaculate Heart, even if communicants chose to receive in the hand.

Perhaps most important, he didn’t succumb to anger or bitterness. He couldn’t have been blamed if he had. He’d been a beloved pastor on Pittsburgh’s South Side for nearly twenty years and the transfer to Immaculate Heart put him in a position to have to be the bad guy and close the parish school. He was blamed by many in the community, though he would later say that he cried the day he shut it down. Church attendance, like so many places—especially in ethnic communities—had dwindled to next to nothing.

The community might not have appreciated what they had, but I was about to be the beneficiary. Father Joe was the man in the cassock who I approached in the confessional that day in the summer of 2000.

I was flailing. The past fourteen months in Pittsburgh had been great fun, but I had no foundation. I was trying to re-create the 1940’s in my life, somehow, doing everything from watching The Bells of St. Mary as often as possible, to getting rid of my TV for a while. At one point I even tried doing my laundry by hand. (That lasted about a month.) Mostly, there was a lot of fantasizing.

Not Alone In Longing for The Past

And I was unsettled. Apparently, I wasn’t alone in my longing for the past; I seemed to be surrounded by activists from independent chapels, radicals from the indult Latin Mass community and even sedevacantists.

The common theme was the promise of the culture I longed for, coming back. In some circles they called it ‘The Restoration.’ In others it was called ‘Our Lady’s Triumph’. And it was always supposed to be preceded by some awful event, variously termed ‘The Chastisement’ or ‘The Cleansing’.

I took all of this seriously enough to start detaching myself from everything and dropping out of the world. In retrospect, the fact that the leaders of these movements were all living reasonably comfortable lives through their sales of books, magazines and newsletters should have been a red flag.

At the grass roots, the individuals in question were personable enough, but conversations always had to go the state of the Church and usually in a very deep, philosophical vein. On one particularly memorable occasion, one guy asked me to join him on a Sunday afternoon for a “dialogue with the sedevecantist community.”

Sorry, I wanted to go watch the Steelers game.

This was my life as I prepared for a sacramental encounter with Jesus in the confessional through Father Joe. What happened next is something that even today can fill my mind, heart and soul with thousands of different reflections, but at its root is this—somehow, what I found there was what I was looking for.

Gentle and Traditional

Father’s gentle and traditional approach stood in high contrast to everything modern I knew before this and all the extreme Catholic utopian nuttiness that I’d spent several years being immersed in.

His quiet, in-the-trenches pastoral work wasn’t anything that got him attention and he didn’t have books or tapes to sell, but it worked. He invited me to lead the rosary prior to the 11 AM Mass each Sunday and having a commitment to a healthy place was the right medicine.

I spent the next five years immersing myself in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Bible and the Divine Mercy diary. I read papal encyclicals and consciously avoided doing so from a mindset that would lead me to memorizing soundbites and engaging in arguments. I gave up trying to win arguments and gave up being a wanna-be polemicist along with a 1940’s wanna-be. I wanted to let these writings simply form how I viewed the world, even if I didn’t always have the words for it.

That’s not to say it was always perfect—I remember reading John Paul II”s Fides Et Ratio (Faith & Reason) at the same time I was watching a Red Sox-Yankees game in July 2004. At roughly the point I was reading how reason is what set man above the animals, a brawl on the field broke out and I dropped the encyclical on the floor and began instantly lusting for blood. (What can I say, I’m a work in progress.)

Somewhere along the line, my longing to live in the 1940’s began to fade. I found I liked living in 21st century America. It became easier to relax—though as Father Joe would tell me, I’d never be mistaken for low-key.

The reduction in anxiety was a needed blessing for me, as I would find out several years later when my anxiety became a clinical diagnosis. I was able to build enough of a foundation to survive some extremely trying years ahead, ones that included a regrettable decision to leave Pittsburgh.

A 50th Anniversary

Even though I was apart from Father Joe, he was still there by phone and I was able to make it back and visit on a few occasions. The most special was being there in May 2014 for the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.

It will be sixteen years this summer since I first crossed that threshold into Immaculate Heart of Mary Church for my encounter with Father Joe. On May 12 this year, he passed away; he was 78.

Where would I be today if he had not been there, doing his job in the confessional that fateful Saturday afternoon in the summer of 2000? Would I have fallen back into the sins of the past? Would I have fallen into the clutches of a cult? Or would God have simply found someone else to help me?

Father Joe’s priesthood symbolized many things. His was an authentic voice for tradition. He was a loyal Polish son of the Church. He was devoted to the Mother of Christ.

But to me he’ll always simply be the man who saved my soul.

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