Saintly priest who assisted for years at St. Hugo of the Hills was close friends with Pope St. John Paul II, served Vatican II
BLOOMFIELD HILLS — Friends of Fr. Joseph Szewczyk say he was a living saint. The humble Polish priest devoted his life to God despite living through unimaginable circumstances in the early part of his life.
On Sept. 16, Fr. Szewczyk, who served for several decades in the Archdiocese of Detroit, passed away at the age of 91.
Fr. Szewczyk was born in Poland on April 2, 1932. As a young boy, his family was imprisoned in Auschwitz for his parents’ lack of cooperation with the Nazis. As an adult, Fr. Szewczyk declined to speak about this time in his life, but he agreed to write a few notes about his life in 2005 on the 50th anniversary of his priesthood. In the reflection, he shared that he and other children in the camp were charged with collecting deceased children for cremation every morning.
“When I observed highly educated German SS officers, very well dressed and fed, I started as a child to think why such people can perform such great crimes on us, and I concluded as a child that there must be something missing in their spiritual, moral life,” Fr. Szewczyk wrote in the reflection. “I said to myself that if I lived and became free, I would dedicate my life to Christ as a priest to heal the spiritual life of this highly educated class of people.”
Fr. Szewczyk entered seminary in Wroclaw, Poland, in 1950 and was ordained in 1955. Less than a year later, he contracted tuberculosis. His bishop wanted him to live in the mountains to help him heal and placed him under the care of a priest who arranged for Fr. Szewczyk to live in Zakopane, Poland, a mountain town at the base of the Tatra Mountains. The priest was Fr. Karol Wojtyla, who would later become Pope St. John Paul II.
When Fr. Wojtyla would visit Zakopane, the two would hike and ski together as Fr. Szewczyk’s health started to improve.
“When we were climbing mountains, he told me ‘to always have your eyes up, up to God,’” Fr. Szewczyk wrote.
He and Pope St. John Paul II remained friends for life.
In 1968, Fr. Szewczyk obtained a doctorate degree in France. While working on his theological studies for the degree, he served as secretary to theological commissions during the Second Vatican Council and met Pope St. John XXIII. During his time in France, he was awarded a scholarship for post-graduate studies in Jerusalem. His dissertation examined archeological findings on St. Peter’s house in Capernaum.
Upon leaving Jerusalem, Fr. Szewczyk moved to Michigan to teach at SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary, the Polish seminary of the Orchard Lake Schools, as well as St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Madonna University in Livonia, and the University of Detroit Mercy.
Beginning in 1970, Fr. Szewczyk was invited by Fr. Clement Esper to celebrate the daily 6:15 a.m. Mass at St. Hugo of the Hills Parish in Bloomfield Hills. He faithfully served the early Mass for decades until just weeks before his passing. Sacristans for the Mass say that regardless of how early they arrived, Fr. Szewczyk was already there.
“He would arrive at 4:30 a.m. to pray the Divine Office and his rosary, read the Bible, and pray his holy hour,” said Jim Walle, a St. Hugo parishioner sacristan and a friend to Fr. Szewczyk. “He would hear confession before Mass, after Mass, or any time. He put God before everything and his parishioners before himself. He was a true minister and a quiet, unassuming, and holy, holy priest who devoted his life to God.”
Fr. Szewczyk was passionate about supporting religious vocations. Fr. Dominic Macioce, who today serves at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Troy, met Fr. Szewczyk as a seminarian in 2015 when he assisted at St. Hugo on weekends and in his summer ministry. Fr. Macioce also helped Fr. Szewczyk with a weekly holy hour for vocations at the parish and with Communion calls to the sick.
“Seeing him in that aspect was influential on my own priesthood,” Fr. Macioce told Detroit Catholic. “If there was one aspect to describe him, it was care to the sick. That was his life. He became like another Christ to the people.”
Fr. Macioce served as associate pastor at St. Hugo from 2019 to 2022. During the pandemic, he offered confessions in the parish parking lot. Because of Fr. Szewczyk’s tuberculosis when he was younger, Fr. Macioce didn’t ask for the elder priest's help. Fr. Szewczyk learned about the “drive-through confessions” and approached Fr. Macioce with a serious, and almost sad, look. He wondered why he hadn’t been asked to help administer the sacrament.
“I explained to him that I didn’t ask because his lungs were compromised and he could get sick and die, but he looked me right in the eye and told me, ‘Fr. Dominic, I want to use my priesthood until the day I die,’” Fr. Macioce recalled. “And that’s exactly what he did in his life.”
Fr. Szewczyk cared for the sick at nursing homes beginning in 2001. He also offered healing Masses and showed great compassion for those suffering with afflictions of any kind. Fr. Szewczyk was so dedicated to caring for the sick that he continued to minister to them despite his own declining health, celebrating one of his final Masses at a senior living home from a wheelchair before being taken to the hospital.
Tom Bowen, a St. Hugo parishioner, close friend to Fr. Szewczyk, and his personal attorney, credits his friend with helping him grow in faith. Bowen told Fr. Szewczyk before his death that if he gets to heaven, it will be because of him.
“I’ve been honored to be his friend,” Bowen said. “His legacy is one of peace, love and hope. He fought chaos with quiet humbleness and peace. He was a humble servant who didn’t want any accolades. He didn’t want Pope John Paul II making him a bishop. He just wanted to serve.”
Fr. Macioce anointed Fr. Szewczyk the week before his death. He left Fr. Macioce with these final words, which guided his own priesthood: “Keep bringing people to Jesus.”
A funeral Mass was celebrated Sept. 18 at St. Hugo of the Hills. The Rite of Committal will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 20, at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Pontiac.