LOOK­ING BACK: FR SZYMANSKI

En­thu­si­as­tic about peo­ple and places, Fr Michael Szymanski shares his story with Moya Stevens

Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette - - FRONT PAGE -

As one gets older, the need for a spir­i­tual as­pect in the life gets stronger. The role of the priest hasn’t changed much over the years, peo­ple still have prob­lems and we still try and help them in their quest for spir­i­tual mean­ing

One can only feel the pas­sion and gen­uine love of peo­ple and their dif­fer­ences when speak­ing to Fr Michael Szymanski, Catholic Par­ish Priest of Port Dou­glas and Moss­man.

As a mi­grant to Aus­tralia, Fr Michael still speaks with a strong ac­cent and gets ex­cited about telling of his var­i­ous stints as par­ish priest in nu­mer­ous Aus­tralian post­ings.

He was born in a town in Kro­to­szyn in the west­ern part of Poland and stud­ied to be a priest at a Krakow sem­i­nary.

“I felt I wanted to serve, not to be served,” he said, “and be­lieve it is my pur­pose.”

Shortly af­ter his or­di­na­tion, Fr Michael was of­fered two op­tions of where he could serve as par­ish priest – Siberia or Aus­tralia.

“I pre­fer warmer cli­mates so I chose Aus­tralia,” he laughed, “but this is just a joke, OK?”

Ar­riv­ing in Aus­tralia in 1990, he first worked in south Syd­ney close to Moss Vale, then Mt Tam­borine and was then sent to Tum­barumba, on the west­ern edge of the Snowy Moun­tains.

“And in 1996 I was given the job as ad­min­is­tra­tor and par­ish priest of a small town just south of Wagga Wagga – The Rock – and I was ab­so­lutely fas­ci­nated by the sheep and wheat farm­ers of the district.

“They were so amaz­ingly friendly and wel­com­ing with a com­mon sense of life and they taught me a new ap­proach to life.”

Fr Michael said he has learned a great deal from his parish­ioners through their var­i­ous cul­tures and tra­di­tions.

“There was a good num­ber of Ger­man de­scen­dants farm­ing in the area and I learned to pick a Ger­man farm from an Aussie farm,” he ex­plained.

“The Ger­man farms were al­ways neat with green gar­dens all around the houses, whereas the Aussie farms weren’t quite as tidy and al­ways dry.

“This skill of course is no good up here – ev­ery­thing is green and all the houses have neat gar­dens.”

Fr Michael was sent to the Mornington Penin­sula and af­ter 13 years there, was back in Syd­ney in one of its big­gest parishes, Smith­field.

“I had two as­sis­tant priests and we held 13 masses each Sun­day – 6 in English, 2 in Span­ish, 2 in Viet­namese, and one each of Ital­ian, Ar­me­nian and Assyr­ian.

“The Catholic pri­mary school had 760 stu­dents of 56 na­tion­al­i­ties,” he said, “and it was a huge chal­lenge but made eas­ier be­cause I was also an im­mi­grant.”

“I re­mem­ber one day tak­ing the Prep class to the church and ob­vi­ously some of the chil­dren had never been into a church,” he said, “and one boy looked at the cru­ci­fix, tugged at my shirt and said ‘Fa­ther, who is this guy on the cross and who shot him?’

In 2016 Fr Michael was given the par­ish of Port Dou­glas and Moss­man and he was very happy with the post­ing.

“I had vis­ited here be­fore and find the peo­ple so friendly – and they’re a real mix­ture of cul­tures which I love.

“And early on I had a cou­ple come up to me and said ‘Aren’t you the priest we had on the Mornington Penin­sula?’ and I found out they spend win­ter up here and sum­mer in Vic­to­ria.”

When he is not min­is­ter­ing to his par­ish, Fr Michael may be found ei­ther in his vegie patch or in the kitchen.

“My fa­ther was a butcher and my mother a chef so I love cook­ing and I am a butcher’s night­mare be­cause I can pick out the best pieces of meat.”

The range of food in Aus­tralia and par­tic­u­larly in far north Queens­land still amazes Fr Michael. He loves noth­ing more than tak­ing vis­it­ing for­eign places, stay­ing with lo­cals and learn­ing more about their cook­ing.

“Kitchens are the cen­tre of a home and you can learn so much about the cul­ture of a peo­ple from spend­ing time with them in their kitchen,” he said.

But the fo­cus on cook­ing and Fr Michael’s deep faith of­ten work for parish­ioners in trou­ble.

“One day a cou­ple came to me say­ing they were plan­ning to sep­a­rate be­cause things weren’t work­ing out for them any­more.

“I asked them how of­ten they and their chil­dren sat around the ta­ble for din­ner and they said not very of­ten.

“I sug­gested they try this one sim­ple thing to im­prove their com­mu­ni­ca­tion – and it worked and they stayed to­gether!”

Fr Michael quoted sev­eral in­stances from the bi­ble where the din­ing ta­ble was a fea­ture for com­mu­ni­ca­tion and par­tic­u­larly the Wed­ding at Cana.

“Tech­nol­ogy is ru­in­ing mean­ing­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion and I worry about this next gen­er­a­tion in this re­gard,” he said.

Fr Michael has strong views on so­ci­ety today and the fo­cus on ma­te­rial things. “We work, work, work to col­lect, col­lect, col­lect, and we don’t have mean­ing­ful time for the chil­dren.”

“Be­tween 30 and 50 years of age, peo­ple are too oc­cu­pied with their life – home, kids mort­gage and their spir­i­tual life dis­ap­pears,” he said. “But as one gets older, the need for a spir­i­tual as­pect in their life gets stronger. The role of the priest hasn’t changed much over the years, peo­ple still have prob­lems and we still try and help them in their quest for spir­i­tual mean­ing.”

Pic­ture: MOYA STEVENS

Fa­ther Michael Szymanski: “I felt I wanted to serve, not to be served”

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