LOOKING BACK: FR SZYMANSKI
Enthusiastic about people and places, Fr Michael Szymanski shares his story with Moya Stevens
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.”
Father Michael Szymanski: “I felt I wanted to serve, not to be served”