MOUNTAIN HOME — Father Stan Swiderski came to Arkansas 30 years ago, primarily serving as associate pastor and later pastor of St. Peter the Fisherman Church in Mountain Home and about five years serving St. Mary Church in Batesville.
After seven years in the Diocese of Little Rock, in 2000, he was incardinated to the Diocese of Little Rock. On Oct. 11 he will celebrate 60 years as a priest.
“It is like the old saying, ‘Inside of every old man, there is a young man asking, ‘What happened?’” he said with a laugh, thick Polish accent and wide smile. “And you know what? I look at my life, my 60 years of priesthood, my answer is simple: Grace happened — God’s grace.”
Grace has marked each moment of his unlikely journey from a missionary priest in Poland to a diocesan priest in Arkansas.
The youngest of two children, Father Swiderski admits his childhood was “kind of messy.” He was born “in exile because the Germans came over” in 1939, the start of World War II.
“It was a time of war. I don’t have, I would say, very sweet memories of that time when I was a baby or little toddler. I remember I was 5 years old, a little older, closer to 6 when I saw my father for the first time. Because he came back from the Western Front after World War II,” he said.
Father Swiderski, 83, said his father Joseph, a teacher tasked with establishing new school systems following the war, was fired and imprisoned for refusing to sign a document supporting the Communist Party. When he was released, he had difficulty finding a job.
Eventually, he found work, though it required commuting long distances. Father Swiderski spent much of his childhood close to his mother, Mary, helping her manage their home. At just 16, he joined the seminary to become a priest with the Society of Salvatorian Fathers.
Following his ordination in 1963, Father Swiderski worked in parishes but soon went to the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, to study sociology and Polish literature. There he met Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Kraków, known today as St. John Paul II. The university now bears his name. A friend of Father Swiderski was an assistant to Archbishop Wojtyla, which led to a few chance meetings with him.
“(Archbishop Wojtyla asked,) 'Are you coming to my presentations?' I said, ‘Your excellency, I am … but not every time because I’m studying something else.’ ‘What are you studying?’ I said, ‘Sociology.’ ‘Oh, very boring,’” the future saint told him. “He said, ‘Philosophy is something to study.’ I said, ‘Well, maybe when I mature.’”
In 1972, Father Swiderski traveled to Chicago to work in parishes, launch a Polish-Catholic radio program and be a reporter and editor for a local Polish newspaper.
In 1993, he met a Missouri priest “accidentally” while visiting the sick and the priest mentioned he sometimes helps in Arkansas because there was “a dire need of priests.” The Polish priest wrote a letter to the late Bishop Andrew J. McDonald. Within a week, the bishop invited him to Arkansas, setting Father Swiderski on the path to his true calling.
When Father Swiderski moved to Arkansas in 1993, Bishop McDonald told him, “You are the best parish priest I’ve ever had assigned to Mountain Home because you fit there like a glove.”
“He was like a father to me. And that’s why when he said those words to me … Then I said, ‘My Lord, I discovered finding my true identity, a parish priest.’ And truly, I never enjoyed myself more than being a parish priest. I believe it was a turning point,” Father Swiderski said.
Besides celebrating Mass, what he called “the highest point of his ministry,” two of his favorite ministries have been preaching and hearing confessions. The ingredients for the quintessential Father Swiderski homily include: drawing inspiration from spiritual writers like St. Augustine, Henry Nouwen, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, keeping them no more than 10 minutes and always starting off with a joke.
“It puts people at ease,” he said, adding that he would also pray in front of the Eucharist before writing.
He became a senior priest in 2013, retiring in Mountain Home. Even as a senior priest, Father Swiderski’s sacrifice for his flock continued. He became a caregiver to his best friend, Inge Marler, who died Dec. 12, 2020, after suffering from lung cancer in her final years. For over 20 years, Inge and her late husband Alvin Bruce Marler had been close friends with Father Swiderski. He would take Marler to her chemotherapy appointments, prayed with her and cared for her at her home.
“She was so nice to me, so good, so helpful. She was a friend, a true meaning of what being a friend is. She was there for you,” he said.
While Father Swiderski admits he can’t quantify all the blessings the priesthood has allowed him to share with others, he knows where they came from.
“My gosh, I don’t even know how many times I’ve baptized children. How many times I’ve poured the water of baptism on their heads? How many times I’ve blessed people getting married? How many times I signed the cross over the head of penitents giving absolution? How many times I was at the bed at the time of someone dying, holding their hand and telling them things are going to be fine. All of those things, you count all of those things and I look at my hands and I say, ‘My Lord what happened?’ It was not me. Him,” Father Swiderski said.
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