ST. FRANCIS — A gasp sounded through the congregation at Sacred Heart Church Monday evening as the more than 200 people gathered for Mass learned the cause of their pastor’s death the previous day.
The worshippers at the memorial Mass being celebrated for Fr. Jan Kieliszewski, knew that the 66-year-old priest had been found dead in the rectory at Nativity of the Lord Parish, Cudahy, Sunday morning, but based on the audible reaction, most did not know the cause.
“We come together tonight with a mix of emotions and more questions than answers,” said Fr. Bob Betz, reading a statement at the beginning of Mass that had been prepared by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. “We have now had confirmation from the Medical Examiner’s Office that Fr. Jan died yesterday, a victim of suicide.”
Fr. Betz, pastor of neighboring Divine Mercy Parish, South Milwaukee, and a seminary classmate’s of Fr. Kieliszewski, continued, “The death of someone we love is always difficult, but in situations like this, the pain is compounded. Everything that Jesus reveals about God assures us that God’s hands are much gentler and safer than our own. In the end, nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love and forgiveness.”
A native of Kenosha, Fr. Kieliszewski was ordained May 24, 1973 by Archbishop William E. Cousins at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee.
Among the parishes he served are St. Joseph, Fond du Lac; St. Mark, Kenosha; Sacred Heart, Fond du Lac; St. Sebastian, Milwaukee; St. Charles Borromeo, Burlington and St. Augustine of Hippo, Milwaukee. His current assignment as shared pastor of Nativity of the Lord Parish, Cudahy, and Sacred Heart, St. Francis, which he assumed in January 2012, was something of a homecoming for the priest who served as pastor of St. Frederick, Cudahy, from 1995 to 2000, prior to its merger to form Nativity of the Lord.
“He was always smiling, always pleasant; I really cannot say anything negative about him,” said Betty Glisch, who said he was her pastor in the late 1990s when she belonged to the Cudahy parish, and again now at Sacred Heart where she has been a member for about eight years.
“When I was at Nativity, I was a lector and I took Communion to the elderly and I’d see him in the rectory before Mass and he was always pleasant, always greeted you; you felt like he was happy you were there,” said Glisch, who said she always felt comfortable around him and is feeling “very shocked, very, very bad about this.”
Although the news came as a surprise to her, Glisch said it has not rocked her faith. “Obviously he had issues and God is forgiving him. Sacred Heart is real strong and I think Nativity is too. What ever they’ll bring us, it will work,” she said, confident the parishes will move beyond the tragedy.
Mary Luljak, a member of Nativity of the Lord Parish, has equally fond memories of Fr. Kieliszewski.
“Fr. Jan was really a very humble, religious and very caring man. He will be deeply missed and I will always remember the kindness he showed to everybody,” she said, recalling one time, on the feast of the Visitation, when he said to her, “It’s the Visitation of Mary and that’s your name, so Mary, you’re very blessed.”
“He was very concerned about others and very religious – and I’m sure God has him in a special place in heaven for all the good that he did,” said Luljak.
She, too, is confident that the parish will heal.
“Even though tragedy enters our life in many aspects and many ways, there’s always that positive force of faith. Incidents of this kind have occurred; I firmly believe God is very forgiving and is a merciful God and if people have troubles, through their troubles, he understands so much better that we do. We’re finite people and he’s infinite,” she said.
For the past several weeks Fr. Kieliszewski had been suffering from a self-diagnosed bout of food poisoning, according to Nativity of Our Lord director of administrative services, Bryan Martin. Since he was not feeling well, help-out priests were celebrating weekend Masses at the parishes.
Fr. Kieliszewski thanked his parishioners for their understanding during his absence with a note in the July 21 bulletin: “In the past few weeks, I have suffered a bout of food poisoning and am slowly regaining my strength. I hope to be back with you soon, and in the meantime, I appreciate your understanding and prayers.” He signed it, “Peacefully, Fr. Jan.”
Knowing that he was not well, in recent days, Nativity parish staff communicated with Fr. Kieliszewski through an intercom system and by sliding notes under his rectory door, which was near the parish offices.
According to Martin, he spoke with Fr. Kieliszewski by intercom three times on Friday.
But on Sunday morning, concerned for his wellbeing, Nativity director of liturgy and music, Bobby Patrick, said he and Martin went to check on Fr. Kieliszewski shortly before Mass was to begin. They discovered his body and contacted the Cudahy police.
Shaken by the discovery, which he said will remain in his mind forever, Martin said he prefers to remember the wit and kindness of the man for whom he worked for the past year and a half.
“He was always a good listener, never saw him raise his voice – ever. He was such a kind soul. I really loved working for him,” he said, noting that last year, he provided much support at the unexpected death of Martin’s sister.
“He was so kind to my family and (attentive to) our needs. Not knowing my sister, he gave a wonderful homily,” said Martin.
He also fondly recalled the wit of his pastor. For example, he said, at lunch time, Fr. Kieliszewski would walk through the lunch room where Martin and Mary Jo Hallfeld, parish secretary, were eating, and might say, “How’s it going, kids?” and Hallfeld would respond, “Just fine, Dad.”
Once a week, the parish staff went out for lunch and Fr. Kieliszewski often joined them. One time, Martin said he was surprised when Fr. Kieliszewski offered to drive, since he took great pride in his limited edition Ford Taurus.
“Are we worthy of sitting in it?” Martin remembers joking with the priest about driving in his prized car.
“(His death) caught us off guard big time; we had no idea,” said Martin, admitting he is also angry at the priest.
“I’m angry at him right now, and I know that’s part of grieving process,” he said, adding he hopes Fr. Kieliszewski is at peace.
“I’ll miss some of his wit, and even some of things he would do to drive me crazy, said Martin, adding, “This came out of nowhere. To be one of two who found him, I’m having a hard time.”
He’s confident, however, that the parishes are strong enough to move on. While small, he said the parish staff is tight-knit and the parish council is strong. “We’ll carry on, business as usual,” he said, adding he’s been grateful for the offers of support they’ve received from neighboring parishes.
As of press time, funeral arrangements for Fr. Kieliszewski were pending but are expected to take place early next week. According to the statement read by the archdiocese, a priest will be appointed soon to serve as temporary administrator of both parishes.