SPARTANBURG — By the time Father Michael J. Polewczak found out he had cancer in late May, it was too late to do anything about it. The disease had insinuated its way into most of the vital organs of his 62-year-old body and killed him with devastating quickness.
He died on June 23.
Father Polewczak had decided to die at home and without treatment, in the bosom of his spiritual family, his parish.
Father Thomas J. Krupa, VF, a priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., was a friend of Father Polewczak for 34 years and the homilist at his funeral.
“Mike was comfortable in his decision,” said Father Krupa. “He wanted to stay in this place, to be an inspiration to the people of the parish.”
The members of Jesus Our Risen Savior Church rallied around their dying priest, volunteering to care for him in shifts during his final days and to draw inspiration from the end of his journey, just as they had from his earlier steps.
In an interview with The Miscellany two days before he died, Father Polewczak was asked what he was thinking about as the end drew near.
“I’m thinking about heaven,” he said.
“No doubt in my mind, none at all. And I’m not afraid, because I have a strong faith,” he said.
Father Polewczak said he was praying for “all the good people who shepherded me along the way on the path of my own spiritual growth.”
He was busy planning his funeral, he said, including the music and a request that mourners contribute to the church building fund or Guest House in lieu of flowers.
Guest House is an addiction treatment center in Michigan for Catholic clergy and religious. Father Polewczak was once a patient there for alcoholism, and he called his affliction both “a struggle and a joy.” The joy, he said, came from overcoming it.
He had permission from his bishop to drink mustum, minimally fermented grape juice, during liturgies and to convey the duties of purifying the sacred vessels to other ministers of the Eucharist, so he wouldn’t have to consume any wine.
“Guest House rescued him,” said Deacon Robert Sturm, parish life facilitator at the church. “He then became the effective priest he always wanted to be.”
Father Polewczak was a stout man, a wisecracking wit whose full life was etched into his face. He played golf, but not often in his last year, and was a gregarious man of the cloth.
For decades, he vacationed every January with three other priests on a Caribbean island. Of the “St. Thomas Four,” only Father Krupa is still alive.
Father Mike, as his parishioners and friends knew him, seemed content with his station in life.
“Mike always wanted to be a simple parish priest, nothing more,” Father Krupa said.
He joked constantly with his deacons and the retired priests of the parish, always having the advantage of his position as head man.
“He would pick on us, but I enjoyed him and his personality, knowing full well that his purpose was to use me as a straight man,” Deacon Sturm said. “We loved and respected each other.”
Indeed, the priest said two days before he died: “Everybody should have a Deacon Bob in their parish.”
M.J. Weiskircher, a cantor at the church, was a confidant of the late administrator. When they spoke in the week before he died, she asked him to give her insight from the other side.
“When we were talking about the end, I said, ‘You’ve got to appear to me and show me what Jesus is like.’ He said that if I really wanted to know to just go down to the soup kitchen,” Weiskircher said.
She said the dying priest called S.C. Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone after the diagnosis and decision not to seek treatment. The bishop offered to bring him to Charleston for his last days but wanted to die in his rectory.
“He said, ‘This parish is my family, and the parish will care for me until the end.’ That’s why we are living through this death experience,” Weiskircher said.
Father Polewczak was under hospice care during June and the head nurse, Nancy Dereng, is a member of the parish. She supported his decision to die at home instead of in a hospital room with tubes and machines attached to his failing body.
“There’s a certain beauty in the natural dying process,” Dereng said. “I told him that the fact that you’re a priest and have chosen not to take all the interventions to prolong life, shows people that you don’t have to take extraordinary means. He has been an example of the grace of the acceptance of death.”
Deacon Sturm said Father Polewczak was a blessing to his parishioners in life and in death.
To show their respect and love for the priest who guided them, church members and others from the community gathered for final farewells.
A viewing and vigil service were held June 26 at Jesus Our Risen Savior, and the funeral Mass was celebrated June 27. Father Polewczak was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Charleston.
He was born Dec. 30, 1946, in Newark, N.J., the son of John J. Polewczak and the late Mary Ancmon, and graduated from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Md., with a master’s degree in theology. He was ordained a priest on May 19, 1973, at The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, N.Y., by Bishop Edwin B. Broderick of the Diocese of Albany.
Father Polewczak served in various assignments as a pastor or associate pastor within the Diocese of Albany until he was assigned to South Carolina in July 1995.
While in the Diocese of Charleston, he served in the cluster parishes of St. Ann in Kingstree, St. Philip the Apostle in Lake City, and St. Patrick Mission in Johnsonville. He was then assigned pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Orangeburg, followed by his post as administrator of Jesus Our Risen Savior in February 2007.
Father Polewczak was a fourth degree member of the Knights of Columbus and served as chaplain of the Father Maurice Daly Assembly 1655 in Spartanburg.
He is survived by his father, John J. Polewczak of Cross, S.C.; two sisters, Catherine Ann Griffin and Barbara Elizabeth Root, both of Cross; and two brothers, James A. Polewczak of Northumberland, N.Y., and John W. Polewczak of Grover Beach, Calif.
Condolences may be expressed to the family online at www.jmdunbar.com.
In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the building fund of
Jesus Our Risen Savior Church,
2575 Reidville Road,
Spartanburg, SC 29301
1601 Joslyn Road,
Lake Orion,MI 48360.
Amy Wise Taylor contributed to this article.