Photo: Marian archives
Small Priest — Big Impact
In one of his last acts before his death in 2000, Fr. Walter blesses new presses installed in the Marian Helper Center in Stockbridge, Mass.
He was a man known for the personal touch. His letter writing became legendary. He'd knock on doors and sit with strangers who quickly became lifelong friends and supporters — people who would team up with the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception in their mission to serve Christ and His Church.
He was physically diminutive, yet he struck an impressive presence.
It's not hyperbole to say that because of Fr. Walter F. Pelczynski, MIC, millions of people around the world have come to know The Divine Mercy message and Mary Immaculate through the Congregation's publishing apostolate, which has sent prayercards, newsletters, pamphlets, and magazines around the world.
This week the Marians remember the impressive life and work of Fr. Walter who died 10 years ago on Dec. 8, at the age of 84. He had always prayed for a holy death. And he was taken on Our Lady's major feast day, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. On the biggest Patronal feast of the Marians, the Blessed Virgin Mary came to take her spiritual son home.
"The picture of him blessing the printing press is one of the last Marian Helper Center activities he did," recalled Fran Bourdon, executive director of the Association of Marian Helpers. The Marians had just installed a new and sophisticated press in March 2000, Mr. Bourdon said, "and the first print job was prayercards for St. Faustina's canonization. How fitting!"
To the Ends of the Earth
Remembering Fr. Walter's life isn't merely a respectful gesture for a beloved brother in Christ. The Marians recognize the holy and historical lineage his work represents. He was the spiritual son of the Marians' founder, Blessed Stanislaus Papczynski (1631-1701). He was the hard-charging, no-nonsense, disciplined torchbearer of the message of The Divine Mercy as revealed to St. Faustina in the 1930s.
Born in Adams, Mass., on Aug. 7, 1916, son of Polish immigrants, Fr. Walter was ordained to the sacred priesthood on May 28, 1942. Before his ordination, he, along with other Marian seminarians in Washington, D.C., planted the seed that would become the Association of Marian Helpers. The seminarians would correspond with family members and others to help support the seminarians. The men would also form friendships with people who had given their names at different parishes where faith brochures were distributed that included the message of Divine Mercy. The Marians had just become official promoters of Divine Mercy, merely four years after the death of St. Faustina, whose revelations sparked the modern Divine Mercy movement.
It was Fr. Walter, still in his first year of priesthood, who in 1943 went home for a visit and was asked by the superiors to look for a place for a Novitiate, preferably in the countryside. The hope was that such a place would also serve as headquarters for his Congregation's apostolic activities.
He left Washington, D.C., headed to western Massachusetts and started scouting. One day, he made his way up a hillside in Stockbridge and came face to face with the Marians' destiny. He was with a pastor friend and a local real estate agent when he first laid eyed on what would become "Eden Hill." There was a beautiful summerhouse on an old farmstead. The views were stunning.
"This place is indeed a bit of heaven," Fr. Walter said. "This property must be ours."
With 'Trembling Hopes'
Stockbridge and the surrounding towns had, by then, become the famous summer stomping grounds for the country's millionaire industrialists — such as George Westinghouse — and its most famous artists and writers, including the novelist Edith Wharton.
By any reasonable estimation it would seem improbable that a small, unknown religious congregation — most of whose members spoke broken English and had wholeheartedly embraced the vow of poverty — had any chance of snatching such stunning property bookended by the most well-heeled of a rising nation.
Still, with "trembling hopes," Fr. Walter wrote in his memoirs, he sought to raise funds to purchase the property. The sale price was $22,500. It was a bargain. He succeeded, mainly through the support of Polish-Americans in the region who hoped to see the Marians prosper beyond the Congregation's native Polish homeland. He credits Divine Providence, but Fr. Walter did the legwork.
"I went there [Eden Hill] without a dollar in my pocket," Fr. Walter wrote in his memoirs. "Within two months we had acquired the extensive property in Stockbridge that was to become our center of activities in the United States as well as missions abroad."
The 'Tremendous Good'
From the very outset, local support for the Marians was incredible and indispensable and reflected the degree to which people were devoted to Fr. Walter. To prepare for the Marians move into an otherwise empty estate, Fr. Walter's friends and family in nearby Adams combed through attics and basements in search of old pieces of furniture and other necessities to donate. A group of ladies in Stockbridge formed what Fr. Walter called a "bucket brigade." They spent many days and nights scrubbing floors and washing windows and bathrooms on Eden Hill.
Townspeople even collected coal to keep the Marians warm throughout that first winter.
On Eden Hill, Fr. Walter and the Marians dedicated themselves to the spread of the Divine Mercy revelations of St. Faustina and devotion to Mary Immaculate through a publishing apostolate that continues to this day. (This website, for instance, is administered in the second floor of the former estate's horse stable on Eden Hill. On the floor below, the printing presses roar. You can feel the reverberation in the soles of your feet.)
By the time he sat down to write his memoirs, Fr. Walter knew the "tremendous good our work has done for souls."
He wrote, "One can hardly doubt when I read so many beautiful accounts of graces received by people, conversions of souls and special protection over homes and families where the image of Divine Mercy was venerated."
It was Fr. Walter who, through sheer charisma and spiritual zeal, founded the Association of Marian Helpers, based on Eden Hill. The Association is the spiritual benefit society that prayerfully and financially supports the Marians and their work throughout the world.
As an administrator, his acumen seemed instinctual. But he was a priest first.
'All for the Glory of God'
His niece, Virginia Antaya, refers to Fr. Walter as "Uncle Father."
"I personally experienced his deep and ultimate humility of heart as he often would say, 'all for the Glory of God!' and he truly meant it," she said. "He taught me to remember that each and every person we come in contact with is to be treated with reverence and dignity."
"He was a good and faithful servant," she said.
Brother Leonard Konopka, MIC, who worked side by side with Fr. Walter for years, said one of Fr. Walter's traits he admired most was "his ability to put aside any pressing issue in his daily routine when it became time for community prayers."
Brother Leonard continued, "His faithfulness and religious observance was unparalleled. Although he was quite a disciplinarian and held others and himself quite accountable, he also enjoyed having social outlets with a great number of people. Many of them would comment how he cared for them and would take the time to speak or write a personal thank you for the least amount of donations that they would contribute.
"Because of this personal demand he made of himself," Br. Leonard said, "he spent many hours burning that midnight oil in order to have each and every letter acknowledged. His work ethic was unmatched."
Father Walter's hard work eventually caught up with him. In 1953, he suffered a minor heart attack. His physician told him to slow down or risk more serious health concerns. He didn't follow the advice. By then he was a globetrotting emissary of the Marians' mercy mission.
He eventually became ill with dysentery, peritonitis, and pancreatitis. After a sick leave, he returned to Stockbridge to take over as director of the Association of Marian Helpers and thereby set a high bar for all future Association directors.
A Mission that Flourishes
Under his leadership, the Association flourished. Millions were being introduced to the Divine Mercy message and devotion, and the Marians and Marian Helpers together prayerfully and financially supported Marian missions overseas.
"He maintained an active correspondence with literally thousands of friends and associates," said Br. Andrew Maczynski, MIC, who became the Association's director seven years before the death of Fr. Walter. "And he made it a high priority to maintain regular contact with his own family."
Perhaps the most telling of the traits of the man, Fr. Walter devotes the largest chapter in his memoirs not writing about himself but rather of his fellow Marians. His life in the priesthood, he explained, "can be understood only in conjunction with a detailed description of the character of those with whom I shared it."
The last sentence of his memoirs is the following:
"Now I am getting ready for my last trip, and this I pray will be to my eternal destiny in heaven."
Father Pel discussed the work of the Marian Fathers in promoting Divine Mercy here:
The Marians have set up a special seminarian fund in Fr. Walter's name. For more information or to contribute, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 800-671-2020.