"Sto lat! Sto lat!" (One hundred years! One hundred years!) The first words of the traditional Polish song sung at birthdays and other congratulatory times seldom rang truer than last Saturday at the Saint Ann Rest Home in Milwaukee, where dozens of friars gathered with the local Dominican Sisters community in celebrating the one hundredth birthday of our dear Fr. Felix Reczek, OFM.
The many guests first filled the chapel and gave thanks to God with the celebration of Eucharist presided by Provincial Minister Fr. John Puodziunas, OFM. In his homily, Fr. John pointed out how the world of August 3, 1913 was much different than ours today. So much of what we take for granted in the technological and social fields had not yet taken place. Yet through all the changes over the past century, the faithful service of Fr. Felix was his constant response to the eternal love of God who called him to Franciscan life many decades ago.
After Mass, the festivities moved to the social hall where tables had been set for an elegant meal. Fr. Felix was impressed with the beautiful cake, the bright bouquets of flowers, and the happy chatter of the many guests. Before praying grace, all enjoyed a video presentation by our "other" Reczek, Fr. Paul Reczek, OFM, who had prepared the video while visiting during Christmas 1999 at Sacred Heart Parish in Bellows Falls, Vermont, where Fr. Felix had served as pastor for 26 years. After the delicious dinner, the birthday cake was brought to the head table as all sang "Happy Birthday" and "Sto Lat." And, yes, in just a couple of tries he was able to blow out the candles!
Fr. John spoke of the greetings and kind wishes from near and far. In addition to friars from several nearby friaries, also present were Fr. John Hardin, OFM, Provincial of the Saint Barbara Province in California, and Fr. Gino Correa, OFM, Provincial of the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe in New Mexico. Fr. John read congratulatory letters and proclamations from several prominent officials, among whom were Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin; Tom Barrett, Mayor of Milwaukee; Paul Ryan, U.S. Congressman from the First District; Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee; and President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. Clearly moved by the occasion, Fr. John shared with the guests that he talked with Fr. Felix several months ago about plans for the upcoming celebration. Fr. Felix wanted to make sure that, if he were to be called home to God before then, the party should go on anyway!
Of course, no centennial birthday celebration is complete without asking about the secret to long life. It seems the simplest advice is often the best, as Fr. Felix responded, "Just love God, and serve His people." Indeed, love and service are the hallmarks of Fr. Felix's century. He was born in Rutland, Vermont and baptized John, one of eight children. His father worked in the marble quarry industry that employed many immigrant families at the time. When he was still in grade school at St. Stanislaus Kostka, little John felt the first stirrings of a Franciscan vocation as he read about the Franciscans in the Miesięsznik Franciszkański, the monthly Polish devotional published in Pulaski, Wisconsin. After high school, he took the long train ride to Wisconsin where he was invested in the habit of penance on August 14, 1936 and began his studies in the growing Franciscan community. He was ordained a "simplex priest" in 1944 after three years of theology, and a year later he began more than 20 years of itinerant preaching and service as excurrens in parishes throughout New England, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
Where the first half of his life in ministry was spent in itinerancy, the second half was marked by a deep and abiding love for the people in a small parish back in his beloved Vermont. Friars often joke, "Beware of temporary assignments!" Fr. Felix was asked to do a six month substitution at Sacred Heart Parish in Bellows Falls -- where he eventually celebrated both his silver and golden jubilees of priesthood! The wandering preacher made a smooth transition to the beloved pastor, and he was very respected for his work ethic, his humility, and his humor. Eventually this close-knit yet diminishing congregation came to see that day that awaited many similar parishes, as the diocese closed it in 2004, six years short of its one hundredth anniversary.
Fr. Felix returned to Queen of Peace Friary in Burlington, Wisconsin to retire within the fraternity of his brothers there. Ever the gentleman, he brought delight and kindness to his brothers as they shared their later years together. He continues his care of souls at his current assignment to the ministry of prayer at the St. Ann Rest Home, where the Polish Dominican sisters still marvel at the holiness of our brother.
(With gratitude to Br. Jerry Tokarz, OFM, for background information. This originally appeared in the August 9, 2013 issue of "NEWSbriefs", newsletter of the Assumption BVM Province.)