Father Stanley Sobiech, OFM Conv.
My name is Stanley Sobiech I am an 86-year-old Conventual Franciscan Priest. I was born in Poland on July 20, 1933 in a large village of about 400 families, one hundred miles north of Warsaw. Currently I am retired and live at St. Hyacinth Friary in Chicopee, MA Senior Friar residence for members of our Province.
My life is like a serial TV soap opera “Days of My Life.” I still do not understand my childhood and high school life and now I know that this was Mission Impossible. I still don’t know why God put in my heart the dream to be a priest.
To understand my life, we need to understand the culture, traditions and circumstances – in a special way – of the German Nazi invasion, Communist rulers, revolution and divide and conquer.
Seventy-two years ago, on Thursday, September 12, 1940, I received my first Holy Communion. During the final examination the priest whom I did not know because he was hiding underground, gave us a simple question – and did not ask for an answer. His question was “Maybe someday one of your will become a priest?” The room was very quiet – no emotion – but I still can see his face. I still can hear his voice and I still keep in my heart my answer. Yes, I will be a priest.
At this time, from 1939-1945, Poland was occupied. There was almost 24 hours of martial law. Study was illegal and was punished by being sent to a concentration camp or even execution. From my village, four men were arrested and never came home. At this time, I helped my parents on the farm. When I was eight years old, I was almost a professional farmer – but I was really a professional shepherd for cows, horses, lambs and even pigs. As a child, I was physically abused many times, but my parents comforted me and helped me defuse my anger.
In 1945, when I was 12 years old, I met a real teacher for the first time. At this time, we did not have a school building, books, paper, pencils or text books. Close to Christmas 1945, we received a delivery from Santa Claus from the USA, including fish oil. This time a second professional teacher came to our village. After five years of study in my village, when I was 17 years old, I was sent to high school. This was the first time I saw a school building and a dormitory. I had my own bed – and we also had a dining room with tables and utensils. In our school there was no bathroom or running water, but close to the school was a special building and this was the bathroom – but no water, no toilet, no toilet paper…but we did have newspaper and many flies!
In the dormitory we had water and real toilets – but that building was 200 yards from the school. Later my school’s name changed to Joseph Stalin School. This school taught no religion – no crosses were in the classrooms – only pictures of Stalin, Lenin, Marx and many Communist officials. The dormitory schedule had no place for prayer or for church services. Each Saturday after regular classes we had about three hours of good dancing and then a good supper. On Sunday, we slept longer and had a good breakfast and then two by two they took us to the movies. First we had about one half hour Communist indoctrination and then a nice Russian movie. One Sunday, I visited my parents in order to practice my religion. While walking to Church, I looked over a stone wall and saw many people. In curiosity, I went through the front gate. To my surprise, a pastor whom I knew smiled and said to me: “Stanley, Stanley, stay here, stay here.” I asked what was happening. He answered: “Confirmation.” A couple of minutes later some woman I knew came to me and asked for my Confirmation name. Later some man put his hand on my shoulder, the Bishop touched my forehead and cheeks and my Confirmation was finished. I don’t know how many made Confirmation with me.
In 1954, I finished high school and passed the test of maturity. With the diploma in my pocket, I separated myself from Communist indoctrination. A couple of days later I visited Warsaw. The Father Provincial of the Warsaw Province was the first person with whom I shared my 14-year secret of dreaming to become a Franciscan friar. In friendly conversation, he asked me for my diploma. The Provincial saw that my diploma was from Joseph Stalin High School and it was a good reason for him not to trust me. He was afraid I was a spy. So he refuse me – but he gave me hope to try again the next year. This meant I must go to work. During this year I visited my family for a couple of days at Easter – and the first days of July for vacation. The first question I received from my parents was: “How long is your vacation?” My simple answer – “I’m leaving on the 9th of August.” My parents were very happy because I was able to help on the farm. Sunday, the 7th of August, was the first time I showed my mother my invitation to become a Conventual Franciscan. She had been outside milking the cows to bring me some milk and she came home to clean the stove of ash and cook me something to eat. Her first reaction was to sit down and cry loudly as she called my name. To understand my mother’s reaction, you must know our tradition and circumstances. I was the oldest son. I had four sisters and one brother eighteen years younger than me. She was sure the priestly life was not for me. If I left the Franciscans later this meant public shame for my family. So her first reaction was fear and shock. I’m sure my family prayed hard for my perseverance and they were only very happy after my ordination.
On Tuesday, August 9, 1955, I came to a friary in Niepokalanow. My first surprise – after I finished my first cigarette – was the Novice Master saying to me: “Choose cigarettes or Niepokalanow.” The next surprise was having my hair completely cut off – my head was completely white – the halo a sign of holiness! The worst surprise came the first day of an eight-day retreat. The Novice Master said to me: “Young man, you need a dispensation from the Joseph Stalin High School diploma. My group all received the Franciscan habit – but I was still waiting for my dispensation. Now I am sure that my haircut was a problem for my Provincial. What are we to do with this young man with a halo on his head! But seven years later on Sunday, July 8, 1962 in Niepokalanow I received the gift of Jesus Christ’s priesthood.
My soap opera life ended when I asked my Provincial for a mission in Africa, but the Communist government sent me to the USA. So far, it has never been in my mind to be “the big boss” – but only a poor missionary in Africa. My happiness was – and is – to be a good “secondary” actor.
“Not to me – not to me, O Lord, but to Your Name be the glory. Amen”
My favorite type of prayer is personal conversation with God. I am in awe that God is so good to me. God knows my needs, and I am thankful for what I have received. My favorite prayer is “Angel of God”
To my younger student friars and men considering a vocation I would say: Our life without real faith is nothing. Faith is a gift from God. I believe God loves me. Being a Franciscan without faith is a waste of time. God called me to be a Franciscan, but I had a choice and said yes. My life is fulfilled.