Family By Choice, Not Genes

They say that you choose your friends but not your family. But in some cases, friends choose each other to become family. Such is the case with “Father George.” Usually you only see priests in genealogy pages if they were a beloved uncle or brother. In this case, I refer to Fr. George as my adopted grandfather. Whether I adopted him or he adopted me is questionable! This week marked the 19th anniversary of his death. Because the parish he founded, Our Lady of Calvary in Philadelphia, is celebrating its 50th Jubilee this year, his life was celebrated in full that evening. Here is my tribute to my adopted “grandfather,” a great man who served God, country, and all men and women.

Father George Wierzalis
The Reverend Monsignor George S. Wierzalis preferred to be called “Father George” – he was a self-effacing man who eschewed fancy titles. He was born on April 16, 1910 in Shenandoah, PA. Feeling called to the priesthood early in life, he studied at a Polish seminary, Ss. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan, and was ordained on May 30, 1936. He served as a young priest in several churches in Philadelphia and the surrounding area. During World War II he served as a chaplain with the Army and Army Air Corps. He served for over two years in the Pacific Theater, and he was one of twelve Catholic chaplains (58 chaplains in total) who assisted on Iwo Jima. Because of his service there, he earned the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. The devastating loss of lives on Iwo Jima greatly affected Fr. George, and he never liked to talk about his time as a chaplain.

After other assignments as a hospital chaplain and a pastor, Fr. George was asked to become pastor of a brand new parish in Philadelphia in 1958 – Our Lady of Calvary. The “far northeast” area of the city of Philadelphia was still undeveloped in 1958 and looked much more like farmland than a cityscape. As more Philadelphians began to move north out of the congested city streets, entire neighborhoods were developed. Our Lady of Calvary parish, or OLC, filled the needs of many Catholics who moved into this “new” area. As a pastor in the 1960s and 1970s, Fr. George was a forward-thinker and instituted ideas that are modern by today’s standards. He believed that every child deserved a good education, and OLC was the only Catholic school for many years that did not charge tuition, depending rather on the generosity of the parents based on their own financial conditions.

Fr. George was a very imposing figure to the school children – probably because he still walked with a military bearing, straight and tall. Younger children assumed he was God Himself! But he was far from stern, as I learned when I began to work at the rectory as a teenager. Fr. George treated “his girls” in the rectory and “his boys” working as sacristans very well, and he was always concerned with how we were doing in school and in life. How many other priests would get visited by teenagers on their way to proms, just so they could show off their pretty dresses and fancy tuxedos? He would smile, laugh, and send us on our way. He’d often pass us envelopes with “book money” for school, asking that we kept it confidential so other kids wouldn’t feel left out. I don’t think there were any kids to be left out though, because years later I found out that he bestowed these gifts to many of us.

Fr. George died on January 31, 1989, but his presence is still strong both in the church he founded and in the people whose lives he touched. I wish that I had known him as an adult rather than as a teenager, because there are many things that I would like to ask him now. But the one lesson he taught me was – don’t take yourself too seriously. Know that you are where God wants you to be – Love God, live your life, and have fun doing it. Thanks, Father George!

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4 thoughts on “Family By Choice, Not Genes

  1. I attended OLC through the 70’s and early 80’s I had always admired and looked up to Father George. The article hits a soft spot in my heart! I miss that time !

  2. Hi, Christine,

    I graduated OLC in ’81, so we were probably there together. I’m glad you admired Fr. George, too. He was quite a guy!

    Donna

  3. Pingback: Serving Those Who Serve: Military Chaplains « The Catholic Gene

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