Because his Polish surname is a bit foreign to south Louisiana dialects, Michigan-born Father John Cisewski (pronounced chi-SES-kee), the pastor of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, always has encouraged his parishioners to call him “Father John.”
But now that Pope Benedict XVI has named him a monsignor based on his 41 years of dedicated priestly ministry in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, parishioners may feel compelled to come up with a loftier salutation.
Not that he’s asking for any special treatment.
“Father John works very well for me,” Msgr. Cisewski, 68, said with a laugh. “Msgr. John is too much of a twist on the tongue.”
Archbishop Gregory Aymond announced March 7 that Father Cisewski had been named a “chaplain to his holiness” (Pope Benedict) with the title of “monsignor.” The archbishop said he was “delighted” that the pope had “acknowledged his fidelity to priestly ministry over the last 41 years.”
“He has been exemplary in his devotion to God’s people and in his leadership as a priest,” Archbishop Aymond said.
Out of the blue
Msgr. Cisewski said he was apprehensive when the archbishop approached him before a recent meeting and asked to see him privately afterwards.
“If you want to talk about surprised,” Msgr. Cisewski said. “I thought he was calling me in to take me to task for something. I’m not making that up. I sat through that meeting wondering, ‘Gee, what’s up?’ After he told me everything (about the honor), he kept talking, and I told him later, ‘I have no idea what you just said.’ It was a complete surprise. It just came out of nowhere.”
Msgr. Cisewski grew up in Ironwood, Mich., located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that belongs to the Diocese of Marquette. For the geographically challenged, Ironwood is 200 miles north of Green Bay, Wis.
Mission talk from a priest
The seeds of his vocation were planted in his family and also in Catholic school, where he recalled a mission talk in fourth or fifth grade delivered by a priest from the Society of the Divine Word.
“He talked about going and working in the missions, and I can’t tell you how many years I thought that maybe I’d go to Africa someday,” Msgr. Cisewski said.
In fact, after high school, Msgr. Cisewski began priestly formation with Society of the Divine Word, where one of his classmates was T. Gaspard Glasgow, who later transferred to Notre Dame Seminary and was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 1969.
Msgr. Cisewski had two other SVD connections to New Orleans. New Orleans Auxiliary Bishop Harold Perry had been provincial of the southern province of the SVDs until he was named the first African-American bishop in modern U.S. history in 1965.
The other Divine Word priest – Father Dominic Carmon – was pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish on the south side of Chicago when Msgr. Cisewski was an SVD seminarian and assigned there for pastoral work. Father Carmon later became auxiliary bishop of New Orleans in 1993.
Msgr. Cisewski said it was working with the youth in St. Elizabeth Parish that became one of the true blessings of his life. The Robert Taylor Homes – about 20 16-story apartment buildings for low-income residents – were located in the parish.
“I remember my prefect wanted me to go to the south side of Chicago, and I did not want to go,” Msgr. Cisewski said. “They pretty much forced me to go. It turned out to be an absolutely great place for me. In 1966 and ’67, there was a lot of racial unrest. It was not the best of times. But the experience of working with the youth group made a big difference. St. Elizabeth was a fine church and did good work.”
Got a New Orleans invite
After taking a couple of years off from the seminary, his good friend, Father Glasgow, wrote to him about resuming his seminary studies in New Orleans.
“We exchanged letters and he made New Orleans sound just like heaven on earth,” Msgr. Cisewski said.
While Msgr. Cisewski finished his studies at Notre Dame Seminary, he was assigned to St. Philip the Apostle and worked under Msgr. Andrew Taormina. He was ordained by Archbishop Philip Hannan in 1971 at St. Philip, following a short-lived practice of ordaining men in their home parishes.
Along the way, Msgr. Cisewski worked under pastors such as Fathers Ignatius Roppolo, Winus Roeten, Joseph Putnam and Ralph Carroll.
“They were all good guys,” Msgr. Cisewski said. “I hear people complain about not always getting along with their pastors, but I was with great priests.”
The post-Katrina merger of St. Francis de Sales and Holy Ghost parishes into the newly established St. Katharine Drexel Parish, worshiping at Holy Ghost Church, was a difficult challenge for everyone, Msgr. Cisewski said.
“None of us would have wanted Katrina,” he said. “That certainly was a hard time. But what I’m very pleased with was the resilience of the people. So many decisions had to be made that weren’t their decisions or were forced decisions, yet they heard the call of the spirit to move into the future and join together to make a new creation.
“The way we talk about it here is that we are building something new at St. Katharine Drexel. That’s been a gift. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s working.”
Asked how he has changed as a priest over the last four decades, Msgr. Cisewski said: “I have to say the more you’re in this, the more you realize it’s the Lord’s church and not yours. It’s the same struggle for his will to be first over yours. You realize that you certainly don’t have all the answers to a complex world. I’m probably a little more patient, realizing it does take time for things to grow and change.”
Archbishop Aymond and Msgr. Cisewski will celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Katharine Drexel Parish in the near future.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.