The storm of COVID-19 has tossed a small Bowmansville, leaving its administrator stranded in Poland after a three-week tour.
Father Dominik Jezierski, administrator of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish and Shrine in Bowmansville, visited his homeland in March for what was supposed to be a short stay. A week into the visit, President Trump issued a travel ban blocking non-citizens from entering the United States. Ironically, Father Jezierski planned on applying for his Permanent Resident Card upon his return to Buffalo.
After the March 11 announcement, citizens and anyone working in the U.S. had two days to return to the United States before boarders would be closed. Father Jezierski could not find any flights.
"I said, 'Just wait it out.' We thought in three or four weeks we'd resume," explained Deacon Timothy Chriswell, who has been assigned to the Bowmansville parish since 2018. "Nobody knew on March 11 that on the end of June we'd still be sitting like this. We weren't really too concerned about it. We figured it would only be a couple of weeks."
On Aug. 1, Father Jezierski was relieved of his duties as temporary administrator, so that another administrator can be appointed. Father Jezierski is an incardinated priest of the Diocese of Legnica, Poland, so he will have the opportunity to serve in his home diocese for the time being. Deacon Chriswell took on the role of temporary administrator, making sure the parish runs smoothly, while at the same time carrying on a full-time job as director of the Permanent Diaconate. "A lot of the parish stuff, I'm taking care of that at night time or early in the morning," he said. "We've managed through this downtime that, we didn't create a major debt. The parishioners have been great. They have been bringing their envelopes and dropping them off at the rectory. The first week it was a little slow and then right after that, people realized this could be long term, and they just kept coming."
"We have a core group of parishioners who have been extremely faithful and extremely generous in their financial support of the parish in the past four months," said business manager Bob Lichtenthal.
The parish must rely on guest priests to conduct their limited number of Masses. Father Andrew Lauricella, diocesan director of Vocations, has been pitching in when he can. They livestreamed Masses throughout the COVID-19 Stay at Home Order. Now, they celebrate Mass in the outdoor shrine, with some of the congregation sitting on benches, others sitting in their cars at 4 p.m. Saturday and 8:30 a.m. on Sunday.
"Our intent is to do them outside for the rest of the summer whenever it is not raining. Sometimes it gets a little warm out there, that's why we're going to do it early in the morning," said Deacon Chriswell. "We've been managing, but it's been difficult. People would like to have daily Mass once again. And we're only doing two Masses on a weekend rather than our normal three."
The parish also offers adoration on First Fridays in the shrine.
For a brief time, Father Jezierski would livestream Masses from his home parish in Poland to be viewed by his Bowmansville parishioners. A couple times, he did a livestreamed English Mass back to back with an in-person Polish Mass for those in Poland. He used the same organist who sang in Polish for both congregations.
"He would do Mass 2 o'clock on a Sunday, so we could have morning Mass," Deacon Chriswell said. "He stopped with Divine Mercy Sunday because they asked him to help with coverage, because they had priests who were stuck in different countries. So, they needed help."
Lichtenthal, who took over the role of business manager last year after retiring from the Erie County Water Authority, feels things are running smoothly despite having the resident priest being 5,000 miles away. He credits the loyal parishioners, as well as his two predecessors who still volunteer at Sacred Heart for helping him with his tasks.
"I got two guys I can go back on for historical perspective, detail, etc.," he said.
He also calls Deacon Chriswell, the parish trustees and finance council, "fully engaged since day one."
"It's worked because of that," he said.
Plans for the parish's centennial celebration have been put on hold, not only because of Father Jezierski's absence, but also because of COVID-19 restrictions.
"This is the 100th anniversary of the parish. We had celebrations and all kind of things planned, big parties. We even had specially made 250 commemorative rosaries. Now everything has been put on hold," Lichtenthal said.