The priesthood is not only in the heart of Father Mark Wolski, it's also in his bloodline. He and his cousin, Father Daniel Fiebelkorn, will celebrate 125 combined years of the clerical vocation for the Wolski family this year.
Father Mark accounts for 50 years this May. Father Fiebelkorn celebrates 20 years the same month. Another cousin and an uncle, both of whom have passed, account for the remaining years.
With his pedigree, it's not surprising that Father Wolski followed through on a religious vocation. He was active in his home parish of St. Casimir in Buffalo as a teen, and surrounded by priests wherever he went, from the Conventual Franciscan uncle to the Jesuits who taught him at Canisius High School and Canisius College in Buffalo.
"Even though I was educated by the Jesuits and often in the company of the Franciscans, my preference eventually was to work in the Diocese of Buffalo," he said, adding that the religious life was not always a priority.
He originally planned to become a dentist, enrolling in pre-med courses at Canisius. Then he thought about being an English teacher. His father had been a teacher and instilled a love of reading in him. But during college, he began taking philosophy and theology courses. After graduating and a month in Europe, he entered St. John Vianney (now Christ the King) Seminary in East Aurora.
While looking back at his early days of formation, Father Wolski remembers wanting diversity in his ministry. Well, he got it in spades. He went from the suburbs into the city, then from the ER back to school.
"I started out in the country like everyone else did in those days, in Sardinia, which was a delightful place." At the time, St. Jude's was under the missionary apostolate. Father Wolski served as administrator there for one year, before being named parochial vicar of St. Barnabas Parish in Depew, then St. Florian's in Buffalo.
In 1975, he started a whole different career, that of hospital chaplain and director of pastoral care at Children's Hospital in Buffalo. "That was definitely a life-changing experience; a very difficult ministry, but also a very beautiful experience to deal with the sick and the dying and the distress and sadness of parents and family," he said.
His role entailed consoling the parents of sick and hurt children rushed in to the hospital for medical care. "You're dealing with critical cases. There are 20,000 admissions a year for big and small stuff. You'd be dealing with a very small minority, but it was mostly intensive care and emergency room," he said. "Emergency room was always scary to me because I didn't know what I was going into. I had to be able to deal with emergencies. Parents, of course, are hysterical, understandably, when their child is in danger or dying."
He recalled one day meeting a distressed mother with a child in critical care. Father Wolski introduced himself and offered to pray with her.
"She stood up and slapped me in the face as hard as she possibly could. She said, 'That's what I think about your God and your prayers.' Then she started to cry. I kind of put my hand on her shoulder and I said, 'I don't mind being hit if it makes you feel better, but it won't in the long run.' I said, 'Anger isn't going to make this any better. I'm just here to help you.' Then she really started to cry and melted. It was a really shocking experience at the time for me. At the same time it was very real, just how deep are the wounds of a parent whose child is dying."
Other memories are still too painful for him to talk about.
After eight years at the hospital, he returned to parish life with his first pastorate at St. James Major in Westfield, which he called a "whole different experience, moving out to grape country about which I knew zero." He enjoyed it for six years, then opted to move back to Buffalo to be near his ailing mother. This was in 1990. He spent nine happy years at St. John the Evangelist Parish when Bishop Henry J. Mansell asked him to consider an appointment to SS. Peter & Paul Parish in Hamburg, a larger parish with more responsibilities. Father Wolski, still happy at St. John's, told the bishop he had already thrown out the announcement.
"He said, 'I can fax it to you in two minutes.' OK. I guess he wants me to go," Father Wolski laughed. "I said, 'I need to think about this and pray over this. This was really a big parish, big school, big everything.' This is Friday afternoon. He said, 'Mark, of course you need to pray over this and think about it. So, call me Monday morning.' I said, 'OK. I am working the weekend, you know.'"
In Hamburg, he undertook a $3 million renovation project, which included building a parish center and chapel, and renovating much of the school. Looking back at the appointment, he calls the appointment a "great decision."
"I had wonderful years there. I felt I had been blessed with wonderful people to work with and a wonderful staff to work with there too," he said.
His work with the school, as well has his seat on the board of Villa Maria College, earned him the Bishop's Medal from Bishop Edward U. Kmiec at the 2012 Catholic Education Dinner.
In 2012, at the age of 70, the standard age for priestly retirement, Father Wolski hung up his stole.
This summer, he plans on celebrating his 50th anniversary with his cousin, Father Fiebelkorn, who marks his 20th anniversary this year. The two also have an uncle, Romuald Wolski, OFM Conv., a decorated Army chaplain who served in the Dioceses of Buffalo and Ogdensburg, and have been researching another cousin, Joachim Wolski, a Pallotine father killed during World War II. "We haven't been able to get too much information from the Pallotine Fathers, but he is pretty heroic to us," he said.
Father Wolski figures this adds up to 125 proud years of serving God's people in priesthood for his family.