Conventual Franciscan Fr. Robert Joseph Switanowski hasn’t let a heart ailment keep him from ministry. Although he had to leave parish life, Fr. Switanowski is well enough to serve as director of formation for the Franciscan students at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, St. Francis.
(Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)
‘Half a heart’ yet full of life
Despite ailment, Franciscan embraces vocation
By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald
ST. FRANCIS — Since he was in the second grade, Conventual Franciscan Fr. Robert Joseph Switanowski knew that God was calling him to become a priest. Although in high school, he was involved with dancing, swimming, football and girls, he said God’s love drew him to the altar.
He entered the Franciscan order in 1969, professed his first vows in 1972, left the order for a short time, renewed his vows in 1974 and left to teach religion and theology. The 57-year-old priest from Detroit served the Vatican and parishes throughout the Midwest.
“The most important part of my life is celebrating Mass and hearing confessions,” said Fr. Switanowski, formerly of St. Josaphat Basilica, who savors the everyday things most people take for granted.
A few years ago, after being diagnosed with idiopathic cardiomyopathy, which weakens the heart so it cannot pump blood around the body effectively, Fr. Switanowski expected that his life was over, at least as far as his priestly vocation was concerned.
“At first, no one really knew what was wrong with me,” he explained, “but the doctor from the Rockford, Ill. ICU where I was in ministry at the time said I needed a heart transplant. I was very sick, my body went into paralysis and I was told that I would probably never say Mass again. I had a really hard time with that.”
Disease leaves priest heartbroken
Alone in his hospital room on the Second Sunday of Advent, a heartbroken Fr. Switanowski turned where he always did in times of trouble — to the Mass.
“I was watching Mass from my bed and was crying a little as I knew that the Lord had asked me to give up my active ministry to a different way of living as a priest,” he explained. “I said out loud, ‘Lord if this is what you want, I will accept it gladly.’”
A Catholic nurse noticed Fr. Switanowski brushing back tears when she walked into the room and contacted the hospital psychiatrist who visited the next day.
“He said to me, ‘I heard you had a rough day yesterday.’ I told him that I didn’t think I needed to see him and that I didn’t have the money to pay him anyway. But I told him about my ministry being finished,” said Fr. Switanowski. “The psychiatrist said, ‘Oh, you don’t need me,’ and I said I don’t think so either – I just need to spend time with the Lord. He shook my hand and said that he would pray for me.”
Return to Milwaukee
With his health condition deteriorating, Fr. Switanowski resigned from St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Rockford and moved back to Milwaukee where he had served St. Josaphat Basilica for 11 years.
For Fr. Jim Jankowski, it was an opportunity to welcome back the beloved priest, as well as provide assistance and care for his health concerns.
In an August bulletin, he explained that Fr. Switanowski was not assigned to ministry at the basilica, but has been generous with his time.
“Nonetheless, we have witnessed Fr. Switanowski’s generous offering of his priestly ministry here at the basilica when his health made that possible,” he wrote. “For that generous giving of self that has helped us out on so many occasions we are very grateful.”
Weak and near death, Fr. Switanowski was rushed to St. Luke’s Hospital in Milwaukee where physicians were astounded at his poor condition.
“My lungs were filled with clots, and I coded while I was there,” he said. “I was in really bad shape.”
Archbishop brings renewed sense of purpose
Losing hope while battling for his life, help and a renewed sense of purpose arrived in the form of Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, who came to visit and pray.
“He came by my side and said, ‘Robert, will you offer this for me and for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee?’” recalled Fr. Switanowski, “I said, gladly and you know, all of a sudden I felt that I had a ministry and I was doing what I was supposed to do.”
While the two were not connected on a regular basis, Fr. Switanowski knew that Archbishop Dolan knew of his work in spiritual direction at the Vatican years before.
“I was in Rome and worked at the penitentiary as a Vatican confessor at St. Peters,” he said. “The archbishop had heard of me in Rome because I heard a lot of confessions in the North American College. One day an American seminarian was sent home due to illness. There were a bunch of American priests huddled together in prayer for this seminarian and I joined them. They praised the rector, who later became Archbishop Dolan, and I learned from them that he knew of me. He has always been very good to the friars and good to our order.”
Through prayer and expert health care, Fr. Switanowski’s health has improved. Although he still needs a heart transplant, he is involved in an experimental program that is working well enough for him to resume a more active vocational role.
New ministry with seminarians
Just two and a half years after returning to the basilica, Fr. Switanowski is well enough to assume the ministry of director of formation for the Franciscan students currently living with him at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary on Milwaukee’s lakefront.
“I have only been back here a few weeks, but am so happy that I am healthy enough to go to work,” he said. “These seminarians are wonderful and it is a wonderful expression of my religious life that I can bring something to a seminarian. If people of the archdiocese could see what they are getting in terms of future priests – they are sterling examples! I love my ministry here in this archdiocese; it is a wonderful experience and everyone is very welcoming to me.”
Mary Belardi, a long-time friend, is happy with Fr. Switanowski’s improved health, but misses him at the basilica.
“There is a definite void over there,” she said. “I know that when he announced he was leaving, the parishioners were very upset. He was there many years – 14 in all. He and Fr. Bill, who is now Bishop (William P.) Callahan, were there together the first 11 years. We were all upset that he was leaving, too, but at the same time happy that he is still in the area.”
Most grateful for Mass
Fr. Switanowski is easily winded and slow moving. But despite his heart issues, hip and knee replacements, Belardi said he is still active.
“He can’t do full speed, because actually, he is only working with half a heart,” she said. “With his disease, half of the heart had died. So, we are so touched and happy that he is able to continue his ministry.”
Ask Fr. Switanowski the two things for which he is most grateful, he will reply that the first is that he is again celebrating Mass and the second is that after so many years, he is driving.
“It has been such a long time since I have been able to drive myself around; you have no idea how freeing it is for me,” he said. “And I am so grateful to God that I can again say Mass; it is a great thrill for me.”
Because he is slow moving and short of breath, Fr. Switanowski, at the suggestion of Fr. Jankowski, uses a stool to sit by the altar.
“I use a walker to get around and Fr. Jim wanted to make it easier for me,” he said. “What we didn’t know at first is that we had to get permission for me to be seated at Mass, so we called the archbishop to the basilica. When he came, I told him that I needed permission to celebrate Mass with this stool, and he looked confused, and said, ‘You do?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it is right in canon law.’ So he made the Sign of the Cross over my head and said, ‘You have my permission!’”
Long term, Fr. Switanowski faces a heart transplant. For now, a daily cocktail of medications, and a ventricular pacemaker and defibrillator keep his heart beating regularly. Several times, the implanted device has saved him from sudden cardiac death. Despite the lingering chance that the devices will not be enough to save him, the unflappable priest refuses to let the disease slow him down.
“I am not going to stay in the bedroom,” he said emphatically. “I could drop over dead anytime, but I am going to do my ministry because it means more to me than my health.”