He remembers it like it was yesterday. When Conventual Franciscan Fr. James Jankowski incensed the altar during his Mass of Thanksgiving as a new priest, the base of the censor smacked the edge of the altar, catapulting the searing coals into the oh-so-flammable altar cloth.
The cloth began to burn, and without breaking a sweat, Bishop William P. Callahan, then, Fr. Bill Callahan, master of ceremonies, grabbed a couple of orders of worship and flicked off the coals.
“I remember Bill saying later on, ‘Good thing that wasn’t a casket!’” laughed Fr. Jankowski, former pastor of St. Josaphat Basilica. “From that time on, I was so very careful about incensing around the altar, and I think of Bill every time I do.”
Their 32-year friendship began when Fr. Jankowski applied to join the Conventual Franciscans of St. Bonaventure Province. Bishop Callahan was serving as the vocation director then, and Fr. Jankowski was the first vocation he processed.
“As a religious brother in our community, I lived with him for several years at our house of studies,” said Fr. Jankowski. “I spent one year at Holy Family Parish in Peoria when Bill was the pastor and I was the director of music.”
During those years, Fr. Jankowski felt drawn to the priesthood and remembers Bishop Callahan as a tremendous support to him.
Packed up and moved to Milwaukee
“In the summer of 1994, I received permission to study for the priesthood at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners with residency at the Basilica of St. Josaphat,” he said. “At our provincial chapter that year, Bill was named the pastor and rector of the basilica as well. Not only that, Fr. Robert Joseph Switanowski, who was the associate pastor in Peoria with Bill, was likewise assigned to the basilica. So, the three of us packed up and moved to Milwaukee.”
Throughout their friendship, Fr. Jankowski witnessed the love Bishop Callahan has for the priesthood, and is confident the La Crosse Diocese is getting a dedicated and faith-filled bishop.
“Every time he celebrates the Eucharist, he puts his whole being forward to that great encounter with Christ,” the priest explained. “His presence radiates the sacredness of the moment and the intimacy of that union with Christ. Likewise, his living the Eucharist after the celebration validates his great love for the Eucharist and the priesthood, which makes that possible.”
Compassion often apparent
Bishop Callahan’s compassionate side was often apparent to longtime parishioner Peggy Sytowski, but never more so than the years in which she helped with the basilica’s St. Joseph’s Table. In fact, one memory still moves her to tears.
“We had all these high level donors and a business man who paid for the whole catered dinner,” she explained. “But Fr. Bill didn’t sit with all of them; instead, he sat face to face with a man who appeared to be homeless and visited there with him for over half an hour. No one else in the room talked to this guy and yet Fr. Bill treated this man like everyone else and gave him his full attention.”
While happy for the La Crosse Diocese, Sytowski admitted she will miss Bishop Callahan’s homilies and genuine love for everyone.
“I am so sad about his leaving,” she said. “But they are getting a wonderful bishop and I know he is going to do a great job there. They are lucky to have him.”
In 1995, Sharon Kubacki, director of administrative services at the basilica, began volunteering and later became a paid staff member. During that time, she developed a close friendship with Bishop Callahan.
“I knew him when he was first ordained and have been a parishioner here all my life,” she said. “When he came here, I volunteered to do financials for him and then began working full time in 1998. He is such a terrific man with a great sense of people – he always sees the good in them and it will be very hard to see him go.”
‘Bigger than life type of guy’
The only consolation for Mary and Jim Connelly about Bishop Callahan’s new appointment is that he will remain within Wisconsin. The couple developed a close friendship with the bishop after visiting the basilica a few times. They were not only impressed with his homilies, but also awed that, after only meeting them once, he remembered their names.
“We couldn’t believe that he remembered us,” said Mary. “He was this bigger than life type of guy with an incredible zest for God and life; and I remember that we just felt like we knew we were home when we went there.”
During the basilica’s restoration, Bishop Callahan often called upon Jim, an interior designer, for advice on decorations. While her husband was happy to offer advice, Mary joked that the suggestions were rarely heeded because it was always Fr. Bill’s way or no way.
“We have wonderful memories of him asking advice and then doing it his way anyway,” she said. “He was a hoot in many ways – always very respectful of Jim’s opinions, but had a clear idea about what he wanted. He really cared about the music, the liturgy and pageantry, vestments, decorations and incense. It just adds such a special way to praise God and to carry out the mission of this beautiful church.”
Daughter’s wedding is fondest memory
Although they have many fond memories of their friendship with Bishop Callahan, their daughter Francis’ wedding stands out foremost in their minds.
“He did the wedding Mass when she got married last year and out of all the 3 million pictures we had, there is a favorite one,” said Mary. “He was congratulating them at the end of the Mass and he just looked so joyful. It was the best – just like a Christmas card photo.”
As director of the Basilica Foundation for eight months, Susan Rabe appreciates Bishop Callahan’s commitment to people and finding methods to bring people together to benefit the less fortunate.
“He truly enjoys connecting with people and loves being a priest,” she said, adding, “And when I learned that he personally directed all the interior decorating aspects of the basilica restoration and new construction of the Pope John Paul II Pavilion, I was bowled over. He has quite an eye for colors and textures. He’s quite the visionary in more than one way.”
Franciscan spirituality evident
As the coordinator of the English as a Second Language Program at the basilica, Bonnie Dompke worked closely with Bishop Callahan and appreciated his support of the program.
“He was so supportive of this program and offered encouragement to me all the time,” she said. “I remember the first time my husband Al (Alvin) and I came to the basilica, it was on our way to another parish. We experienced the Franciscan spirituality there and never left. Fr. Bill was always so down to earth, and even if he was busy, he took time to talk to you and never acted as if he was in a hurry to leave. You felt like the most important person in the room.”
While they won’t get to hear his homilies as often, the Dompkes plan to make regular trips to La Crosse to attend Bishop Callahan’s Masses.
“It will be a nice trip, but much longer,” she said, adding, “But it will be worth it.”
A significant tie between Bishop Callahan and Al Dompke is that both are recipients of the Only Jesus Award through the St. Josaphat Basilica’s Holy Name Society.
“I received mine in 1995 when Fr. Bill was pastor here and he received his last year on May 2,” explained Al. “The award was presented to him by our president, Steven Lazarczyk, who thanked Bishop Callahan for saying yes to promoting the Holy Name Society at St. Josaphat Basilica Parish and for his continued support of the Holy Name Society.”
Long sermons: ‘Worth every minute’
At the basilica the word in the pews was, “Don’t attend the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass if you are in a hurry,” joked Michelle Peña and Christine Ostopowicz, who affectionately refer to Bishop Callahan as a bit long winded.
“His sermons are very long and he always had that Mass. It was very traditional; you just couldn’t be in a hurry because you never knew how long it would last,” said Peña, laughing. “Mass would last at least an hour and 15 minutes, but it was worth every minute of it. He even laughs at himself and has often commented on his long sermons … he loves to talk, but what he says is always very meaningful.”
Ostopowicz agreed and added that like the other Franciscans, Bishop Callahan’s Franciscan spirit seemed to draw people to the church.
“Fr. Bill and all the other Franciscans seem to have something special about them that just brings people here,” she said, adding, “He was so supportive and caring. I remember when he came to the hospital at 2 a.m. to give my dad the last rights after he had a stroke. I felt so guilty for calling him in the middle of the night, but he didn’t mind and insisted on staying with my husband and me for a long time to comfort and support us.”
Deck the halls at Christmastime
While both women have worked with Bishop Callahan in various capacities — Peña as a longtime catechist and Ostopowicz with the Big Band and dinner dance fundraisers – most memorable were the years helping with the basilica’s Christmas decorations.
According to Ostopowicz, Peña was the creative force behind the decorations and she was the helper. Trumping both was Bishop Callahan’s propensity to redecorate after hours.
“Well, he was sort of picky,” laughed Peña. “I was an art major so he let me have a bit more freedom than others. I didn’t ask what he wanted; I just would do it. So, we would have this place all decorated for Christmas and then I’d come in the next day and it was all rearranged. I wasn’t offended by it – that’s the way he was; he liked having things a particular way.”
Kidding aside, when Bishop Callahan came to the basilica, the parish was in dire financial straits and paying the utility bills was often a challenge that left parishioners bundled in heavy coats during winter Masses and avoiding the areas of the building that were in disrepair.
“I remember the first time I sat in the church for the Milwaukee Symphony Concert and a chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling,” said Peña. “I told Fr. Bill about this when he came aboard; once he came, the money problems went away and things were solved. We didn’t have to worry about things falling from the ceiling or being cold in the winter. Things have happened underneath him and it has a lot to do with his real professionalism and ability to gain support from the community, and the community gave back to the church.”
‘Fr. Bill’ will be missed
Described as a father, a friend, a graceful and godly man, Peña and Ostopowicz will miss their “Fr. Bill” and will try to follow him when they can.
“We missed him when he became bishop and will miss him more now that he is leaving for La Crosse,” admitted Peña. “He has made such a difference in the Catholic world and in my world and in Chris’ world and the people he touches through meetings. You don’t forget him once you meet him. We love him for who he is, both professionally and how he is as a person. Our loss is truly their gain.”