SALT LAKE CITY — Father Andrzej Skrzypiec, pastor of Saint Ambrose Parish, celebrated his 30th anniversary of priestly ordination on Easter Sunday, April 8.
Born in Silesia in southern Poland, he was ordained on Holy Thursday in 1982. While in the seminary, he was drafted into the army for two years in a special unit for seminarians to try to persuade them to give up the priesthood.
"We were stationed in the northeast corner of Poland near the Russian border, and I couldn’t communicate with my family," Fr. Andrzej said. "They tried to break us down with strenuous exercise. Sometimes our feet were bleeding so bad it was like walking on needles. Political leaders tried to show us the Catholic Church was an anti-religious, corrupt institution, but this only increased my faith."
Fr. Andrzej became an altar server in the fourth grade during the 1960s when the Vatican II changes were first being implemented and "we still had to memorize the Latin responses," he said. "The priests served as good role models and were open to our questions. I felt like I could talk to them about anything."
Fr. Andrzej also attended summer altar server camps. "The camps were like scouting and serving the church," he said. "We weren’t allowed to join scouting because it was controlled by the Communists and one of their goals was to eliminate religion."
He decided to be a priest his junior year of high school. "When I told the priest, he said, ‘Guess what? There are 11 going with you,’" he said. "I think somehow in the boring, dehumanizing Communist reality that the Catholic Church was really something beautiful; the music, art and culture were something we really didn’t have anywhere else. The way they taught history in the public schools was distorted. We knew there was a different world than what we were taught through letters we received from relatives because there was no television, the radio was jammed and nobody could travel abroad."
After graduating from high school in 1974, Fr. Andrzej entered the Krakow Papal Academy Seminary, where he studied ethics for a semester under Bishop Karol Josef Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II.
"There was incredible joy in Poland when Cardinal Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978," Fr. Andrzej said. "All the church bells were ringing and people were in the streets cheering. After so many years of suppression, we felt like we were finally going to be heard. It was our first sense of freedom."
When the Polish trade union federation Solidarity formed in 1980, the church created opportunities not only to teach the children but also the adults about human dignity, Fr. Andrzej said.
After ordination in 1982, Fr. Andrzej was a parish priest for eight years at three different parishes. "I taught CCD for about 30 hours a week because in Poland a catechist has to have a college degree," he said. "I also had other pastoral duties like marriages, funerals and baptisms. There were 10,000 Catholics and four priests at my last parish in Poland."
In 1989 Fr. Andrzej was asked to come to the United States to serve the political refugees who had been forced to leave Poland under Communist rule. After three months learning English at a Polish Catholic seminary in Michigan, he came to Utah, where he was welcomed by Bishop William K. Weigand during the Christmas Eve Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine.
Fr. Andrzej was appointed associate pastor of the Cathedral from 1989 to 1991, and taught comparative religion at Judge Memorial Catholic High School.
From 1991 to 1996 he was pastor of Saint Anthony of Padua Parish in Helper, where Italian, Greek and Slovakian immigrants were trying to recreate their foundation of culture, he said. "I learned what it meant to be a minority and a foreigner in a strange country."
Fr. Andrzej was then assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes in Magna from 1996 to 2009 before going to St. Ambrose Parish, where he also oversees J.E. Cosgriff Memorial School.
"As a priest I have learned to appreciate the richness of people’s history both individually and in diverse communities," Fr. Andrzej said. "I have also learned to appreciate the fact that not everybody is Catholic and respect their faith experience."
The priesthood is a difficult and challenging path but very rewarding, Fr. Andrzej said. "It has let me experience how God works through people. I’m astonished at the gift it is.
"I have had a beautiful rich path," he continued. "I have seen the collapse of Communism and the liberation that came with it. I’ve seen the scandals in the Church that have affected people. I have witnessed young families creating a community with a solid spiritual foundation for their children."
Fr. Andrzej has maintained the priesthood through prayer, the sacraments and his ministry, he said. "I listen to people’s tragedies and realize that as a priest, I share an intimate connection with them. They tell me their pain and shame and I share their joy. I help them see how God is working in their lives."