By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer
---- — Father Ted Dudzinski stood Sunday before the St. Patrick Church parishioners he had shepherded for more than a decade and said his final goodbyes.
He walked among the hundreds of people gathered at the church to hear his last Mass. He talked about the weddings, the baptisms, the funerals he had been a part of. He shared intimate moments with many people.
But now it was time for him to go.
“I will love you and pray for you always,” he told those who were gathered.
The day before, he sat in a cushioned chair in the church office. His own possessions had already been shipped to Lafayette where he will soon work for the bishop.
Serving as the bishop’s vicar general is a great opportunity, Dudzinski said. It will also be nice to return to the place where he grew up and to be closer to his aging parents, he said. His mother is preparing to celebrate her 80th birthday.
Leaving Kokomo won’t be easy, though.
He thought about the farewell reception St. Patrick members had organized for him. It was set for that night.
“Tonight’s going to be very difficult,” he said Saturday. “I’m already tired. I’m exhausted physically and emotionally.”
He’s shared in so many people’s successes, failures and tragedies over the years. He’s been there to baptize babies and see the elderly through the last moments of their lives.
He formed close bonds with the families he shepherded, he said. And they helped him, too.
“With fatherhood is the idea that you also receive support from the people you shepherd and love,” he said.
He’d been receiving that support for some time.
Dudzinski came to Kokomo in 1997 as a newly-ordained priest. He became the associate pastor at St. Patrick.
A few years later he was sent to Rome to study and obtain an advanced degree.
He came back in 2002 and was named the pastor at St. Patrick. About the same time, he also started forming a permanent deacon program in Lafayette.
It was like having two jobs, he said. It quickly became difficult to manage everything.
“When you have 1,000 families, it’s hard,” he said. “When you know people and love people, they come to you. They need you. I did not have time to meet everyone’s needs.”
So, in 2003, he worked with the parish council and came up with the idea to create a Perpetual Adoration Chapel on the church campus. Someone is in there every hour of every day and night now praying and adoring Jesus, he said. They pray for themselves, for their families, for their communities.
“They start out taking their needs to Jesus,” he said.
If they still felt they needed the help of a person, then they came to Dudzinski. The idea is parishioners will rely on Jesus more and develop a personal relationship with him, Dudzinski said.
For at least some people, it’s working. The church provides testimonies on its website.
One said, “The Adoration Chapel has been a spiritual life changer for me. I’ve had a specific hour since we were able to sign up, however, Jesus sees me more often than that in our beautiful Chapel! I’ve gone into the chapel distraught, prayed for an hour or whatever amount of time I need and have come out of there a different person with a different attitude. Nothing had changed, but my outlook was completely different. … I can’t imagine my life without our Adoration Chapel!”
That chapel would prove invaluable when Dudzinski added another 1,300 people to his flock.
Three years after the chapel was built, he was named the pastor at St. Joan of Arc Church, too, which Dudzinski said was unheard of at the time.
Many priests serve two parishes, he said. But Kokomo’s two parishes are some of the biggest in the Lafayette diocese.
And he worked tirelessly at both parishes, said Nicole Mawbey, a member at St. Joan. She remembers seeing Dudzinski working some nights at 10 p.m.
“I don’t think people realize how self-sacrificing he was,” she said. “He’s the hardest working man. He gave a lot.”
He encouraged members of the church to give, too. He said they should be volunteering outside of the church whenever possible.
He practiced what he preached by going out into the neighborhood surrounding St. Patrick Church. He and teams from the church would help repair nearby houses, putting roofs on homes to help people out.
Mayor Greg Goodnight commended them on the work.
“Churches should be imbedded in the middle of communities,” he said. “St. Patrick is a perfect example of a church being invested.”
The pastor said he wanted to clean up the north side of Kokomo.
Part of that effort included buying and tearing out a row of problem houses across the street from the church in what is now the church’s parking lot.
“In those houses across the street, there was drugs and prostitution,” Dudzinski said. “We wanted a safe neighborhood.”
The church hopes to build a parish life center in that area soon.
Goodnight said he and Dudzinski seemed to be focused on the same thing in that regard – reinvesting in the city’s north side.
“This was a step in the right direction,” Goodnight said. “It wasn’t an isolated project. It was a big part of a larger plan.”
Dudzinski was quick to point out, though, that these projects were not his vision alone. Several church committees worked to bring them to fruition.
He has led the churches through his last projects. His time in Kokomo is quickly running out. He’s in Europe right now on a pilgrimage. He will return to Kokomo next week to say his final masses at St. Joan. He begins his new job in Lafayette July 1.
It will be hard to let go.
“I’ll miss everything about this,” he said. “It will be hard not to pray with my people every day, not to be a part of their lives.”
Mawbey said Dudzinski has been a fixture in the lives of their church members for so long. She fondly recalled the dinners she invited him to at her home. He interacted so effortlessly with everyone from her children to her mother, she said.
“We’re really sad,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. It hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Dudzinski said the churches will remain strong as fathers Martin Sandhage and Mike McKinley take over.
“I feel very comfortable in leaving because we as Christians believe Jesus Christ is the true shepherd,” he said. “He will be here in our next pastors.”
Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.