Thursday, October 16, 2008

Half a Heart Full of Life-Catholic Herald

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.”

Friday, October 10, 2008

Life in the Wet Lane

Betty Lorenzi, 81, a member of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Lake Geneva, works out recently at the YMCA in Lake Geneva. Lorenzi is a national record holder in her age group and broke seven records last spring during the YMCA National Competitions at the Fort Lauderdale Swimming Hall of Fame. (Catholic Herald photos by Allen Fredrickson)

Life in the wet lane

Octogenarian swimmer still a champion

By Karen Mahoney
Special to Your Catholic Herald

LAKE GENEVA - While swimmer Dara Torres often joked that, at 41, she had trouble reading the scoreboard after winning several events in the Olympic trials, imagine what her vision might be like if she is still freestyling into her 80s.

For Lake Geneva resident Betty Lorenzi, 81, swimming is more than just a sport - it is a reminder of what is possible. Some people her age might be content to sit and watch television, do a bit of needlework or engage in a little walking, but not Lorenzi, whose passion is competing in state, national and international swimming competitions.

A national record-holder in her age group, Lorenzi, a member of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Lake Geneva, broke seven records during the YMCA National Competitions last spring at the Fort Lauderdale Swimming Hall of Fame.

"The event I am most proud of is the mile because I finished five minutes ahead of the record," she said. "I thought they said I was five seconds ahead, but they told me five minutes, and I couldn't believe it."

In August, she participated in the national U.S. Master Swimming Association in Portland, Ore., and in September she competed in the Senior Olympic state championships in Wauwatosa.

"I try to participate in anything offered, such as Backstroke 50, 100, 200M, or 200M freestyle. I just love to compete," she said.

Local meets are a bit different from national competitions because age categories and genders are often combined into one class. Despite that, Lorenzi usually defeats all competitors.

Lorenzi began competitive swimming by age 6, and continued until she was 20. During the latter part of her early career, she swam for the Women's Swimming Association in New York City. In 1944, Lorenzi also tried out for the Olympics.

"I didn't make it, but then I took a job with Aquacade, a swimming show, and was living in New York. We did synchronized swimming - stuff like that. Then I went to the Dominican Republic and joined another swimming show and that's where I met my husband," she said. "I didn't think too much about the Olympics after I met him."

She met and married her husband Henri 52 years ago, and traveled the world with him, teaching swimming and performing in water shows.

In the late 1960s the couple moved to Lake Geneva so he could take a position as social director at the Playboy Club.

"There wasn't a pool in the area, so I spent my time raising our daughter and two boys, and later I taught Nautilus at Americana," she said. "I thought about swimming, but there was just no place to go around here."

Two hip replacements at age 62 changed everything. Through swimming she recuperated and regained her strength. Sometime during the frequent drives back and forth to a Milwaukee pool, her passion reignited.

"I began swimming a lot and, because I was familiar with competitions, decided to train just to see how I was doing nationally," she said. "I know people think I must be a bit odd, but I really like to do it."

While Lorenzi admitted she is happiest when she swims, her reasons for the daily laps in the Olympic-size pool are a bit out of the ordinary.

"Do you know any other sport where you are clean when you work out? I like that I don't feel dirty and sweaty when I am finished," she said. "Although I did learn from my Florida coach, Joe Biondi, that you do sweat while you swim even though you don't realize it, and you need to make sure to drink enough water. The first time I worked out with him, I almost passed out because I was not drinking enough water. He also taught me that it is important to rest between laps rather than just to keep going and that advice really helped me to improve my times."

To train for the Portland event, Lorenzi traveled to Tampa for her 5:30 a.m. training sessions with Biondi. Lorenzi enjoyed the early morning plunge.

"Actually, I am in the second group of those he works with," she said, "He has a group of men that begin training at 4:30 a.m."

Although Lorenzi has won more medals in more competitions than she can remember, she doesn't do it for the notoriety and she doesn't display many of her awards.

"Oh, I give most of them to the Special Olympics in Lake Geneva and I have some that I will be giving to Burlington, too," she said. "They love it because the Special Olympics don't have a lot of money for backing and ordering medals. The Special Olympians are happy with any medal and it makes me happy to be able to help them."

While Lorenzi prefers swimming in anything with a black line on the bottom, she also swam in the crystalline waters of Amy Belle in Hubertus for another senior competition over the summer, but fell short of agreeing to compete alongside the dolphins.

"Well, I like to swim, but I have no desire to swim in the ocean," she said, adding, "I am too chicken and there are too many sharks."

With little to hold her back, Lorenzi plans to keep swimming as long as she is able. She takes medication for high blood pressure and a slew of daily vitamins.

Lorenzi is enthusiastic about the advantages of swimming and encourages anyone, healthy or not, to utilize the health benefits of water exercise.

"You can do so much more in the pool, even for those with disabilities," she said. "Water aerobics are terrific these days. There are many women who could do little else but get in the water; and moving around really helps improve your body and your mind. In fact, my husband often encourages me to go swimming because I get crabby when I don't. He always tells me, 'Go swimming; you will feel better and happier.' And I do!"

After she runs out of competitive steam, she plans to keep her toes dipped in the water in some fashion.

"About nine or 10 years ago, a priest asked me what I was going to do when I could no longer swim," she said. "I said, 'I don't know. I suppose I would like to become an official at meets.' I like to do times and I like to run the meets."

Woman puts pro life views into action-Milwaukee Catholic Herald

Carrie Walsh stands in the basement of Hotel Rogers in Beaver Dam amid the items donated to “Clothes for Kids,” which provides families in need with school supplies, shoes, haircuts and new clothing. (Catholic Herald photo by Sam Arendt)

Woman puts pro-life views into action

‘Clothes for Kids’ marks 17 years of helping families

By Karen Mahoney
Special to Your Catholic Herald

BEAVER DAM - Carrie Walsh felt it wasn't enough to write a check to Wisconsin Right to Life. It wasn't enough to travel with busloads of students, teachers, nurses and average citizens to Washington D.C for the annual March for Life. It also wasn't enough to expect that all girls and women who become pregnant have their babies.

Working in the office at Columbus Community Hospital, Walsh noticed many new moms with no layettes in which to bring their new babies home. Someone needed to step forward and help those girls and women whom pregnancy caught unprepared. One day, a co-worker, who often chided Walsh for being pro-life, challenged her to be the one to step forward.

"She said, 'OK, you think you are so pro-life, why don't you do something for these mothers?'" said Walsh, "And I said, 'Y ou are right, I should put some layettes together,' so I did, and took them to Fond du Lac Hospital and Columbus Hospital."

Walsh, a farm wife and mother of seven, renovated eldest daughter Mary's bedroom into 'Mary's Room,' a haven of cribs, high chairs, clothing and other necessities to offer low-income mothers and their babies.

After moving to a smaller home in Fall River, Walsh searched for a suitable location to continue her thriving infant and children's ministry. She settled on the Beaver Dam area, as it was a central location in Dodge County.

"We found space in a dental hospital for a while, but soon after were approached by a man who owned a hotel in town," she said. "He said that if I worked to clothe children and teens, too, he would let me use the basement. So, we renamed the organization, 'Clothes for Kids' and we are now in our 17th year."

Funded solely by donations, fund-raisers and volunteers from Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist and churches of other denominations, "Clothes for Kids" not only supports new mothers with clothing and supplies for their babies, but also assists the entire family. Under a partnership with Dodge County Social Services, Clothes for Kids is a one-stop clothing center to serve low-income families in the area.

"August was a really busy month for us," Walsh said. "We were able to provide 1,190 kids with school supplies, new shoes and haircuts. One lady donated enough new clothing to provide a brand new outfit for each child on the first day of school."

Without the support of local radio stations, area churches, and human concerns volunteers such as Deacon Ed Cody from St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Beaver Dam, Phyllis Heidemann of St. Mary Parish in Mayville, and Mary Ann Eiden of Sacred Heart Parish, Horicon, the outreach would not exist, said Walsh.

"The best thing about this organization is that we are doing it all without any influence from the government," she emphasized. "In fact, if the government offered us money, we would not take it. These human concerns committees are doing such a great thing in helping these children."

The organization is such a success that Walsh admits they are bursting at the seams in the basement of Hotel Rogers and are looking for a place to call their own.

"I have two dreams and I hope to live long enough to see them come true," admitted the 72-year-old member of St. Jerome Parish, Columbus, in the Madison Diocese. "I would like to see us get our own place and would like to see Clothes for Kids in every county in the state."

If anyone can achieve these goals it is Walsh, said Fr. Robert Maney, retired pastor of Walsh's former parish, St. Mary, Lost Lake.

"For years, I preached and pounded the pulpit about pro-life issues, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears," he said. "Carrie stepped up and did everything. Each year on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, she took high school kids, and people from all walks of life on buses from Milwaukee to Washington and absolutely made the ground move. She is a good example for the Catholic faith, for her family and for her whole parish. If we ever needed anything, she was the one who would go out and do it."

A living saint is how Brenda Barrett of Reedsville describes Walsh and her efforts to ensure that each child is wanted, loved, clothed and fed. After her diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, Barrett's husband left her to raise a disabled daughter and two other children on her own. With only a paltry disability check each month, Barrett struggles to make ends meet.

"Without her help, I would never be able to make it," she said. "I am a very proud person and she has never made me feel like less of a person because I ask for help. There are days that I get so discouraged that I feel like I have lost my faith, and she always puts it into perspective."

Clothing, shoes, school supplies, and toiletries are some of the ways Walsh's organization helps families, but often assistance is more encompassing, such as the time last year when Barrett was attacked and robbed just days before Christmas.

"I had saved and saved just so I could go shopping for my children last Christmas," she said. "It took me all year to save $685, and suddenly I was attacked in front of a store and they took all of my money."

After Walsh learned of the brutal attack, she enlisted the help of a myriad of community volunteers to ensure Barrett and her children had a memorable Christmas.

"She got people to donate for my kids," she said. "I was so upset, bruised and worried about my kids. I have had four heart attacks and one of my arms and legs don't work as they should; there was no way I would have been able to do it without Carrie's help. She is one of the neatest ladies I have ever met in my life."

For Walsh, being pro-life doesn't mean solely saving unborn babies. For her, it means preserving and respecting all life and making it a little easier for those who frequently do without.

"We have 30 grandchildren and have opened our home to many children over the years, AFS students too," she said. "Kids are our most precious resource and I dwell on what happens to young people today. My dream is that all moms can stay home with their children and if I can help to provide things so they can use their money for rent or food, well then, I am accomplishing my mission in life."

Losing both parents at an early age, Walsh said she relies on the Blessed Mother for her nurturing skills. When the Right to Life movement began, she said her devotion to Mary led her to charter the buses to Washington and later to begin "Mary's Room" to preserve the sanctity of life.

"I was never happy talking to politicians and this is the niche where I needed to be," she said. "I love children and see a need to help them. After all, God has a plan for you and for me. We don't choose when we were born or when we die, but we can choose the in between. Besides, this is great for my retirement and gives me a purpose in life."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Recovery from Surgery

As I sit in my drug induced state after my surgery one week ago today, a few thoughts come to mind.
1. you cannot make people love you or care about you--even if they are your own children.
2. friends are often closer than family
3. without faith, I could not bear the realities of #1

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Father haunted by abortions

Chris Aubert

Father haunted by abortions

Catholic faith helps him cope with grief, shame

By Karen Mahoney
Special to Your Catholic Herald

"We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men ...
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless ...
Remember us - if at all - not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men."
T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men (1925)

What should have been the happiest day in Chris Aubert's life incited a spiral of guilt, shame and anguish. His past crashed forward while gazing into the ultrasound screen at his yet-to-be-born daughter, Christine.

"I want to meet the person who wants to debate with me that this is a not a baby," he suddenly announced to the ultrasound technician. Unexpectedly convicted, Aubert began to remember. Like a punch to the stomach, he remembered his two aborted babies. Aubert lived a secular life while attending Tulane Law School. After graduation in 1984, he began work at a large law firm in New Orleans, living a carefree social life, partying and engaging in random sex.

"In 1985, I got a girl pregnant," he said. "She wasn't a serious girlfriend and we weren't planning on getting married so when she said she was going to have an abortion, I was happy to oblige. After all, the Supreme Court said it was legal, so I never really thought about it. She went and got it and really, it was a non-issue for me. It was like, 'Do I want lasagna or hamburger for dinner?' That was how much it didn't matter to me." By 1991, Aubert had a steady girlfriend but because he was so consumed in the secular life and in getting ahead, her pregnancy ended the same as the first, in abortion. Unlike the first time, he accompanied her to the clinic, paid the bill and took her to lunch afterwards.

"We didn't talk much about anything after that," he said. "It was strange and silent and we broke up soon after that. The second time I went, there were some protesters there, but I just assumed they were Jesus Freaks and didn't think much of their presence. Now that I look back, I wish they were more boisterous or something."

After Christine's birth, Aubert felt conflicted between the indescribable joy of holding his newborn baby and the fact that he paid to have his first two children dismembered and tossed into the trash.

A year after the ultrasound, Aubert converted from Judaism to Catholicism. Unable to shake his guilt, Aubert shook his wife awake at 3 o'clock one morning and told her he had something important to tell her.

"She didn't know what to think at first; she thought I was going to confess an affair or something," he said. "But I told her that I had these two abortions and didn't know it was wrong. She was great about everything."

A self described "on fire" Catholic, Aubert, married to Rhonda for 15 years, the father of six children, including one who died, has dedicated his life to spreading the truth about abortion and its effects on men.

"I have my own Web site, give talks, write articles, talk on the radio - whatever I can do to help save babies," he said. "I always wonder why no one told me that this was wrong; it is an American holocaust. Here I am 51, a lawyer and yet I was ignorant, and ignorant of the fact that I was ignorant."

Aubert's grief and shame are not at all unusual, according to Vicki Thorn, head of Milwaukee-based National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation, and Project Rachel. At a recent Chicago conference, "Reclaiming Fatherhood," Thorn addressed the invisible issue in society and within the Catholic Church - that abortion has a profound effect on fathers whose children are aborted.

Experts, including several therapists, covered topics including men's healing processes after abortion; abortion's effects on men's spirituality and mental health; fatherhood and abortion; and why men who have been involved in abortion come for help. More than 150 people attended from 27 states and four countries.

"If you raise the issue of men and abortion, people seem to be surprised," she said. "Since I have started Project Rachel in 1984, I have talked to fathers."

After numerous calls from men seeking help, Thorn coordinated efforts with the Knights of Columbus to offer conferences addressing men's needs.

"They get it; they understand the need for people to heal," she said, also noting the mandate from the Holy Father to comfort those wounded by abortion. "We have ignored the men. Take a look at the L.A. Times, a recent article entitled, 'Changing Abortion's Pronoun' and The Nation's article, 'The Mourning After,' a very liberal magazine, but even they recognize the need for this."

According to a Web-based study by Vincent M. Rue, co-director of the Institute for Pregnancy Loss, Jacksonville, Fla., of 135 men who experienced an abortion, 48 percent of them stated that they opposed their partner's abortion and 69 percent reported moderate to very high stress following the abortion.

"For women and men, abortion can result in significant symptoms of grief, guilt, shame and trauma," he wrote in an article titled, "The Hollow Men: Male Grief and Trauma Following Abortion" distributed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as part of their 2008 Fall respect life observance. The article is available at

"Grief involves the many ways people cope with death on both the emotional and cognitive levels. Guilt is the uncomfortable awareness of wrongdoing, usually based on conscience. Shame expands on guilt from wrongdoing and concludes that 'I am bad,' resulting in feelings of self-hatred, worthlessness, and avoidance of others. Trauma is the core of psychological injury, usually a result of witnessing or experiencing death, over which a person feels intense fear, helplessness, and horror. For men in particular, suppressing feelings from abortion can both hinder recovery and reconciliation, and decrease their sense of well-being."

Thorn said conferences like "Reclaiming Fatherhood" could help men deal with their post-abortion reality the way Project Rachel has helped women who have undergone abortions deal with their emotional and spiritual scars.

With an estimated 40 million abortions in the United States, Thorn states that 40 million men have also been affected.

"We have no idea how many people are wounded," she said. "And sometimes the effects are latent for 15 years and suddenly pop up at the birth of his first child, or sometimes, it is something that bubbles up randomly."

For Aubert, it is testament to what he and countless others continue to suffer. "I am living proof that I am not the only one on the planet who worries about this," he said. "I find that men who thought this through overwhelmingly have bad feelings. I gave a talk in my hometown of Houston and this old guy about 75-ish came up to me afterward. He was weeping. All he could say was thank you. Here he was 75 and at some point in his life, probably 30 years earlier he was part of an abortion and has been dealing with this ever since and couldn't talk about it."

For more informationor to receive help if you or someone you know has been affected by an abortion, contact:
The National Office of Post Abortion Reconciliation and Healing
(800) 5WE-CARE
Or the "Truth Matters" Web site, by Chris Aubert