Patrick McPartland/Staff Photographer - Jeffrey Nowak is ordained to the Transitional Deaconate on Nov. 4, 2011 at St. John Vianney Chaple, Christ the King Seminary, by Bishop Edward U. Kmiec.
Born and raised in Lackawanna, the 31-year-old looks to his hometown hero Venerable Nelson Baker for inspiration.
“Partially because of his dedication to Our Lady in his prayer life, trusting everything to the Mother of God, but then again taking almost nothing and doing great things with it,” Rev. Mr. Nowak said just a couple weeks before his ordination.
Other local clergy serve as role models as well. He has many elderly priest friends at the O’Hara Residence in Tonawanda, where he likes to visit and hear their stories.
“It’s amazing. Some of them are 90 years old and still going out and saying Mass every day or helping out with funerals. And they’re so well loved,” he said. “I consider them the legends of the diocese because I think they have seen it all. They lived through the Second Vatican Council, they survived the sexual revolution, they were well retired when we got to the Journey in Faith and Grace, but are still always willing to jump in. Just because they’re retired they never forgot they are priests.”
Rev. Mr. Nowak also looks to St. John Vianney for his compassion and St. Maximilian Kolbe for the joy he brought to others in troubled times.
He began to feel a strong bond with the Saint of Auschwitz after a trip to his own ancestral homeland, Poland, which he calls a “sobering experience.”
While visiting an Auschwitz concentration camp, Rev. Mr. Nowak experienced first hand the remnants of the suffering during the Nazi occupation of Poland. He saw prisoners with the name Nowak. “It’s a common last name, but it puts things into perspective.”
He later prayed at the cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe, whom he calls a model priest.
“Even in his suffering, even in his imprisonment he brought joy to the prisoners in his barracks. He did everything with joy until he died. Even in the midst of suffering, I think that’s something for the priests nowadays with a failing economy and people out of work, in a world full of suffering, to still be able to minister with great joy.”
His travels are only one part of the journey for the young man’s faith life. The priesthood held an interest in him since the age of 5 when he started serving Mass at Our Lady of Bistrica Church in Lackawanna. It wasn’t until high school that he started discerning his call.
Since the age of 18, Rev. Mr. Nowak has been working in the Church. First as an organist, then music director, finally as a teacher at St. Aloysius Gonzaga School in Cheektowaga.
“It just seemed like a piece of the pie was missing. The signposts were all pointing to the priesthood,” he said.
While visiting the shrine at Czestochowa during his trip to Poland in 2005, he asked for a sign from the Blessed Mother.
“I said, give me some answers, something about entering the seminary. When I returned there was a letter from the bishop, accepting me to the seminary,” Rev. Mr. Nowak recalled. “He said, you are to report on Aug. 26, which in the Polish Church is the feast day of Our Lady of Czestochowa. So I took it as that sign to go forward, accept the call and see if this is a true vocation.”
After seven years of study and ministerial assignments that have taken him around the diocese and into prisons, hospitals and the homes of Puerto Rican families, he looks forward to parish life after a priestly ordination scheduled for next June.
“It really is a journey. There are a lot of joys, a few sorrows, but no regrets,” he said reflecting on his life. “The seminary for me helped expand my own view of Church. From where I grew up in Lackawanna, now taking on different pastoral assignments, different ministerial opportunities, formally studying theology in the classroom, really helped expand that horizon to make me a more balanced person for ministry in the Church. I look at the seminary as a place that offered me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
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