While Joseph Lewandowski remembers tunneling in the hayloft, building forts in the woods, and sharing a room with his older brother – a characteristically rural childhood – it was a bit later when he “really got a sense” of the former.
Bishop Bruce A. Lewandowski, C.Ss.R., newly-ordained auxiliary bishop of Baltimore – then just “Bruce” – had moved away to study for the priesthood, but during a summer break and in a difficult time for the family, he and his younger brother found themselves walking through “what was probably not the best neighborhood,” on their way to a laundromat.
“We walked past some people,” Joseph Lewandowski, about five years younger than his brother, remembered. “They were what you would consider bullies. They said some words, and we kept walking.”
Later, the brothers went back to pick up their clothes.
“I noticed him talking to himself,” Joseph said. “I asked him, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
“Praying,” came the answer.
“That was kind of a defining moment, when you see how strong someone’s faith is,” Joseph recalled. “If it was me, I would have stayed home.”
The Lewandowski children – in birth order: Mary, Bruce, Paula and Joseph – grew up on six acres of farmland in Lima, Ohio, with their parents, Robert and Frances.
They were heavily involved in 4-H, the worldwide youth organization closely linked with agriculture and concerned with “head, hands, heart and health.” The Lewandowski siblings had a fifth H: horses.
“My brother Bruce used to ride this great big Tennessee Walker,” remembered Felician Sister Mary Francis Lewandowski, his older sister. “He would go out in the field and jump on the back of that horse with nothing, and he would ride.”
The practice foreshadowed his style of ministry – simple, direct and not overly concerned with means.
“That horse would do everything he wanted it to do, with no saddle, no bridle, nothing,” Sister Mary Francis added. “Talk about complete trust.”
That is not to say that Bishop Lewandowski has never been burned by his mount.
His younger sister, Paula Chupp, recalled frequently racing her brother from the very edge of the family property back to the house. She said his horse – it is not clear whether she was referring to the aforementioned Tennessee Walker – was “stubborn.”
“It stopped dead in its tracks, and he flew over its head,” she said.
Not all family activities were wild. When they went to family gatherings near their great aunt, a religious sister with the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, Ohio, the Lewandowski siblings and their cousins would “sneak off and have Mass,” Sister Mary Francis remembered.
“Bruce would say Mass, and I would altar serve,” she said.
Frances Whitney, Bishop Lewandowski’s mother, said that her son had always wanted to be a priest, and had always been a peacemaker.
Bishop Bruce A. Lewandowski
Born: June 8, 1967, in Toledo.
Education: St. Gerard Elementary School, Lima, Ohio; St. Mary’s High School Seminary, Erie, Pa.; St. Alphonsus College, Suffield, Conn.; The Washington Theological Union
Ordained a Redemptorist priest: May 7, 1994
Ministry Highlights: Parish priest, pastor and/or superior in New York, West Indies and Pennsylvania; vicar for Cultural Ministries, Archdiocese of Philadelphia; pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus/Sagrado Corazón de Jesús Parish, Highlandtown; vicar for Hispanic Ministry, Archdiocese of Baltimore
When Sister Mary Francis – an artist who does graphic design, handles communications for the Felician sisters and produced her brother’s episcopal coat of arms – was a child, “she would draw on the wall and on the floor,” Frances remembered. “Bruce would always say, ‘I did it,’ to make peace.”
Today, she said, “He is kind of the head of the family. He calls me every day, and he looks out for me.”
Joseph has always been impressed by his brother’s ability to identify a job that needs doing and then do it. He remembered one phone call in particular: “We’re going to put new flooring in Mom’s house – can you come and help?” It was on short notice, and Joseph, father to three daughters, couldn’t make it to his mother’s house in Marblehead, Ohio, but the job was completed.
“He and my sister did it in a day and a half,” he said. “He’s so determined. He never questions whether he can do something; somehow he just knows.”
Part of that is knowing where to turn for help. Paula noted that the younger of her two sons, Jacob, “is always close to (Bishop Lewandowski).”
“He calls and says, ‘Nonnie needs this,’ or ‘Nonnie needs that,’ and Jacob helps him,” Paula said. “Nonnie” herself noted that her son has also gained many loyal friends via his ministry.
“If one of his parishioners needs him in the middle of the night, he’s right there,” said his mother, who remembers last fall, when “four of the people from Brazil, and Bruce, and Joe, and my grandson came and put a new roof on my house. When we had Mass in the morning, it was half in Portuguese, half in English.”
The family has experienced some difficult times. Robert, a Vietnam veteran, and Frances divorced during Bishop Lewandowski’s minor seminary years at St. Mary’s College in Erie, Pa., five hours northeast of Lima.
The siblings remain close. When Bishop Lewandowski and Sister Mary Francis, in particular, talk or text almost every day, “We talk a lot about the church, and a lot about (being part of a religious) community,” said Sister Mary Francis, who lives in Detroit. “We hash things out.”
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Although she is a year older than Bishop Lewandowski, she made the move toward religious life after him.
“He was really excited for me, and encouraging,” she said. “Once he entered and I entered, we just connected about the church and community.”
Sister Mary Francis noted that her brother’s counsel was especially helpful during her recent ministry change – from Livonia, Mich., seat of her community’s Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Province, to among the poor in Detroit. She wondered how she would go about forming relationships with her neighbors.
“You don’t have to talk to people,” Bishop Lewandowski told her. “Get your pad, go out on your porch, sit down, and start drawing. They will come to you.”
Their mother, Frances, a professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order since 2006, said the siblings’ full commitment to God has brought her great comfort.
“When my children were born, I offered them back to God, and he took two of them,” she said. “That’s how it all started.”
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