Where invitations can lead

Br. Andy Gancarczyk, SCJ
Br. Andy Gancarczyk, SCJ

“All I know is SCJ, but it is all I want, it is where I belong”

-Br. Andy Gancarczyk, SCJ

Invitation and witness. These are the two things that have guided much of Br. Andy Gancarczyk’s life.

Known as “Andrzej” in his native Poland, he is from Kałków, a small village in the southwest border of the country, near the Czech Republic.

“I was a typical boy,” said Br. Andy. “I took saxophone lessons, was a Boy Scout and altar boy. I liked to play soccer. And being the eldest son, I had to help my family on the farm.”

When he was 14 Br. Andy met an SCJ who was home on vacation, visiting family in Kałków. The SCJ invited him and his brother to take part in a youth retreat. Although they had never heard of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, Br. Andy and his brother decided to go.

Br. Andy (right) with Fr. Mark Mastin. Br. Andy did a video interview with Fr. Mark when the Army chaplain was home on leave. A link to the interview is at the end of this story.
Br. Andy (right) with Fr. Mark Mastin. Br. Andy did a video interview with Fr. Mark when the Army chaplain was home on leave. A link to the interview is at the end of this story.

“After that, I started every summer and winter vacation with a retreat held at an SCJ house,” said Br. Andy.

It was that initial invitation that introduced him to the SCJs. Later, it was the witness of a community of SCJ brothers that sparked his vocation.

“One of the places that we had our retreats was at the brothers’ formation house,” he said. Their example of religious life inspired him.

“It is a vocation of service, a call to religious life in service,”

When he was 18 he began to think that religious life –– as a brother –– was what he was called to as well.

“It was just after the general conference on brothers, held here in the United States,” said Br. Andy. “I spoke to one of the brothers who was at the conference, Br. Wieslaw Bysiek. He had worked in the missions in Finland and is now Moldova. He gave me another example of what it is like to be a brother in the congregation. I thought that this is what I was called to do, to be.”

After high school, Br. Andy applied to be a postulant with the SCJs. Two months later, he entered novitiate.

“Immediately, I felt at home in the congregation,” he said, likening it to a young man seeing a woman across a room and knowing “that is this is the girl for me, she is who I will spend my life with! I don’t know any other way of being religious, I did not visit other communities. All I know is SCJ, but it is all I want, it is where I belong.”

Br. Andy professed his first vows in 1995, did his undergraduate studies in theology, and then went to Warsaw to do graduate studies. In 2004 he earned a master’s degree in education, specializing in social pedagogy. In doing so, he was following the example of an uncle who was a school administrator. “I saw him as a man who was doing his vocation,” said Br. Andy. “He was a good model. A witness to living one’s vocation.”

However, when he completed his master’s degree it wasn’t education that Br. Andy went into, but publishing. He became director of the printing department of the province’s publishing house in Krakow.

Was he disappointed that he wasn’t involved in education?

“No, I was very happy,” said Br. Andy. “At the publishing house –– this was the first time that I felt like I was really a member of the congregation, that I was doing something, contributing. There was a need and I could help. This is what was important to me. To be of service.”

And while he didn’t study publishing, it wasn’t unfamiliar territory. Graphics, writing, photography and online work –– these were all hobbies for Br. Andy, things he loved to do. He had no problem turning a hobby into a full-time assignment.

“Why not me?”

A young Andrzej pictured just before he left for Uruguay
A young Andrzej pictured just before he left for Uruguay

It was through that assignment at the publishing house that Br. Andy learned about his next assignment: service as a missionary in Uruguay.

“When I was in Warsaw, I met many missionaries,” he said. “They worked in Congo, India, South Africa and other places. It was very interesting to me.”

Br. Andy asked for an assignment in the missions, perhaps in India, but his superiors said that he was needed at the publishing house. “I thought, ‘Ok, I’ll work three, four years in publishing and then maybe I can go to the missions. I was needed in Krakow.”

One of the benefits of Br. Andy’s job was that he was one of the first members of his province to read province publications. As he was putting one together he came upon a letter from the superior in Uruguay in which he made a request for two SCJs to help with the mission there.

“I thought, ‘Why not me?’” said Br. Andy. At the same time, a fellow Pole was preparing for service to Chile. The superior general suggested that the two Polish SCJs go to South America together. In 2008 they left for a five-year assignment to Uruguay.

“We didn’t know ANYTHING!” said Br. Andy, adding that they only had a handful of Spanish words between them.

He admits that it wasn’t easy. The first two years the Poles primarily worked on learning Spanish and getting a sense of the new culture in which they were to minister. Br. Andy worked with a small Christian community, something similar to a parish outstation or chapel community, in one of the poorest barrios of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay.

“We had a small youth group,” he said. “I loved working with them.”

Br. Andy also directed a school operated by the Uruguay District, a school that reflected the poverty of the area in which it was located. “We couldn’t take money from the students’ families, they didn’t have any,” said Br. Andy. Other SCJ entities assisted, especially the North Italian Province,” “but we barely ever had enough money to do much more than pay the teachers’ salaries.” Basic school supplies –– even toilet paper –– were at a premium.

Although Montevideo is considered to be the cultural and economic center of Uruguay, its barrios are host to some of the deepest poverty found in the country. “There is so much crime there,” said Br. Andy. “Every day the crime reported on television was in our parish, people shot, always theft.

“It is important to be with the people in a place like this, but it is also very hard.”

When his five-year assignment was nearing its end Br. Andy reflected on what he wanted to do next. He thought about using his Spanish skills in another mission in South America, “Maybe Chile or Ecuador,” he said.

But then he heard from someone who had helped direct one of the youth retreats that he had been a part of years ago: Fr. Zbigniew Morawiec, SCJ.

“Why not come to Houston?” said Fr. Ziggy. “We need people who can speak Spanish. Come here.”

A missionary in the United States?

Br. Andy took this photo during his first visit to OLG, Houston. "I love it there," he said, "it is so full of life!"
Br. Andy took this photo during his first visit to OLG, Houston. “I love it there,” he said, “it is so full of life!”

Being a missionary in the United States was never something that Br. Andy had given thought to. But always, he had a desire to go where there was a need. Most of the parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Houston, where Fr. Ziggy is associate pastor, are Spanish-speakers.

Five years ago Br. Andy thought “Why not me?” when he saw the need for help in Uruguay.

Once again, thinking about the needs at OLG, Houston, he said the same: “Why not me at Our Lady of Guadalupe?”

Br. Andy speaks Spanish fluently, but he needed to brush up on his English. At the beginning of the year he entered Sacred Heart School of Theology’s ESL program.

During Holy Week, he visited OLG for the first time.

“I loved it!” he said when he got back. “So full of life.”

He spoke with Fr. Ed Kilianski, SCJ, pastor, about possibilities in ministry. Besides youth ministry, Br. Andy would like to put his “hobby” to work again, and help the parish with its website and other communications.

If all goes as planned, including the necessary paperwork for an international religious to minister in the United States, Br. Andy hopes to be busy at work at Our Lady of Guadalupe in early summer, answering another invitation to serve.

Click on the link above to see a video interview that Br. Andy recently did with Fr. Mark Mastin when the Army chaplain was home after a tour in Afghanistan. The introduction is in Polish, but the interview itself is in English.