Saint Joseph Sebastian Pelczar
The saint we commemorate today is Saint Joseph Sebastian Pelczar 1842-1924), Bishop of Przemyśl and founder of the Congregation of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Joseph Sebastian Pelczar was born on January 17, 1842, in the small town of Korczyna in southwestern Poland. There he spent his childhood, raised in an atmosphere of traditional Polish piety. Recognizing his exceptional talents, his parents sent him to the district town of Rzeszow to continue his schooling after he had completed two years of elementary education at the local primary school in Korczyna.
Even when he was still a young student, Joseph Sebastian decided to devote himself to the service of God. In his diary he wrote: “Earthly ideals are fading away. I see the ideal of life in sacrifice, and the ideal of sacrifice in priesthood.” After completing the sixth grade at the Rzeszow Academy, he entered the Minor Seminary. Later in 1860, he began theological studies at the Major Seminary of Przemysl.
Ordained a priest on July 17, 1864, Joseph Sebastian was sent to Sambor, to a parish in the Diocese of Przemysl, where he worked for a year and a half as a curate. He was sent to Rome in 1866 and spent two years there, studying at Collegium Romanum, presently known as the Gregorian University, and the Institute of St. Apollinaris, now known as the Lateran University. His studies in Rome not only broadened his knowledge, but also filled his heart with a deep, abiding love for the Church and her visible head, the Roman Pontiff. Having earned doctorates in theology and canon law, he returned to Poland and, after a short period of service as curate in Wojutycze and Sambor, he became a professor of the Major Seminary of Przemysl (1869-1877). Later, he was appointed as professor of the Jagellonian University in Krakow (1877-99).
As a professor and as the Dean of the Theological Department, he gained the reputation as a wise and scholarly man, a competent organizer and a friend to young people. As a sign of their high esteem for him, the academic community entrusted him with the honorable responsibility of Rector of the University (1882-83), Krakow’s Alma Mater.
Striving to live up to his ideal of “a Polish priest dedicated to the people,” Father Pelczar did not confine himself only to academic work. He generously involved himself in other social and charitable activities such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Society for the Education of the People. In the latter of the two, he served as President for 16 years. During that time, he erected hundreds of libraries, delivered numerous free lectures, published and distributed more than a thousand books, and opened a school for servants. In 1891, Father Pelczar established the Fraternity of Our Lady, Queen of the Polish Crown. Besides its religious commitment, the Fraternity was founded to care for the poor, the orphans, apprentices and servants, especially those who were sick and unemployed.
Joseph Sebastian recognized that the problems existing in his times were actually opportunities to see the will of God. In 1894, he founded the Congregation of the Sister Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Krakow, with the aim of spreading the Kingdom of the love of the Heart of Jesus. He wanted the Sisters to be signs and instruments of this love for girls, for the sick and all people in need.
Five years later, in 1899 he was named Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Przemysl. Upon the death of Bishop L. Solecki in 1900, he was appointed the local Ordinary of the Diocese of Przemysl. During the twenty-five years of his episcopate, he was widely regarded as a good pastor, devoted to the people entrusted to him.
In spite of his poor health, Bishop Pelczar worked tirelessly in the religious and social needs of his Diocese. In order to encourage the faithful of his diocese to grow in the spirit of faith, he made regular pastoral visits to the parishes and devoted special attention to raise the moral and intellectual awareness of the clergy. Above all, he himself exemplified a life of deep piety that was expressed in his devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. He was an ardent adorer of the Most Blessed Sacrament and used to encourage members of his diocese to take part in Eucharistic devotions. Through his efforts, the number of churches and chapels increased, and many churches were restored. Despite the unfavorable political circumstances of the times, he conducted three diocesan synods. Always responsive to the needs of the faithful in his diocese, Blessed Joseph Sebastian took special care of the poorest. Nurseries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, schools for poor country girls, tuition assistance for the education of poor seminarians were but a few of his works. He sympathized with workers who were unjustly treated, and with those who were forced to emigrate because of the difficult economical situation. He emphasized the necessity of implementing the social doctrine of the Church as expressed in the social documents of Leo XIII.
Extraordinarily gifted by God, Blessed Joseph Sebastian developed and increased the talents given to him. Among his gifts was a rich literary heritage. He authored numerous theological, historical, and canonical books, pastoral letters, sermons, addresses, as well as prayer books and textbooks.
Having fulfilled God’s will, despite many obstacles, Bishop Pelczar died in the odor of sanctity on the night of March 28, 1924. During his funeral service, Father Antoni Bystrzonowski, his student and successor in the Department of Theology, said this of him: “The late Bishop of Przemysl personified the most beautiful qualities and talents of the episcopate. Witness his tireless pastoral zeal, his spirit of initiative combined with energy manifested in action; witness the splendor of his scholarship, or, even more noteworthy, the sanctity of his virtues; witness above all the shining example of his exceptional work combined with a truly youthful enthusiasm.”
On the 2nd of June, 1991, in Rzeszow, Poland, John Paul II, elevated him to the glory of the beatified. The relics of Blessed Joseph Sebastian Pelczar rest in the Cathedral Church in Przemysl. His feast day is observed on January 19th.