After 57 years as a priest, Fr. Stan Piwowar has died. He was 92 years old.
He confirmed me, officiated at our wedding, baptized two of our children, and served his parish and his savior faithfully, day in and day out, as the pastor of St. Joseph’s parish in Claremont, NH from 1965 to 2008.
I never met someone who cared less what people thought of him. In the summer (before he had air conditioning installed installed) he could celebrate Mass wearing his lightest vestments and a white terrycloth sweatband around his head.
You have to imagine a short, stout, Hobbit-like man, with bowed legs, thick glasses, and fantastically bushy eyebrows, with a permanent, benevolent smile on his lips and in his eyes. So every June or so, he would come stumping out of the sacristy with this terrycloth sweatband on his bald head.
“I’m not trying to look mod,” he would carefully explain every year. He just didn’t want the sweat from his head to get in his eyes. Then he would make the sign of the cross, and then we would know summer had officially started.
He had other quirks, acquired over decades and decades of saying the same things over and over again. The “Hail Mary” always came out “Blessed art thou th’amongst women,” for some reason; and the phrase “And now, my dear friends, we’re on page [whatever number]” made its way into the Mass so often, it felt like an established part of the liturgy. He wanted to make sure no one got left behind, so he always told his dear friends what page to go to.
He used to wink and wave and nod and grin at babies and children who made noise during the Mass. He could be reading the most bloody, heart-wrenching passage from Job or Jeremiah, and it was still time for a mid-sentence wink and a little wave from the pulpit.
As fairly new Catholics, my family was a tiny bit scandalized by this jolly informality. Surely he could wait until after Mass was over. Then we heard that, years ago, someone in his congregation had given a young mother a hard time about her fussy baby, and the woman left the church and didn’t come back. Fr. Stan then gave one of his almost unheard-of fire and brimstone sermons and charged his congregation never to let such a thing happen ever again. And to my knowledge, it never did.
If anything ever surprised him, he never showed it. I once turned up at the rectory in the middle of the night, hysterical with some teenage problem or other. I had been out walking in the dark, feeling worse and worse, and I found myself passing by the rose bushes that surrounded his front porch. There was a light on, so I pounded on the door and he let me in right away. Put me in a rocking chair, gave me some tissues, heard my confession, and gave me a “Footprints in the Sand” plaque.
And Tootsie Rolls. He handed them out to babies and grandmothers, mourners and wedding guests, in and out of season, through Lent, on the street, anywhere, any time. I used to think Fr. Stan got his Tootsie Rolls from the post office, where there was always a ready supply for customers. Turns out (or so I heard) that it was the other way around: They got their Tootsie Rolls from Father Stan. If someone told me that all the Tootsie Rolls in the world originally came from Fr. Stan, I’d believe it.
It was impossible to insult him. His parish was alway seemed to be running a financial surplus, because no one knew how to say no to him. He would hold annual appreciation banquets for volunteers. If you didn’t want to go, no problem; he’d present you with a gift certificate for a restaurant, so you could go have dinner on your own. And some more Tootsie Rolls.
It was impossible to correct him. He was so intensely loyal, and so intensely stubborn, as only a Pole can be, it was absolutely no use to tell him anything. Even the bishop left him alone, and he did what he liked. What he liked was serving the Church and serving Christ, but he did what he liked.
His sermons were usually basic catechesis. Sometimes, apparently suddenly realizing he had a captive audience, he would expand more than anyone was bargaining for. I remember one warm Sunday, he had already preached for about ten minutes, and then casually mentioned, “And now, my dear friends, we’ll just go through a brief synopsis of the Ten Commandments . . . ” And so he did, one by one. And we sat there, staring up at the dusty Polish crystal chandelier, squinting our eyes at heavily crowned statues and the faded mural of the death of St. Joseph, who, dying as he was, could see the light at the end of the tunnel, unlike us. But at least there would be Tootsie Rolls.
After Mass, he’d transition seamlessly into Benediction with Eucharistic adoration. He knew people would be less likely to slink away if he didn’t give them a chance, and he really wanted us to have a blessing, and so he’d say, “The Mass is ended. Go in peace AND NOW MY DEAR FRIENDS, we’ll have benediction, it’ll take only about five minutes!” and then he’d start briskly spooning incense into the censer.
He treated everyone exactly the same, with the same sincere geniality, the same implacable good will. It’s impossible to imagine him sucking up to anyone, talking down to anyone, trying to drive anyone away, or giving anyone special treatment. He was utterly tireless, utterly reliable, always moving, always serving, always turning up where he was needed, nobody’s fool, always smiling and giving out blessings. And Tootsie Rolls.
Once, we accidentally called him “Uncle Stan.” But he was a Father to the core.
There was a banner on the wall in the sanctuary of St. Joseph’s. When I was little, I craned my neck to read it, wondering why it was hung in such an awkward spot. Finally I realized it wasn’t for the congregation: It was for the priest to see, as he made his way to the altar. It said, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
God rest the soul of Fr. Stan, a good and faithful servant, a happy man, a priest forever.