Catholic Herald staff
He may have dabbled in Christian clowning and liturgical dance, but preaching and presiding at Mass have always been the highlights of Fr. Bob Koszarek’s vocation.
“That was always really very close to my heart, my deepest interest,” he said of the liturgy.
Fr. Koszarek, 66, celebrated three milestones — the 40th anniversary of his ordination, 26 years at St. Peter the Fisherman and his retirement — May 18 in Eagle River.
Ordained in 1974, Fr. Koszarek began the journey to priesthood as a teenager. He studied at St. Lawrence Seminary High School, Mount Calvary, and then went to the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn., before finishing at St. Paul Seminary.
“I’m a lifer, as they say,” he joked.
His first assignment was as associate pastor in Medford. He did a brief stint at the cathedral in Superior before moving on to St. Bridget, River Falls, for a few more years. His first appointment as pastor was at parishes in Bayfield and La Pointe.
Looking back, he appreciates his seven years as an associate pastor, learning “lots of stuff they don’t teach you in seminary” from a wise, mentoring pastor.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said, “some of the guys coming out of seminary don’t have that length of time.”
“Jumping in with both feet” at Bayfield was another experience for Fr. Koszarek. Lack of resources was the perennial problem — money was coming from the diocese and the sisters who ran the school, but maintaining the school was a struggle. He was in Bayfield for seven years, and he remembers not paying himself when funds ran short.
The challenge at his next, and final, parish, St. Peter the Fisherman, Eagle River, was “having a staff, personnel, learning how to work with personnel.”
The job description for priesthood had changed, and hiring and firing — human resources duties — were now on the list. The priest was also in charge of the school.
“Sisters used to be holding down that fort,” he added. “It’s all different these days.”
Even in school, liturgy was always an area of emphasis for Fr. Koszarek. In his 40 years behind the pulpit, one skill he learned was how to leave it.
He developed different preaching styles over the years, the priest explained. In Eagle River, he was out preaching in front of the people, speaking without the aid of written notes.
“I think I learned to grow in that whole capacity,” he said.
Although Fr. Koszarek is no electronics geek — technology is a tool for him, not a hobby — he also delighted in using a computer, screen and projector to incorporate movie clips, images, slides and other visuals into his homilies.
“Sometimes, one image, one piece of sacred art, might be all you need,” he added. “I think it does pay dividends when you get out from behind the pulpit.”
In Fr. Koszarek’s 26 years at St. Peter the Fisherman, the building of the new church, dedicated in 2002, was one of the biggest challenges to hit the parish. Start to finish, the project took 12 or 13 years, and much of that was discussion and planning. The parish really came together to meet the challenge, he said.
Joining the presenting teams at Worldwide Marriage Encounter in River Falls was one of the most positive experiences of Fr. Koszarek’s active ministry. At the time, he was beginning to notice “some of the negatives of the community” — people who were not healthy in spirit. The Marriage Encounter couples, by contrast, were energetic and spiritually healthy, and fostered in him “a recharged sense of the power and the grace in the church.”
Fr. Koszarek has an “adventuresome” spirit, and he recalls introducing new practices — Christian clowning in Bayfield, “body prayer,” barefoot liturgical dance in Eagle River — and seeking new theological interpretations for inspiration.
“I was willing to go down that road,” is his tongue-in-cheek commentary on liturgical dance.
Fr. Koszarek’s send-off from St. Peter the Fisherman and cluster parishes St. Albert, Land O’ Lakes, and St. Mary, Phelps, was May 18 at Eagle Waters Resort.
More than 400 clergy, family members, parishioners and friends, including Bishop Peter Christensen, attended the “fantastic party,” which got much bigger and lasted much longer than planned.
He received many gifts, including an October pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi.
“Really, a beautiful gift,” he added. “People were very generous … I just can’t say enough about the kindness of the people of God. They showed me much more kindness than I deserve.”
Currently getting situated at his home in Iron River, Fr. Koszarek is “feeling very affirmed” after his send-off. He’s adjusting to a new pace of life and planning to help out at parishes this fall.
“Things are going very well,” he said.