Katie Yoder
Our Sunday Visitor

Dcn. Dan Tracy chuckled before revealing what led him to tell the story of a Wisconsin priest who died in a World War II concentration camp. It all began, he said, with an asterisk.

Having just entered seminary, Dcn. Tracy was curious to learn more about the priests of his diocese — the Diocese of Superior — and decided to research the history of death of all the priests who had served there.

“It said ‘Leon Gutowski, May 3, 1938’ and then there was an asterisk,” Dcn. Tracy told Our Sunday Visitor, citing diocesan records. “Then, at the bottom of the page, it said what you’ll see now, which is ‘date of death is unclear, letter on file said he died in a concentration camp.’”

“I was like, ‘What in the world is a Wisconsin priest doing in a concentration camp?’” he remembered.

His discovery came in 2017, during his first semester at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, located in the suburbs of Milwaukee. He has been researching Fr. Gutowski ever since.

The story of Fr. Gutowski — a man from Poland who was ordained a priest in Wisconsin before dying in Nazi Germany’s Dachau concentration camp — inspired Dcn. Tracy to write an article in 2018. Since then, he has encountered several of Fr. Gutowski’s relatives who have shared stories, photos and a special drawing of Christ’s Sacred Heart.

Fr. Leon Gutowski’s story

In his 2018 Superior Catholic Herald article, Dcn. Tracy shared Fr. Gutowski’s story.

Born in 1896 in Poland, Fr. Gutowski immigrated to the United States at 16 years old. He spent time in Elkhart, Indiana, before entering St. Lawrence High School Seminary in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin, Dcn. Tracy wrote. He later connected with the Diocese of Superior, which led him to study in Montreal, Canada, and at the St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

He was ordained a priest on May 3, 1927, in the Diocese of Superior. From there, Fr. Gutowski served as a hospital chaplain and as a priest at several Wisconsin parishes, Dcn. Tracy wrote. Then, in Fr. Gutowski’s own words, God called him to Poland.

“Now after many years of prayer and meditation, I am convinced that I have that ‘Calling’ from God to return to Poland,” Fr. Gutowski wrote to his bishop in 1936.

Soon after, he did just that. Then, in 1941, he was arrested.

Fr. Gutowski was serving at St. Lawrence in Zareby, Poland, when he caught the attention of German troops after leading a Corpus Christi procession on June 12, 1941, Dcn. Tracy wrote. He was arrested five days later. On Aug. 29, he arrived at Dachau.

He survived for one year.

While the date of his death is unknown, Dcn. Tracy wrote that Fr. Gutowski received a disability transfer on Aug. 10, 1942, and, from there, was taken to the Hartheim Euthanasia Center, where he was murdered in a gas chamber.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Holocaust survivors and victims database includes the Dachau Concentration Camp Records listing Fr. Gutowski in its electronic data of prisoners who were incarcerated at Dachau.

A total of 2,720 clergymen — including 2,579 Catholics — were imprisoned in Dachau, according to “The Priest Barracks: Dachau 1938-1945” by Guillaume Zeller. The book shows that Gutowski was there at a particularly troubling time, when the priests suffered, among other things, famine, a brutal winter and cruel treatment during Holy Week.

Lingering questions

After spending years researching Fr. Gutowski, Dcn. Tracy has four lingering questions: 1) How did he connect with the Diocese of Superior? 2) What day did he die? 3) What happened that led to his arrest? And 4) Was he the only priest ordained in the United States who died in a concentration camp?

Fr. Gutowski’s story calls for looking more into the background of priests and religious killed in concentration camps, Fr. Charles R. Gallagher, S.J., a history professor at Boston College and a 2017 fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, told Our Sunday Visitor.

Fr. Kevin P. Spicer, C.S.C., a professor of history and dean at Stonehill College, referenced his extensive library on the Catholic Church under National Socialism and reference books about priests imprisoned in German concentration camps.

“The central work on this topic by Eugen Weiler, ‘Die Geistlichen in Dachau,’ lists Gutowski as Polish,” Fr. Spicer, who previously served on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s committee on ethics, religion and the Holocaust, told Our Sunday Visitor. “Likewise, Reimund Schnabel’s ‘Die Frommen in der Holle: Gesitliche in Dachau‘ does the same. Ursula Pruss’ ‘Priester im KZ Sachsenhausen: Der Gedenkstein für die inhaftierten katholischen Geistlichen‘ does not include him, as, I assume, he was never in Sachsenhausen. None of the books lists any clergy from North America.”
“All of the above,” he said, “leads me to conclude that Gutowski was an exception.”

A holy man’s drawing

While Dcn. Tracy is still searching for answers, he has learned more about Fr. Gutowski through the priest’s relatives.

While Barbara Hufschmidt did not know Fr. Gutowski, her mother, Mary, did. She was Fr. Gutowski’s niece. The 72-year-old in Milwaukee remembered her mother calling Fr. Gutowski a “very holy man,” she told Our Sunday Visitor.

She also knew he was an artist.

“I have a picture that he painted,” she revealed. “A big picture of Jesus.”

After her mother passed away in 2016, she said, her brother handed her the drawing when he found it in their mother’s house.

“My brother had no idea who Leon Gutowski was,” she said. “He just gave it to me for the frame.”

The charcoal picture features Christ’s bleeding, Sacred Heart. Text in the lower-right corner reads “Drawn by Leon Gutowski, 1921.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” Hufschmidt said. “It was just a beautiful picture, and obviously, thank goodness, it didn’t get thrown away.”

Dcn. Tracy, who saw the drawing in person while meeting with Hufschmidt, took a photo of it together with an aspergillum — an instrument used to sprinkle the faithful with holy water — from Fr. Gutowski’s first Mass in 1927.

A family story

Dcn. Tracy also shared a family story about an apparition of Fr. Gutowski that relatives have handed down through the years. A relative named Lorraine Thatcher, whose grandfather was Fr. Gutowski’s brother, told Dcn. Tracy how her great-grandmother, Balbina, once heard a knock on her front door.

When she looked, she saw Fr. Gutowski standing at the front door with his luggage, Dcn. Tracy retold the story. She was surprised to see the priest who was now living in Poland. But when she got to the front door, he was gone.

“It was shortly thereafter they received news of his death,” Dcn. Tracy said.

A personal connection

Since Dcn. Tracy began his research, the diocesan website has been updated. The asterisk is no longer there.

But, for Dcn. Tracy, it served its purpose.

“What initially, for me, was this peculiar interest in a priest of my own diocese has really become much more a story about helping this family uncover information about their relative,” Dcn. Tracy said, “with the hopes that it cannot only be for me personally, obviously, a huge inspiration of a holy priest, but also, for this family, a deepening of their own faith and understanding of someone in their lineage who proclaimed Christ and died for Christ.”

Katie Yoder is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

“Meet the remarkable U.S. priest who died in a concentration camp” by Katie Yoder. Our Sunday Visitor, April 16, 2023. ©OSV. Used by permission. No other use of this material is authorized. To subscribe visit www.oursundayvisitor.com.

An undated photo of Fr. Leon Gutowski (OSV, courtesy of Lorraine Thatcher).