BALTIMORE — Father Bruce Lewandowski has lived many memorable places over the years, but he’ll never forget his formative years growing up in Lima.
Those key principles from elementary school at St. Gerard Catholic School helped make him the man and the priest he is today. Before the end of the year, they’ll have helped make him an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
“I don’t remember a lot of things, but those years I remember,” Lewandowski said by telephone Friday, a few days after he turned 53 Monday and the Vatican announced Wednesday that Pope Francis wanted him to become a bishop. “I remember all the great people. There was a powerful influence from the people I knew on the direction of my life.”
Lewandwoski will be ordained an auxiliary bishop Aug. 18 at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland, Maryland.
Lewandowski moved from Toledo, where he was born, to Lima in second or third grade, when his father, Robert, took a job at Westinghouse. They lived on five acres on Reservoir Road with horses, leading what Lewandowski called a “very peaceful, calm and somewhat sheltered life.”
While living here, his grandmother gave him a book that inspired him to become a missionary.
“When I was 10 years old, my Grandma Czelusta gave me a small hardcover book,” he said in a video announcing his new role. “It told the story of a frontier priest who, sacrificing all, traveled on foot and horseback, doing anything and everything he could to make the church present in the lives of people in upstate New York and northern Ohio.”
He later understood that frontier priest was St. John Neumann, a Redemptorist priest just like the ones who serve St. Gerard Parish to this day.
“The priests had a very effective way of bringing the Gospel alive at the school Masses,” Lewandowski recalled. “I remember homilies from the sixth, seventh and eighth grade when I was in elementary school. I don’t even remember homilies from last week … that I gave myself!”
He remained in Lima through eighth grade, when he went to live at the St. Mary’s Seminary High School in Erie, Pennsylvania, at age 14. He returned in the summers and tried to helped at St. Gerard, where his mother, Frances, helped with the Girl Scouts and his father, Robert, helped with bingo and was an usher. His mother now lives in Marblehead, and his father lives in Chagrin Falls.
He went to the St. Alphonsus College in Suffield, Connecticut, and the Holy Redeemer College in Washington, studying theology at the Washington Theological Union.
“In the seminary, I prepared by learning Spanish,” Lewandowski said on the video. “I was set on being a missionary. I prayed I’d be sent to the Redemptorist mission in the Dominican Republic or Paraguay.”
Lewandowski became a priest in May 1994 in the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. His first assignment as a priest was in St. Cecilia parish in New York City.
“I remember saying I thought I was going to be on the missions,” he recalled telling his provincial. “He replied, ‘You are!’ At that time, people from Ecuador and Mexico were arriving in great numbers, making St. Cecilia’s their home.”
He later served at Immaculate Conception in New York City, where he watched the Twin Towers burn on 9/11 from the rooftop of the parish’s school. He then became a missionary in Seelos House in Vieux Port, St. Lucia, West Indies, from 1998 to 2000. He said he loved working there, helping the banana farmers and other parishioners, who deeply valued and lived their Catholic faith.
He moved to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2000, serving as pastor at St. Boniface in Philadelphia and Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish in Kensington before spending 2011 to 2015 as the vicar for cultural ministries in that archdiocese.
Most recently, he was the pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus in Baltimore.
He still feels the zeal to be a missionary, but his perception of what that means changed. He’s served at parishes with strong Latin populations most of his life. He delivers many of his homilies in English and Spanish.
“I wanted to go on missions, and the missions came to me,” Lewandowski said.
Archbishop William Lori, of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, praised Lewandowski for his “considerable pastoral gifts” in a video announcing Lewandowki’s new role.
“In his role of pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus in Baltimore and as my delegate for Hispanic Catholics, Bishop-designate Lewandowski has demonstrated the true heart of a shepherd,” Lori said, “not only for his own parish community but indeed for all in need of support and compassion in the city of Baltimore and throughout the archdiocese.”
Bishop Daniel Thomas, the bishop for the Diocese of Toledo, expressed his excitement at having a Lima native become an auxiliary bishop.
“We rejoice in prayerful thanksgiving at the nomination of Father Bruce Lewandowski, CSsR, a native son of the Diocese of Toledo,” Bishop Daniel Thomas, of the Diocese of Toledo, wrote on his Facebook page. “… May the Lord strengthen him with every grace to serve the flock entrusted to his care with generosity, fidelity and joyful holiness!”
While he doesn’t have family in Lima, he still likes to stop by his boyhood hometown when he goes from visiting one sister in Detroit and his brother in Cincinnati.
“I must confess, I still stop in Lima for some Fat Jack’s Pizza,” he said, chuckling. “It’s good that you can order ahead, and I like the occasional Kewpee still. When I go to see my brother in Cincinnati, Lima is our stop. We stop, eat and think about the old days and the good times we had at St. Gerard.”