Two Tiverton churches are his calling; soccer, surf also beckon
He's a pastor in Tiverton now, but life might have taken Przemyslaw Lepak other places.
"I might have become a soccer player," he said last week after being installed as pastor of both St. Theresa and St. Christopher Catholic churches in Tiverton.
"I used to play soccer (he competed on a semi-pro team back in his native Poland) and for awhile I thought about trying to make it a career."
Or he might have become a soldier — "That's another story."
But instead, "I had the calling."
That calling led him to St. Theresa Church Sunday where he was installed as pastor of the two Tiverton parishes. The Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, presided at the installation Mass.
"Every priest's dream and goal is to become a pastor," he said afterward. "After my day or ordination, this was my second happiest day." He said he will never forget the kind and helpful words from the bishop and others that day.
The path to Tiverton for "Shemek" (a common nickname for the Przemyslaw) began back in his home town of Skarszewy, Poland.
Soccer or soldiering seemed possible careers but there was no denying that he was being pulled in a different direction, he said.
"It was a strong feeling I got that I was being called by God to serve people, to help people." That conviction had been stoked over the years by the support he received from priests as an altar boy and when his mother died when he was 13 years old.
He began his seminary training in Poland at Major Seminary and then transferred to SS. Cyril & Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan. The Michigan seminary is the only Polish seminary outside that country and had put out the call for seminarians who might be interested in studying in the United States.
During his training he got his first taste of this part of the world during a summer stint at St. Mary of the Bay and St. Jean Baptiste churches in Warren working alongside the Rev. Peter Gower.
With his family from Poland present, he was ordained in 2006 in Providence by Bishop Tobin and assigned assistant pastor duties at St. Kevin Church, Warwick. Two years later he took the same position at St. Brendan Church in Riverside. Father Lepak recently served at Our Lady of Mercy Parish as assistant pastor.
"I never fully understood the difference between being a priest and a pastor," he said, "but I am learning fast with the help of my new friends here."
Both lead services and tend to people's spiritual needs, but as a pastor he also now tends to the day-to-day lives and details of his two Tiverton parishes.
One day may find him comparing prices of fuel oil or making sure flowers are ordered for the next service — "all important things." But best, he says, are times spent participating in parishioners' spiritual lives — the baptisms, weddings, funeral Masses "that are such important and memorable parts of people's lives … bring Christ's presence to them comforting them, celebrating with them."
Welcomes two-church challenge
When this assignment was discussed, Father Lepak was told about the two Tiverton parishes.
"You mean I can choose?" was his first thought.
No, you would be pastor of both, he was told.
He arrived here in early July, right in the thick of things.
"My first weekend they were celebrating the Feast of St. Theresa … then it was the St. Christopher picnic" — two of the year's biggest events for the two parishes.
"I'm still learning how to be a pastor but I am getting then help of very supportive people. I have had a very warm welcome right from the beginning in Tiverton. It is obviously challenging, with two churches, but I am doing my best."
He says that one of his biggest challenges is "being fair to each" church, making sure that he divides his time as evenly as possible between the two (St. Theresa's is at 265 Stafford Road in north Tiverton, St. Christopher's is at 1554 Main Road on the Tiverton waterfront). He lives in the rectory at St. Christopher's but has an office in each church.
Giving Sakonnet surf a try
Life near the ocean suits Father Lepak fine.
"In Poland I lived near the water and that's part of what brought me here."
He worked summers as a lifeguard at a beach on Poland's Baltic Sea coast and has always enjoyed swimming and every water sport he could try.
"I've started surfing" at South Shore Beach in Little Compton, enjoys skiing and snowboarding in New Hampshire, and hopes to play soccer and teach the sport to young players here.
"There is so much to do here — it is so beautiful," he said. "I feel blessed to have found this place."