By Kevin Kelley
The Rev. David Walkowiak’s journey to become the 12th bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids, Mich., began in Westlake.
Walkowiak, 59, was appointed April 18 by Pope Francis to succeed Bishop Walter Hurley, who is retiring as the leader of the diocese’s 180,000 Catholics. Walkowiak will be ordained as bishop June 18.
Walkowiak’s family moved to Westlake – Maybelle Drive, to be exact – in 1956, when the future bishop was 3 years old.
“There wasn’t much out there in those days,” Walkowiak said in a phone interview with West Life last week.
“The major industry in those days was the vineyards,” he said, referring to the grape-producing farms that dominated much of the community.
Walkowiak recalled his Westlake childhood as a happy one. He reminisced about catching frogs at a nearby creek and playing ball with friends at Clague Park. He recalled marching with his fellow Cub Scouts in the city’s Memorial Day parade.
While not quite a teenager, young David learned to golf at the long-closed Old Orchard Golf Course. It’s an activity he still enjoys, he said, adding he hopes to sample some of the courses in western Michigan after beginning his new assignment.
After attending kindergarten at Hilliard Elementary School, Walkowiak received the remainder of his grade-school education at St. Bernadette School. The priests, sisters and exposure to prayer created an environment where a religious vocation could grow, Walkowiak recalled.
“And I believe it did,” the bishop-elect said, referring to his life.
Like many boys at St. Bernadette at the time, Walkowiak assisted at parish Masses as an altar server. Among the parish priests there in the 1960s, Walkowiak said he was most influenced by the founding pastor, the Rev. Joseph Dempsey.
“He was a very nice man and encouraging,” Walkowiak said of Dempsey.
Walkowiak was influenced even more by two relatives who were priests. His great uncle, the Rev. Edmund Mondzelewski, was the nicest man he ever met, Walkowiak said. A second cousin, Dominic Mondzelewski, a Benedictine monk, also impressed Walkowiak with his goodness and kindness.
After graduating from St. Ignatius High School in 1971, Walkowiak received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Notre Dame four years later.
Frequent prayer and attendance at Mass gave him the courage to pursue the vocation to the priesthood immediately after graduating from college, he said, despite the difficulties inherent in such a path.
“It’s kind of countercultural,” he said of a career as a diocesan priest.
He never seriously considered becoming a priest in a religious order, such as the Jesuits, because he didn’t feel he was called to teaching, a focus of many orders. Yet, as a diocesan priest, he spent two decades teaching at the diocesan seminary.
“It’s funny how you make your plans and God changes them,” he said of his time on the faculty of St. Mary Seminary.
After studying canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Walkowiak spent much of his career in the diocese’s administrative offices, known as the chancery. He served from 1986 to 2006 as vice chancellor of the diocese.
Walkowiak said he, like most priests, entered the seminary to become a parish priest. The work, while at times challenging, is very rewarding, he said.
“You’re involved with people from baptism to funerals to everything in between,” he said.
Yet in his 34 years as a priest, Walkowiak spent only 10 years assigned to a parish – first at St. Mary in Lorain, immediately after his ordination, and at St. Joan of Arc Parish in Chagrin Falls, where he’s been the pastor for the past seven years.
It’s common for bishops to serve outside of the diocese they grew up in and served the majority of their careers. Walkowiak compared his assignment to Grand Rapids to a family relocating due to a parent’s job, a challenge he’s seen many parishioners deal with.
Walkowiak said he essentially received a call one day notifying him that the pope had appointed him the next bishop of Grand Rapids. The bishop-elect said it’s his understanding that someone in the church – he doesn’t know who – recommended him for the appointment to the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops, which researches apostolic appointments for the pope. While he could have declined the appointment, Walkowiak said he couldn’t come up with a satisfactory reason to.
“The only reasons I could come up with were selfish ones,” he said, referring to his family who still live in Northeast Ohio, his fondness for Northeast Ohio and his love of his current parish.
Among the family members who live in the area are his 91-year-old father, John, who lives in Rocky River; and his sisters Carol, of Westlake; Jan, of Avon Lake; and Sue, of Bay Village.
“We’re West Siders,” he said of his family, despite his current assignment in Chagrin Falls.
Walkowiak said he’s curious about western Michigan and interested in learning more about the region whose Catholics he will shepherd.
“I intend to get out to the parishes and meet people,” he answered when asked how he’ll get to know his new diocese.
St. Bernadette’s current pastor, the Rev. Philip Racco, has invited Walkowiak to celebrate Mass at the Westlake church before he leaves for Michigan for good. A date for that Mass has not yet been set, but Walkowiak said he’s looking forward to it.
“I still feel very much at home at St. Bernadette,” Walkowiak said.