My first introduction to Father Joseph Walijewski came in middle school religion class at Sacred Heart School in Cashton, WI. We watched the inaugural Mass for the opening of his Cause for Beatification and Canonization. Little did I know that at that time, the more I learned about Father Joe, the more I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
I shared his fascination for new cultures and the desire to serve from a young age. Along with many other dreams of missionary service, I dreamed that one day, I too could serve at Father Joe’s Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II. I began learning the Spanish language in elementary school and enjoyed my studies throughout the years solely as an academic endeavor. However, after learning of Father Joe’s legacy, the possibility of using my abilities to serve others fueled my desire to learn. There was a tangible shift in my mindset after one of my high school Spanish teachers recommended that I research Casa Hogar for a writing assignment. I scoured the Guild and Casa Hogar websites with a longing anticipation. The prospect of serving at Casa Hogar no longer seemed like a dream, but it became a goal.
I was inspired that, if Father Joe, who had more humble beginnings than I, could make a difference in the world, then I could too. I kept an eye out for Diocesan trips to Peru – even having reserved a spot for one trip – but the timing was never right. Being diagnosed with chronic illness my freshman year of high school complicated matters. My symptoms worsened over the years so that my senior year was filled with frequent medical appointments amidst preparing for college.
At that time, I began asking for Fr. Joe’s intercession in my life. One night when faced with unmanageable symptoms and a college application due the next day, I remembered his wager with God that if he could finish his priestly education, he would serve in South America. I made that similar wager, invoking the intercession of Fr. Joe Walijewski to serve at Casa Hogar for at least six months. Realizing the boldness of my statement, I retracted my prayer to at least two months.
As a Spanish Major at Benedictine College, I have an academic requirement for a study abroad immersion experience. Rather than the traditional study abroad program, I arranged to spend the Spring 2020 semester at Casa for three months and travel in Peru. However, as much of our world today has changed due to the global pandemic, my journey would change once again.
As I reflected in a personal blog post in May:
Quarantine wasn’t in my job description. A national state of emergency, including travel bans and quarantine, took effect in Peru on March 15. Last weekend the government announced an extension of its restrictions until June 30th. I never could have anticipated that I would live through a global pandemic during my service-learning semester as a volunteer at Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II. When the state of emergency was announced in March, many American citizens sought out the US embassy for assistance with their return home. I chose to stay. I felt that there was still more that God was calling me to at Casa Hogar: giving more comforting hugs, more afternoons playing on the playground, more laughs, more smiles, and more prayers. I knew that I was right where God wanted me to be.
Now my nerves are starting to set in. I don’t know exactly when I’ll be able to fly home. I’m registered to return to school at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS this August. I have housing plans and academic goals. I miss my community, my friends, and my family. I miss various comforts of living in the US as well, though they now seem like luxuries. I’m nervous that I won’t find a flight and meet my scheduled plans.
Despite this, I feel the gentle tug of Jesus calling me to surrender my schedule, my plans, my goals, and my desires to his love. I can only describe it as grace — that which transforms burnout into a growing heart and anxiety to peace, that which elevates each act of service into an act of love. I’m surrendering all to God who is Love, for love of his children. I’m still right where God wants me to be.
Casa Hogar founder Fr. Joseph Walijewski’s prayer had become my own:
“I do not know how long I will live [in Peru], but while I live [here], Lord, let me give some comfort to someone in need by smile or nod, kind word or deed.”
Thankfully, I was able to fly home in July and begin school for the semester. I’ve realized now that I completed the original 6 months at Casa that I initially prayed for. Pandemic or not, I wouldn’t trade that time for anything, knowing that Fr. Joe was praying with me through it all.