Br. Anthony Kowalczyk, who died in 1947, has been declared venerable by Pope Francis.
Brother Anthony Kowalczyk, an Oblate who spent much of his life in prayer and service in Edmonton and is buried in St. Albert, is just a miracle away from being beatified.
Kowalczyk, known as God's Blacksmith, was among a handful of Catholics recognized by Pope Francis for their heroic virtues March 27 as well as three martyrs murdered by the Nazis and Soviets.
He is now eligible for beatification if a miracle can be attributed to his intercession. If a second miracle can be proven, Kowalczyk would become Western Canada's first saint.
"This is a proud moment for all of us here in St. Albert," says Oblate Father Andrzej Stendzina of St. Albert Parish. "Brother Anthony is a beloved figure here; people are always coming to his grave to bring flowers and to pray."
For the Oblates at large, Kowalczyk's recognition is also recognition of the order's missionary work in Canada and around the world, said Stendzina.
Kowalczyk, a native of Poland, died in Edmonton on July 10, 1947, having spent the last 36 years of his life working as a gardener and handyman at College Saint Jean, now the French faculty of the University of Alberta.
Kowalczyk is the second Albertan to be declared venerable. Bishop Vital Grandin of St. Albert received the recognition in 1966.
Frère Antoine School in Edmonton is named after Brother Anthony, brief written biographies and a video have been made about his life, and his grave in St. Albert is always decorated with flowers left by his followers.
"We are very happy about this," said Father Garry Laboucane, the Oblate's district superior for Alberta and the Northwest Territories. "He models for us what it means to be an Oblate; he was very humble and was devoted to the Blessed Mother."
Archbishop Richard Smith said it's wonderful to have Brother Anthony's exemplary life of humility, prayer and service recognized at the highest levels of the Church.
"For us this is a moment of great joy," he said. "In this Year of Faith we are focusing upon what it means to live a life of discipleship, which is in essence a life of holiness, and now we have one of our own recognized by the Church as one who did in fact live a life of sanctity and of heroic virtue."
The Vatican's decree recognizing Kowalczyk's heroic virtues means that the process for discerning possible canonization can continue, Smith said. "If this decree had not recognized heroic virtue, then the process would have stopped. Now the door remains open to further exploration."
The archbishop invited the faithful to pray to Brother Anthony specifically seeking his help so one day there might be a case of miraculous intervention, which would be the next necessary step to have him proclaimed blessed.
The vice-postulator of Brother Anthony's cause, Oblate Father Miroslaw Olszewski of Toronto, told The Catholic Register that he will soon begin investigating the case of a young American man who has inexplicably been healed of a potentially lethal blood disease.
To those who knew Kowalczyk, he was the very definition of piety. In a 1997 interview, the late Oblate Father Anthony Duhaime, vice-postulator for Brother Anthony's cause for 17 years, described Kowalczyk as a "very saintly man who structured his life upon love, patience and service."
Duhaime, who as a young college boy cut Kowalczyk's hair for a few years, said he is to the Church what Wayne Gretzky is to hockey. "Gretzky is the hero of hockey. Brother Anthony is the outstanding hero of the Catholic Church."
Brother Anthony was the first Polish Oblate to come to Canada. He arrived in 1896 at age 30 and spent his remaining 51 years in Alberta. After spending several years in Lac la Biche, he worked as a handyman at College Saint-Jean for the rest of his life.
Despite having only one arm, he served as the college's maintenance man, janitor, blacksmith, stoker, laundryman, bell ringer and sacristan. He also tended its large garden, and was caretaker of his flock of 300 chickens, pigs and horses.
Born in Poland in 1866, Brother Anthony was the sixth of 12 children in a peasant family. Following his apprenticeship as a blacksmith, he worked in factories in Hamburg and Cologne, Germany.
He went blind from working in the factories but it is said his sight returned one day while he was praying the Stations of the Cross. In 1891, he left Germany to join the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Holland.
In May 1896, he traveled to the Oblate mission at Lac La Biche. After his right hand was crushed while sawing lumber and amputated without anaesthetic, he was sent to Saint Paul-de-Metis.
In 1911, he was transferred to College Saint-Jean in Edmonton's Bonnie Doon area.
A friend of the students, he helped them fix their hockey sticks, sharpen their skates, repair their watches and mend the frames of their eyeglasses.
He also comforted new students who had left home for the first time and were lonely. His favourite prescription for homesickness was "Say an Ave," that is, a Hail Mary.
Duhaime, who died in 2002, said many people asked Kowalczyk to perform small miracles for them. The miracles came.
Once a boy lost his return ticket to Winnipeg and asked Brother Anthony for help. The brother immediately dropped on his knees in prayer. When the boy went outside, the ticket was waiting in the snow.
Another time the skate-sharpener stopped working while two boys waited impatiently for their skates. Brother Anthony and the boys knelt in front of it, made the sign of the cross and began to pray. The skate-sharpener suddenly started on its own.
Father Maurice McMahon, who studied at Faculté Saint Jean and befriended Kowalczyk, once described the brother as "a very holy man who had only one arm and worked like four men."
He said Kowalczyk was "always praying" to the Virgin Mary. He built a grotto in her honour with rocks from the nearby Mill Creek ravine. The grotto still stands in excellent condition behind the college.
According to McMahon, who helped Kowalczyk with tasks such as laundry, cleaning and gardening, the saintly brother was always happy and wanted others to be happy as well.
"One day I was working with him and I was in bad humour, grouchy and cranky. He said to me, 'Go away; the Lord doesn't want unhappy people working for him.'"
Those words transformed McMahon into a more patient and accepting person. "It was a good lesson."
Local legend has it that Kowalczyk was found battered and covered in blood in his room one day in 1945. Sitting on the edge of his bed, "his face was bruised and swollen, his eyes blackened and bloodshot," wrote Father P.J. Klita in a short biography of Kowalczyk.
The Oblate brother later revealed he had been fighting with the devil all night. He was never the same after this trauma and his health declined until he died two years later.
As an immigrant, Kowalczyk experienced loneliness, difficulty with language and alienation in a new culture.
On June 1, 1979, Pope John Paul II declared Kowalczyk a servant of God and recommended that the process of canonization be introduced.