March 18, 2013

A Jesuit priest from Slovakia, known in Western Canada for his physical strength, tireless work ethic and commitment to helping immigrants, died March 1.

Born Jan. 24, 1927 to a farming family in Pobedim, Slovakia, Father John Kadlec studied farming and agriculture, with the expectation he would take over the family farm.

He completed his compulsory two-year military training in 1949. This was after Stalin's Soviet army and communists took over Czechoslovakia.

"He was outspoken and a religious person and he probably refused to obey their orders. What happened in those instances, if you didn't want to serve military service, they sent you for two years of hard labour," said Peter Hala, a longtime friend of Kadlec. The two men met in Edmonton in 1981.


Due to Kadlec's religiosity and open anti-communism he was sent to three labour camps. It was at the camps where he decided to become a priest.

"Your future was ruined if you were anti-communist. If you showed that you don't agree with the regime, fear for your life. That's probably when he realized that he had to get out of there, and he had no future if he stayed," said Hala.

In January 1953, he attempted to escape to Austria, but was apprehended at the border. The borders were mined and heavily guarded, with dogs, barbed wire and electrical fences to prevent escapes into Austria and West Germany.

He was sentenced to many years of hard labour, forced to toil in the infamous Jachymov uranium mine prison camp for political prisoners. "This was almost like a death sentence, since many people died prematurely from radiation, radioactive dust," Kala said.

That year, he escaped from the prison camp and attempted another escape into Austria. This second try was successful, but he was wounded as he stepped on a land mine at the border. He spent three months in an Austrian hospital. His former pastor, Father Stefan Mácsady, took care of him after he was released from the hospital.

Kadlec then finished high school. With the help of the Jesuits, he studied theology in Innsbruck, Austria, and decided to become a Jesuit. He finished his studies in 1966, was ordained to the priesthood, and sent to Canada that same year.


"He was friends with everybody, and he used to bring gifts. We'd have a hard time finding poppy seed in the stores, but Father Kadlec would buy whole barrels of poppy seed, and when he visited he'd give everyone two pounds," said Hala.

He described Kadlec as a remarkable priest, a hard worker and longtime missionary in Western Canada. Unlike many Jesuits who are known for their intellect, Kadlec had more of a reputation as a strong man and blue-collar worker, pitching in to help with any tasks that needed to be done.

"He was always down-to-earth, and he never shied away from hard work or labour. He worked as a labourer, construction worker or caretaker, fixing or replacing fuses, whatever had to be done," said Hala.

He spent over two decades, from 1970 to 1992, driving all over Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, faithfully serving the religious and cultural needs of many Slovaks, Czechs, Ukrainians, Poles and other Slavic nationalities.

He had a one-room residence in Calgary, but spent most of his time travelling, defying the odds, driving on dangerous rural roads, even in treacherous winter conditions. He helped farmers and settlers in isolated parts of Alberta. He served as a teacher and advisor to many immigrants.


His first seven months in Canada, he drove 42,000 kms. He put hundreds of thousands of miles on the Pontiac Parisiennes he owned over the years.

"He used to drive to all these farms and places where nobody would go, and people didn't attend Masses regularly. He tried to find the names of all the settlers and farmers. He'd drive around the countryside to see them," said Hala.

In 1992, Kadlec was reassigned to New Westminster, B.C. where he served as the last Slovak parish priest at the church of Saints Cyril and Methodius.

In 1999, he was recalled to Slovakia when the Jesuits officially ended their Slovak missions in Canada.

"When my family went to New Westminster, we spent some time with him, and from his reaction to the news that he had to go back to Slovakia, we knew that he wasn't thrilled. He saw it as a retirement, and he didn't want to retire," said Hala.


Even when his health was failing, Kadlec tried to be helpful, keeping in touch via email with his acquaintances in Canada, sending them spiritual advice and reflections. After many years of receiving weekly emails from Kadlec, Hala noticed that he had been silent for many months.

In June 2012, Kadlec underwent a hip operation. He died March 1. He is survived by three brothers and three sisters.