The crisis in vocations continues to widen in the Diocese of Gaylord. At this time, according to Diocesan statistics, there are 75 parishes and only 58 priests. Even worse, the Diocese lists only 40 priests that are “active”. This leads to many priests being assigned multiple parishes. Furthermore, many active pastors of parishes are elderly themselves and could certainly be considered candidates for retirement. Retired priests are often tapped to help out, but due to advanced age are incapable of much more than an occasional Mass.
With this in mind, it is obvious that the Diocese of Gaylord has a severe shortage of priests. Therefore, any time a priest is placed on sick leave, assigned elsewhere, or leaves for whatever reason, the ripple effect of this spreads throughout the Diocese. It is further intensified if the priest is young, healthy, orthodox, and can be expected to serve for many years. Such is the case with Fr. Matthew Cowan, who is now completing a temporary assignment in the Diocese of Saline, Kansas, after he was placed there due to his sexual abuse claim against disgraced Fr. Dennis Stilwell.
Many faithful have expressed that the response to this vocations crisis by the Diocese has too often seemed absent, muted, incompetent, and haphazard. The pastoral example set by a bishop or priest can make or break a vocation. How many of our clergy are inspirational for young men considering a vocation?
When a diocese has plenty of priests, the transfer of a priest to another duty outside of the diocese can be handled and is often joyfully accepted as helping and sustaining the Church worldwide. Sadly, this is not the case in the Diocese of Gaylord. With that in mind, it was announced this past week that Father Alex Kowalkowski will be leaving the Diocese as he discerns a vocation with the Dominican Order. Fr. Kowalkowski was ordained in 2020, making him one of the youngest priests in the Diocese of Gaylord. Fr. Kowalkowski has been regarded by many parishioners as a caring, orthodox, passionate, and holy priest. Replacing him as Associate Pastor at St. Ann/St. Stephen/St. Theresa/St. Edward parishes (Cadillac area) will be Fr. Brad Nursey, Pariochial Vicar of St. Michael Church in Roscommon.
Bishops are compelled to allow their diocesan priests to seek vocations in religious orders as that form of vocation is considered a “higher calling” than that of a diocesan priest. However, some faithful are questioning this move as Fr. Kowalkowski could not have fully discerned a diocesan vocation as he has been a diocesan priest for only 24 months and he has yet to have his own parish for which to be responsible.
This announcement also leads to many questions. Could there be other causes for this move? Could the reign of Bishop Hurley have pushed this promising young priest out of the Diocese? Has Bishop Walsh done all that he could to keep this priest in the Diocese? What will be the impact on young men considering the priesthood in this Diocese be when they see this occur? How hard is the Diocese working to nurture vocations to the priesthood? What is the climate in this Diocese for young, orthodox priests to minister to the faithful without pressure to bend to the whims of secular society? Why does Fr. Matthew Cowan continue to be a priest in another diocese (and given the role of pastor) when the Diocese of Gaylord is so short on priests?
At this time, Fr. Kowalkowski is only discerning a transfer to the Dominican order; he could return. It is clear that if this is where the Holy Spirit is leading him, he needs to make this move. But it is also obvious that with no ordinations this year (and for some years to come), we must pray for vocations to this Diocese. If permanent, this loss of priest will have a significant impact on the Diocese of Gaylord for years to come. Let us pray harder for vocations.