Refreshment in hand, Lewinski stood observing parishioners and wondering what they were thinking about besides Fr. Ron Lewinski, their new pastor. How did they feel about their country parish and its future? He was in a parishioner’s home with a group celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany just passed. The day began like a typical Midwestern winter morning, with frigid conditions despite the bright sunshine. The snow would continue blanketing the ground because it would not even warm up to freezing temperature until the dinner hour.
He was casually dressed, not wearing his Roman collar, but everyone knew who “the new person” was. A couple next to him had also been observing the group. They took this opportunity to satisfy their curiosity about him by commenting on his appointment as pastor, and the parish’s future. He didn’t seem troubled. His response was simply, “I wouldn’t worry about it.” He understood that church officials had sent him there to grow the parish and build a church. He also realized there would be time to do that. For now, he wanted to get to know parishioners more personally. He wanted to feel the community’s pulse.
His method of learning in these situations was often simple observation. He noticed how people related to each other via eye contact and physical proximity; their sense of comfort with others; whether reserved or talkative; what topics they discussed; to what extent and in what manner they would share humor in his presence; and where they might rank on the social hierarchy that is a typical dynamic of such groups.
He appeared reserved. He was actually receptive and open-minded. When learning, he would look at as many sides of an issue as possible. He liked ideas and theories, but he preferred to rely on observations. The internal assessment he was conducting could cause him to seem distant, not present, absent-minded, or even aloof. It was a perception many people would have in the coming months until they got to know him. Some, however, never did. Although his social interaction at gatherings was often restrained, it wouldn’t be unusual for him to return home feeling drained. Even he would describe himself as reserved.
There was, however, another group of individuals in the parish whose thoughts about potential change went beyond curiosity. For them, it became a matter of concern. They liked their quiet little parish as it was. So had the prior pastor, Fr. Gene Keusal, even though the number of parishioners was rapidly growing. The older population was comfortable with the status quo. As elders, they’d learned that having a new pastor can mean change. And change can be downright uncomfortable. As one ages, such discomfort—whether physical or emotional—becomes something one prefers to avoid.
Some of these skeptical folks knew a fellow parishioner who had already become acquainted with this new pastor. He was a member of one of the founding families and therefore known to be a trustworthy friend. “What’s he up to?” they asked. “What does he plan to do?" Their friend, though he’d met the pastor and considered him “okay,” didn’t have answers.
Personality profiles would characterize Lewinski as an introvert. He had never been a pastor before. Now he was pastor at a parish in one of the largest Archdioceses in the United States!
He very much disliked asking for financial contributions, whether as pledges, donations, or simple Sunday giving. Logically, he knew it took money to run a parish; but emotionally, he was uncomfortable asking for it. He particularly disliked having to ask for it repeatedly. He would soon discover, to his chagrin, that there were frequent fundraisers—just over two dozen per year. They were necessary to keep the parish running. He knew Catholics are notoriously less generous about “tithing” than other Christian denominations.
Many people outside the parish who knew him before his assignment regarded him as an intellectual. Not long after getting acquainted with him, most people recognized this characteristic. But being “intellectual” can look like being “aloof’ or, when combined with introversion, being “withdrawn.’" Upon introduction, people perceived him as “friendly.” Still, not someone you’d expect to convince people to build a church.
As a young adult, Lewinski had been told by a college professor he would never be a good priest. He might as well drop out before failing at the Seminary. Lewinski never forgot that assessment. It would generate some self-doubt during his seminary years.
Lewinski was of moderate height, not tall enough to be accepted as a leader based on height alone. He didn’t project a television evangelist’s charisma that would cause someone to reach for their checkbook. He turned fifty within weeks of arriving at the parish. Some would have considered him “past his prime."
This is the man the Archdiocese had sent to revive what Cardinal Bernardin called his “last country parish." A parish where many favored the previous pastor. He had helped the parish grow and had finished a school expansion begun by the pastor before him. Newcomers described the parish as welcoming and friendly. But for many parishioners, it was increasingly unsatisfying. For them, the liturgy was uninspiring; the music was awful; the staff was “unknown”; parents wanted a religious education program; few people felt they had the opportunity to participate, much less lead. The parish was stagnant, if not dying.
The parish needed someone to fill the sails with the winds of change. Preferably someone who had experience pastoring a parish and leading an effort for which previous similar experience had qualified him. Ideally, perhaps, a charismatic individual could attract both young and old alike because the parish had people of a wide range of ages. Maybe someone who would engage with the school children because it is often the students who bring home daily news of what is happening in school and the church. Not all the parents attended Sunday services as regularly as they could. It seemed the parish could benefit from someone who possessed these characteristics and others.
This quiet, aging, country parish was forty-five miles northwest of downtown Chicago. The Archdiocese sent an over-the-hill priest who grew up on Chicago’s south side. He had worked at an Archdiocesan office in the city for a decade before arriving at St. Mary’s.
They sent Lewinski to St. Mary’s to grow the community, build a church, and expand the ministries. An introvert who seemed aloof, didn’t like to ask for money, had been told by a professor he’d never be a good priest, and apparently possessed no personal charisma or easily identifiable leadership traits.
What was the Archdiocese thinking?
 Traits and attributes are derived from personal observation and personality ‘typing’ of Lewinski using a popular personality typing tool in 2000.
 Cunningham, Agnes. Letter from 2017 exhibited at Lewinski’s funeral.
Copyright 2022 David J. Kennebeck. All rights reserved.