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Posted January 24, 2005

Priest, 95, says scientific work
has deepened his faith in God

By Maria Wiering Catholic News Service

Father Edward Grzeskowiak, 95, cannot remember when he did not want to be a priest. He can, however, remember not wanting to be a chemist.

Father Grzeskowiak, ordained the longest of any priest in the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese, said his interest in science has deepened his faith in God.

After his 1936 ordination, Father Grzeskowiak expected to be assigned to a parish. He never expected that Archbishop John Gregory Murray, then head of the archdiocese, would ask him to get a university degree in chemistry so he could teach at Nazareth Hall Preparatory Seminary.

Surprised by the assignment, he prepared for classes at the University of Minnesota.

"I wanted to be an effective teacher," he told The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper. "I wanted the seminarians to get into some science, too, because I saw God as the boss of nature and the boss of theology."

The priest's attitude toward chemistry changed when a college professor challenged him to find a substitute for hydrogen sulfide, a highly toxic chemical used for determining the makeup of substances.

Father Grzeskowiak began to search for an organic sulfide. Using Nazareth Hall's limited and outdated collection of chemistry books, he stumbled upon the answer in an incomplete set of encyclopedias.

In the information on organic sulfide, the encyclopedia said, thioacetamide was a possible substitute for hydrogen sulfide.

"Somebody should take the time to try it out," he said, recalling a comment in the reference book. "Nobody had done that," he added.

He tried it, and it worked. He views the discovery as an example of God's love and providence.

"Why should I discover it?" Father Grzeskowiak asked. "The Lord wanted to see me through in all of this, so he guided me. Other people were looking for the same thing, and they didn't find it."

Father Grzeskowiak went on to pursue a master's degree in chemistry.

Science became a second love, but it never competed with his vocation. He said he believes God protected his chemistry work so it didn't distract him from his priesthood.

Despite his success in science, the priest never forgot his humble beginnings growing up in poverty.

Throughout his adult life, he provided for his family and the poor. As a negotiator in labor disputes, he championed the rights of migrant farmworkers, African-Americans and Native Americans living in urban areas.

Social justice was just part of being a priest, he said.

"They were God's people, and they were mistreated," he said. "It was bad for people to see their fellow man being mistreated."

A member of the Governor's Commission on Human Rights, he was the first recipient of the Archbishop John Ireland Distinguished Service Award.

Father Grzeskowiak also demonstrated his social justice convictions in acts of kindness. As a young priest, he once passed a union painter picketing in the January snow. Thin shoes were the only thing protecting the man's feet.

"He was fighting for his family, and the only thing I thought I could do was give him my overshoes," he said.

Father Grzeskowiak stopped in the cold and removed his overshoes to give to the man. For Father Grzeskowiak, service was about seeing the humanity in others.

He taught at Nazareth Hall for 27 years and then was given four parish assignments.

Since 1996, Father Grzeskowiak has been living at Holy Family Residence run by the Little Sisters of the Poor in St. Paul. He has never stopped marveling at God's creation in nature.

"Even now, I can sit at my window for hours and admire the beautiful trees outside," he said.

Father Grzeskowiak said he wishes seminarians studied more of the natural sciences.

"It makes God more real," he said.

Heavy concentration in only philosophy and theology is too limiting, he added.

"As I taught theology, I couldn't escape the fact that the God that I'm dealing with is also boss of all the chemical formations around the world," he said. "Since creation, he has guided, and I think he guided everything so that the trees outside my window would be there."