FLAGSTAFF — Fidelity and presence: Those are some of the words used to describe Fr. Peter Dobrowski who this year celebrates 50 years of priesthood.
More than 400 people gathered at San Francisco de Asís Parish in Flagstaff to honor a priest who continues to serve with gusto and profound faith.
Fr. Dobrowski was ordained in 1971 in Lynn, Massachusetts, at Holy Family Church, the Italian parish where he grew up as the only child of parents whose first language was Polish.
“They used Polish to keep secrets from me until I was able to figure out what they were saying and then they stopped,” Fr. Dobrowski chuckled.
His mother taught him to sing a Polish hymn known as The Stainless Maiden in English. Five decades later, someone recalled how beloved it was to Fr. Dobrowski, and a woman from San Francisco de Asís sang it during the 50th anniversary celebration at the church.
“I have no idea how they found out about that. It really is one of my favorite hymns and she learned to sing it in Polish,” Fr. Dobrowski said.
After coming to Arizona in 1980, Fr. Dobrowski served at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glendale; St. Catherine of Siena in Phoenix; Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix; and as pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Flagstaff. In 1991, he became pastor of St. Margaret Mary in Bullhead City. He remained there for 25 years, becoming a beloved pastor to his flock.
Dcn. Ron Tendarge served alongside Fr. Dobrowski in Bullhead City.
“He’s a very loyal Catholic priest who is an excellent homilist. He knows the faith extremely well and follows it, practices it and expects his parishioners to do the same,” Dcn. Tendarge said. “He’s a very firm, strong Catholic priest and admired by many for that attribute.”
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix described Fr. Dobrowski as a priest who is “always faithful to the Church’s teaching” and a strong spiritual father.
“He knows that the truth sets us free and he also knows you can’t build unity unless it’s built around truth,” Bishop Olmsted said.
Second Vatican Council
Having been ordained just six years after the conclusion of Vatican II, Fr. Dobrowski acknowledged the difficulty of those early years.
“I tell the young priests that all the theology that was available in the ‘70s was dissenting theology,” Fr. Dobrowski said. “I had to go through a whole relearning experience after I was ordained about what it really means to be Catholic and what Catholic theology is — even how to read the Scriptures. Those were tough years.”
The testimony of Scott Hahn, a convert to Catholicism and noted theologian, made a strong impression on Fr. Dobrowski.
“The first time I heard his conversion tape, I cried. He was saying what really needed to be said.”
Fr. Dobrowski was elected by his peers to serve on the presbyteral council, a body that advises the bishop. In spite of the 230-mile drive from Bullhead City to Phoenix, “he never missed a meeting,” Bishop Olmsted said. “He didn’t like to be away from the parish. He was faithfully there, but this was serving the larger Church.”
Marsha Ratliff, who worked closely with Fr. Dobrowski at St. Margaret Mary for many years, also commented on Fr. Dobrowski’s faithfulness.
“I call him a priest’s priest. Once you got to know him and work with him, you loved him,” Ratliff said. “There wasn’t anybody that I know that still remains in our parish at St. Margaret Mary that doesn’t have really great memories of Fr. Peter,” Ratliff said. She remembers Fr. Dobrowski’s dedication to saying Mass and hearing confessions at four assisted living centers in Bullhead City.
Olivia McCormick, who served as the stewardship chairman during Fr. Dobrowski’s tenure at St. Margaret Mary, called him “one of a kind” and said he was” Catholic inside and out.” A convert to the faith, McCormick said Fr. Dobrowski baptized her and presided at her wedding Mass. His energy and dedication were unstoppable she said.
“If he saw a need, he would take care of it,” McCormick said. Those who came up with ideas for building a stronger parish community were encouraged, not shut down by the indefatigable pastor. “He wouldn’t just say, ‘No, we can’t do that’” McCormick said. “He would say, ‘let’s work on it’ or ‘let’s give it a shot.’”
It took 19 years to build a new church, but Fr. Dobrowski’s conviction that the faithful needed a beautiful worship space.
“Even though the parish struggles financially, he wanted to be sure — and the people wanted agreed with him completely — the church had to be beautiful on the inside and on the outside,” Bishop Olmsted said.
The end result was just that: an “incredibly beautiful church,” Bishop Olmsted said.
Serving after retirement
After 25 years at St. Margaret Mary, Fr. Dobrowski retired. Sort of.
Fr. Will Schmid, pastor of San Francisco de Asís, said Fr. Dobrowski is always ready to help out at the Flagstaff parish.
“He just loves to serve. That’s the kind of priest he is,” Fr. Schmid said. “Whenever we need help with Mass or confession or a funeral, he’s just right there. He’s available and he’s there to help.”
Anna Hoffman, parish manager at San Francisco de Asís, said that even though Fr. Dobrowski isn’t assigned to the parish in any official capacity, parishioners are very comfortable with him.
“Knowing how hard he works here and how available he is for our parish now in his retirement makes me wonder what a hard-working priest he must have been when he was not retired,” Hoffman said. “He is very well-liked and admired.”
Fr. Schmid said the 50th anniversary celebration held at San Francisco de Asís reflected Fr. Dobrowski’s Polish heritage but also had a bit of Latin flavor as well. “There was a group of Hispanic guitar players who came and sang Mañanitas and all the Hispanic cultural hymns that he loves so much. So it was kind of a multi-cultural event,” Fr. Schmid said.
That included a much-revered trumpet fanfare at the beginning of the Mass. Known as the Hejnal, it’s a short trumpet anthem in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The fanfare was played every hour on the hour from St. Mary’s Church but it also served as a warning that enemies were approaching. When the Tartar army was invading during the 13th century, the trumpeter sounded the alarm but was shot by an arrow, cutting his melody short. Since then, the tune is played but ends on a precipitous note.
That’s exactly how it went down at San Francisco de Asís, much to Fr. Dobrowski’s delight.
“It’s quite beautiful,” Fr. Schmid said of the fanfare.
Pausing, he reflects on the 50 years of faithful service by Fr. Dobrowski.
“To see him after being a priest for 50 years to have that same love and same joy, it makes me excited for however many years the Lord has left for me. It just reminds me that it’s a life worth living.”