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One day, as a young missionary in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, Father Jan Szweda was hearing a confession, leaning up against the support pole of a thatched jungle outpost in a remote highland village. A woman was confessing when suddenly Fr Szweda became aware of the pole behind him moving against his back. Thinking it was a wild animal or a prankster, he looked around, only to find nothing. When he looked back, his penitent was gone. It was then that he saw that he was in the middle of an earthquake. As the realisation dawned, the thatched roof of his makeshift confessional suddenly descended upon him from above in a cloud of dust.
Such is the daily life of a Divine Word Missionary, assigned as a young priest to distant New Guinea from his native Poland. Fr Jan is a member of the missionary order Societas Verbi Divini, abbreviated SVD. His vocation is to serve as and where required in priestly ministry. So it was not unexpected that he would be called upon to serve in remote Papua New Guinea, although nobody envisaged he’d be there for thirty years.
Fr Jan Szweda SVD.
Or that he would then be sent from the jungle to the desert, to Alice Springs to minister to the indigenous community there in equally remote, but challengingly different landscapes. And from Alice Springs then for a couple more years’ service in the even more isolated Gove Peninsula of Arnhem Land.
Earlier this year, however, came the next call. ‘Fr Szweda, guess what. You’re going to Preston, Melbourne, Victoria.’
The artist Pauline Adams in front of her artwork, which is displayed in the church.
For a priest from Poland, it’s a circuitous journey from Krakow to Ireland (as a young ordained) to Papua New Guinea to Arnhem Land to Preston. We were blessed to have Fr Jan sit down with us this week and, in his warmly accented English, tell us his fascinating story.
The one quite remarkable aspect of his priestly journey, to us at least, must surely be that Fr Jan was sent, as a young priest, to learn English … in Ireland! Despite that setback, his English is, like his smile, quite beautiful.
Sacred Heart parish in Preston.