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Father Peter was man of 'deep faith'

Father Peter Szleszinski, pastor at St. Patrick's Catholic Church for 19 years, died Nov. 18. This photo was taken in 2005, the year he retired. During his career, he served seven parishes in northern Wisconsin. Photo by Doug Stohlberg

Anyone who talks about the Rev. Peter Szleszinski knew he was a man of deep faith and strong beliefs. Szleszinski, who died last week, was the pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church for 19 years before retiring in 2005.

In addition to his strong faith, Father John Parr (current head priest at St. Patrick) said he was a devoted pastor. Parr, who has been in Hudson for five years, served with Szleszinski until he retired.

"He was untiring in his giving and routinely worked long days to meet the needs of parishioners," Parr said. "He was so devoted; he was held in the highest regard by the people."

Szleszinski's legacy in the minds of many Hudsonites and parishioners is his role in spearheading the construction of a new $4 million church on the corner of Vine and Wisconsin streets. The church was dedicated in 1991.

A few years later he also headed another $4 million project for a new addition at St. Patrick's School.

Of course, those projects were important, but Parr hopes that is not the only thing people remember.

"His legacy should be more than physical buildings," Parr said. "His legacy should be spiritual -- his strong faith and service to his congregation."

Parr acknowledged that Szleszinski played a huge role in the two construction projects.

"He had a vision for God's people and he was determined to fulfill that vision," Parr said. "On the other hand, he had a tremendous amount of respect for the gifts and resources of the parishioners."

State Rep. Kitty Rhoades also holds Szleszinski in the highest position of respect.

Rhoades has been an active member at St. Patrick Church, serving on various committees, including the Parish Council. She was at St. Patrick's during Szleszinski's entire tenure at the church.

"I valued and enjoyed his friendship," Rhoades said. "In fact, I'm honored to be among his friends."

Szleszinski had what she calls a "distinct" personality.

"In fact, some might call it 'stubborn.'" Rhoades joked. "He was a strong-willed man. But his entire thought process was deeply rooted in his beliefs."

She said his priesthood peers had the utmost respect for Szleszinski.

"He was highly respected among his peers," Rhoades said. "He also had a great financial mind -- being both very astute and knowledgeable."

Sam Cari, longtime parishioner and member of the church's Social Concerns Committee, said Szleszinski was an excellent leader.

"He fulfilled an extremely important mission at St. Patrick," said Cari, a local attorney. "Under his leadership we built a new church for our growing congregation. It was his leadership and firm resolve that caused it to happen."

Cari said Szleszinski considered Hudson to be his home.

"Despite having served in other communities, he considered Hudson to be his home -- he loved St. Patrick and the Hudson community."

Cari said Szleszinski courageously fought the cancer that took his life.

"When Teresa (Sam's wife) and I visited Father Peter, it was clear that his faith was extremely strong. He placed himself in God's hands."

Carrie Whitacre, current chair of the St. Patrick Parish Council, also admired Szleszinski's "grace and courage" as he battled cancer.

"I am relatively new to the parish, but I also saw Father Peter's deep faith," Whitacre said. "He was a strong leader of our parish, was well respected and will be greatly missed."

Parish member and local businessman John Knutson, president of Resco, also had a special spot in his heart for Szleszinski.

"He was a great man who has had a great influence on what our parish of St. Patrick has become, and for that he has earned and deserves our respect," Knutson said. "What people may have perceived to be his shortcomings were certainly overshadowed by his determination for our parish to succeed, his devotion to the Catholic faith and his love for the Lord."

Active parishioner and school volunteer Molly Schwartz said the children of her friend Cammy Westerdahl began a practice that continues to this day. The Westerdahl family has been close to Szleszinski, and their children have called Father Peter "Grandpa."

"During collection time, children are invited to bring money to the front of the church," Schwartz said. "Hannah, Tyler and Kailey Westerdahl would bring their money to the front of the church, then hug Szleszinski, calling him 'Grandpa.' He was actually their godfather."

Over the years, other children began hugging the priest, and a tradition was born.

"He was a tireless worker," said Cammy Westerdahl. "Most nights you could drive by the church and see him in the window still working at 10 p.m. or later.

"He had a great devotion to Mother Mary and he always was a great supporter of the Catholic school. He always believed it was the cornerstone of the Catholic faith.

"He loved kids -- except when he saw them skateboarding on the school steps! But, he never missed a chance to teach."

Westerdahl was housekeeper in Merrill and came to Hudson when Szleszinski moved here. Up until a few years ago, she continued doing housekeeping work and janitorial duties for the congregation.

"He was there for me and my family for many years in Merrill and Hudson," Westerdahl said. "I came from a family of 16 and he either married, buried or baptized most of us. Working for him for over 25 years, I think he did more for me and my family than I could ever do for him. We just love him and will deeply miss him. He will be in our hearts forever."