Missionary Spirit From Dad Led Priest to Become Loyal Glenmary Supporter

Posted: 2/10/2011

Glenmary donor Father Thom Kowatch

On Sept. 2, 1986, Paul Kowatch died in North Olmsted, Ohio, with his wife, Ruth, at his side. But in the days leading up to his death, he shared with his family a longtime dream that he had never revealed. His dream was that, after retirement, he and Ruth would move to the Glenmary mission area of Vanceburg, Ky., where he could volunteer to train others in his craft of woodworking.

Sadly, soon after he retired in January 1986, he learned he had terminal cancer.

Paul's life, dream and death have helped shape the life of his youngest son, Father Thom Kowatch, and have led Father Thom to learn about and become a dedicated supporter of Glenmary. A priest for the Diocese of Cleveland (Ohio), Father Thom serves as hospital chaplain at St. John Medical Center in Westlake.

"When my dad realized he'd never fulfill his dream," says Father Thom, "it was heart-breaking for him. His final words were, ‘You've got to believe. We've got to believe....'"

Remembering those words, Father Thom says, "We have to believe that every small thing we do, every small contribution, can make a difference and change people's lives, as he hoped to do." Before he died, Paul asked that any memorial gifts be used to help realize his dream of educating others in Vanceburg.

Eventually, those gifts totaled $1,200. And while the funds couldn't be utilized exactly the way Paul envisioned, Father Thom worked with Glenmary to underwrite other essential educational programs for area residents—in literacy, basic home management and parenting skills.

He gives two powerful examples of how "small things" can have far-reaching effects: In 1974, a family friend encouraged Paul and Ruth to accompany him on a mission trip to Vanceburg—which first inspired Paul's dream. And the same friend recommended that 17-year-old Thom attend an area teen retreat program—a turning point in his decision to become a priest.

At the time his dad died, Father Thom knew almost nothing about Glenmary. But he learned by talking to Glenmarians. "My dad helped instill a new missionary spirit in me," he says.

Since then, Father Thom has donated faithfully through Glenmary's Boost-A-Month Club for 24 years and has made Glenmary a beneficiary in his will. "I support Glenmary because they're meeting urgent mission needs in our own country."

He points out that people are surprised to hear many U.S. counties still have no Catholic churches or no Catholic priests or pastoral ministers. It's in these types of areas, he says, that Glenmary missioners are doing such great work.

"They don't just establish Catholic missions but serve people, teach them—and help them build caring communities," he says. "It all begins one on one, sharing the Gospel and making a difference in people's lives."

Father Thom also spreads the good news about Glenmary's work. For example, he celebrated Mass at his boyhood parish on World Mission Sunday last October, delivering the homily from his family's old pew.

"I explained how my parents have been inspirations in my life, how I inherited my missionary spirit from my father—and how Glenmary serves the U.S. missions. Then I asked them to join me in supporting Glenmary."

Throughout his priesthood, Father Thom has also felt a strong call to serve the sick and dying—again inspired by his father. In his 26 years as a priest, he has spent 13 years in hospital chaplaincy work. "This ministry is a really good fit for me," he says.

And he wants to keep supporting Glenmary's ministry because "we've got to believe that one person's small efforts can make a difference."

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 Planning Ahead newsletter.