Father Ron Lewinski, 71, died unexpectedly on July 19 in the rectory at St. Theresa Parish, Palatine. Ordained in 1972, he was co-director of the archdiocese’s Department of Parish Vitality and Mission.
Cardinal Cupich, who tapped him for that role, remembered him as a dedicated and devoted priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
“In his presence, we always were profoundly struck by his deep devotion to Christ and to his ministry as a priest,” the cardinal said in a statement. “Even when retirement was an option, he never considered it as his dream for the renewal of the church kept him fully engaged, inspired and dedicated. He was a Chicago man; starting out on the South Side, moving north and concluding his ministry at the Pastoral Center. He knew Chicago, loved his city and worked very hard each day to bring Christ to the people who live here. We miss him greatly.”
Father Peter Wojcik, the other co-director of Department of Parish Vitality and Mission, said he knew Father Lewinski long before the two teamed up in May 2016 to become directors of what was then known as the Department of Parish Life and Formation. They spearheaded a complete reorganization of the department to focus more on serving the needs of parishes.
“Ron was a man of great wisdom and clear vision,” Wojcik said, “But it was all placed within a candid heart. He knew what needed to be done, he knew how to do it, but he did it in a way that was kind. That’s something that I kept learning from him, that kindness.”
Over the years of his ministry, Father Lewinski served in parishes and as the director of the Office for Divine Worship from 1984 to 1994, and he directed the archdiocesan Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program. He also served on the faculty of University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, which honored him in April with its “Those Who Serve” award.
He was assistant pastor at St. Frances of Rome, Cicero (1972-1978) and associate pastor of St. Hilary (1978-1979) and St. Marcelline, Schaumburg (1978-1984). Before becoming co-director of the Department of Parish Vitality and Mission, he was director of the Cardinal Stritch Retreat House (1995) and pastor of St. Mary of the Annunciation (Fremont Center) (1996-2014). The parish built a new church and grew from 200 to 1,600 families under his leadership.
“He loved very much St. Mary of the Annunciation Parish,” said Father Robert Fedek, who served there as a deacon before he was ordained in 2005 and as an associate pastor after he was ordained. “This was a highlight of his pastoral life. He put into practice what he believed in and what he loved.”
Fedek, now pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, 7211 W. Talcott Ave., said Father Lewinski was a mentor and friend to him. Father Lewinski was always generous with his time, Fedek said, maybe sometimes too much so.
“It was like he didn’t know how to say no,” Fedek said.
But that didn’t mean he took the easy way out of anything.
“He was well known for thinking outside the box and not being afraid to ask the hard questions,” Fedek said.
Those attributes might be why he was named the archbishop’s delegate for the Parish Transformation program (2013-2016).
In an email about his death, Rita Thiron, executive director of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, called him “a pioneering giant in the field of Christian initiation.” He wrote several books about the catechumenate and how to do Christian initiation well.
“He had so many jobs,” Wojcik said, “he was able to bring a greater vision of what the church is. He loved the Second Vatican Council. The Second Vatican Council was a sign of hope for the church for him.”
Father Lewinski believed that the church must read the signs of the times, Wojcik said.
“As the world changes, the church must constitute itself to capture the spirit of the times and not allow ourselves to be left behind,” Wojcik said.
Wojcik and Father Lewinski visited the Vatican together in September 2016 and had a chance to speak with Pope Francis, Wojcik said.
“The Holy Father was so kind to him,” he said. “[Father Ron] introduced himself and said he was from Chicago, and the Holy Father asked him many questions about what was happening in Chicago.”
At heart, Wojcik said, Father Lewinski was a liturgist, and he would most want to be remembered as someone who celebrated the Eucharist well.
“He wanted to make sure his people were truly fed,” Wojcik said.
Wojcik said that Father Lewinski drew on the experience of God he found in an annual silent retreat at the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani.
“The experience of God, the silence and mercy were key to understanding his ministry,” he said. “He was man who was not afraid of choices and saw choices as new possibilities for growth. He was a trusted mentor, not only to me, but also to many other priests and seminarians. Those same people would come to him over the last 30 years asking for his prayers and support. His sense of humor and willingness to welcome others, with a big smile made a difference in countless lives.”
Born in Hammond, Indiana, he attended Assumption BVM School in West Pullman, Quigley Preparatory Seminary, St. Mary’s College in Niles, University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary and the Faculté Catholique in Lyons, France.
When he was ordained in 1972, he had earned not only the bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a bachelor’s in sacred theology, the graduate degree earned by most priests before ordination, but also a master’s in divinity for work done on a pre-baptismal program already in use in the archdiocese and he completed clinical pastoral education in a hospital setting.
“He was one of our most talented classmates,” said Father John Clemens, also ordained in 1972 and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish, Rosemont. “He was a very creative priest, and very well respected by all of us, especially in terms of the liturgy. He was a real leader in the church and will be sorely missed. He was a great guy, a good priest and a great friend.”
He is survived by his sister, Diane Ciesielski of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Wake: July 25, from 2 to 9 p.m., St. Mary of the Annunciation, 22333 W. Erhart Road, Mundelein,
Mass of Christian burial: July 26, 11 a.m. (Visitation 9 to 10:30 a.m.), St. Mary of the Annunciation Parish
Interment: St. Mary of the Annunciation Parish Cemetery