When the Rev. Dawid Kwiatkowski arrived in the United States from Poland in 2006, he spoke very little English.
Through intense study and immersion in American culture, he has become fluent.
Now, because he was recently appointed to lead the Hispanic ministry at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Grovetown, he is applying the same intensity to learning Spanish.
“Everything that comes through the Hispanic ministry comes through me now, the priest from Poland,” Kwiatkowski said with a chuckle.
The 30-year-old recalled the first Mass he spoke in Spanish, three days after returning from a two-week immersion program in Mexico. He had spontaneously given announcements in Spanish afterward.
As he greeted parishioners after the Mass, he noticed three women waiting off to the side for him to finish.
“I said, ‘What do you want?’ And they said, ‘Well, you made an announcement that you wanted at least three people to help you throughout the week with conversations in Spanish, so here we are,’ ” he said. “I said, ‘So you understood me?’ And they said yes.”
Learning to minister in another language is an intensive undertaking, and Kwiatkowski said he never imagined having to study another language after learning English.
He grew up Catholic, as do 95 percent of his countrymen. And like most Polish children, he attended church every Sunday with his family, but “nothing spectacularly religious about it,” he said.
There were no priests in his family, so it surprised everyone when he decided to become one.
The choice to not have a family was a difficult one, but he ultimately decided to follow his calling.
“Just deep inside of my heart I felt a call, like God is giving me this desire to be a priest. I thought it was a good desire, it came from Him, and that’s it and I followed it,” he said.
Through friends, he learned that a Polish priest from the Diocese of Savannah, Ga., had died in a car accident, and the diocese wanted a young Polish priest to replace him.
He arrived in Statesboro, Ga., in September 2006 and was taken the next day to Georgia Southern University to begin studying English for two semesters. Then he was accepted to Mount St. Mary’s seminary to study theology, often staying up nights to study. He completed his master’s degree in 2011.
“I knew I was going to work with Americans, so I need to know theology in English, because I didn’t want people upset that they don’t know what their priest is saying,” he said.
After he graduated and was ordained a priest, the diocese sent him to St. Matthews Roman Catholic Church in Statesboro, where he ministered in English for three years.
“And this year, in April, the bishop called me and asked if I was ready to be challenged more, and I said yes,” he said.
“He asked me how was my Spanish, and I said it didn’t exist.”
In Poland, Kwiatkowski had some exposure to the English language through television, but there was no access to Spanish at all.
In his second year of seminary, Kwiatkowski spent two months at a school in Mexico to study Spanish, but he went with the idea that he would go on an adventure. He didn’t put much effort into learning the language.
“I never thought they would actually put me in a position where I would have to learn another language after having to learn English,” he said.
He did learn to speak some of the language, but after four years of not using any Spanish, he’d forgotten most of what he’d learned.
When he was asked to take on the Hispanic ministry at St. Teresa, he asked the bishop to send him back to the school in Mexico for two weeks, where he put himself on a rigorous study schedule.
“It was not regular studying because I said to myself, ‘It didn’t make any sense. What am I going to do if I just study … words, and then come back here and start working with people about their problems and families, confessions and ways they can come back to God?’ ” he said.
He called the school and asked for daily meetings with at least one Mexican priest and three other Mexicans from different walks of life, so he could meet with them daily to talk about family problems and other issues, sacraments, sins and confessions.
“For two weeks, no one was allowed to say anything in English to me, or I would never respond to anybody who addressed me in English,” he said. “They would have to find ways of explaining things in Spanish, and I would have to find ways of saying in Spanish back to them.”
Now he holds confessions and Masses in Spanish and continues to meet with native Spanish speakers to continue practicing.
He said he is not sure why he was asked to minister to Hispanics, but because he is an immigrant who grew up in a small village, he can relate to the people he serves. Many are far from home and family, speak little English, are devout Catholics and turn to their priest for a multitude of issues.
“It’s a lot of work and I like it and enjoy it, and I want to have that language down, just like English,” he said. “We have so many in our diocese who can read the Mass in Spanish, (but) I always wanted to be able to at least understand their problems.”
Except for a homily he gave during a recent trip to Poland, Kwiatkowski has not given a single Mass in Polish during his four years as a priest.
“And it’s my natural language, too, and it’s kind of sad because I say English and Spanish and Latin – I say old Latin Mass from the 15th century – but nothing in Polish,” he said.