by Chris Rogers
Monsignor Roy Literski knows half of Winona, and is related to the other half, or so goes the local joke. He is the only Literski in the phone book, but there are many who have grown to think of him as almost family. His years as a parish priest and his reputation for delivering moving homilies have made him a remarkably popular choice for performing one of a priest's most somber and personal duties: funerals.
"Oftentimes you're at a loss for what to say," he admitted, when asked about how he prepares for funeral services. "But the Holy Spirit is guiding you, helping you know to say the right things." Literski talks to the family and prays, "and then you turn it over to the Lord," he said. "Prayer always opens up avenues."
At those services, Literski "can tell you how he's connected to the person," explained St. Anne Pastoral Care Director Betty Singer-Towns. "When you know the people, married their children, and baptized their grandchildren, they develop a closeness with you," Literski explained.
Literski has been officially retired for years now, but it has been hard for him to walk away from comforting the sick and the families of the deceased. He volunteers at Saint Anne, saying Mass, anointing the sick, and performing the occasional funeral. At 88, though, he said he is finally "getting out that business." It is far from all that defines him. His career was filled with great honors and distinguished titles, but the common duties of a pastor kept calling him back.
Literski was a young seminarian fresh off of his father's Rollingstone farm when he won a prestigious and exclusive scholarship to Rome, and boarded an unsteady passenger ship freshly patched up from World War II. The ship survived the voyage and Literski committed himself to an overfull schedule of philosophy, literature, and speech in a Vatican college still being cleaned up from service as a refugee camp during the war. On a hill overlooking the Vatican, Literski was ordained in 1953. He returned to the island city of Winona long enough to learn Polish while serving at St. Stanislaus Kostka before the bishop sent him back to Rome to earn a doctorate in philosophy. There he had to brush up on his Latin to field a gauntlet of pointed questions in the "dead" language from a panel of professors critiquing his thesis. Literski was terrified that he had failed when the panel ordered him from the room. When they called him back, the professors said he had passed, summa cum laude. "I was walking on clouds," Literski recalled.
Literski went on to serve as chaplain and professor at Saint Mary's College, rector at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary (IHMS), and as the bishop's right hand man, vicar general of the Diocese of Winona.
Literski performed all of those roles with diligence, even during Vietnam War protests, when IHMS and Saint Mary's College students would walk out during his lectures, but "I always wanted to be a pastor," he said. Eventually he got his wish, and served for many years at St. Stanislaus, St. Francis Xavier in Windom, Resurrection Church in Rochester, and the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.
Despite his trips to the storied colleges of Rome, the priest that inspired and influenced Literski most was his former parish priest. "He was not a great preacher," Literski admitted. "But he was a strong leader, a dedicated man, and a strong speaker for social justice." So, he continued, "I opted to follow in the pastor's footsteps."
Besides, a life of pastoral practice is more interesting than one of academic theory, Literski continued. As a parish priest, "you're outdoors; you're with people, being challenged by them. Their problems are your problems."
Literski reflected on his time as a pastor during the farm crisis, when bankrupt families who were being stripped of their land could no longer make cash donations, but would haul in cords of wood to heat the rectory. Facing hard times with parishioners created the strongest bonds. "Those are the people I grew to love," Literski said of the parishioners he served over the decades.
Literski celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination on December 19, 2013.