STEVE WOLNIAKOWSKI: I had gone to the seminary and decided not to become a priest because I wanted a family. One of the parishioners said, "Wow, did you ever think that when you said no, God said to himself, 'That's okay. I'll take two of yours next time.'?"
BR. KOLBE WOLNIAKOWSKI: I'm Br. Kolbe Wolniakowski.
BR. JOEL BLAIZE: And I'm Br. Joel Blaize. You're listening to "Echoes from the Bell Tower," stories of wit and wisdom from Benedictine monks who live, work and pray in southern Indiana.
BR. KOLBE: My family came down to visit right before Holy Week back in March and we took a little time to have a heart-to-heart about the impact my family has experienced from me joining the community here. We laughed, we cried - no, there really were tears - and we got honest about the difficulties and joys of religious life.
BR. JOEL: We're a small operation here, so we used a couple different microphones and recording equipment for this episode. You might notice a slight difference in sound between people speaking, but we hope it won't take away from the conversation.
BR. KOLBE: Here is a little background about my family. We're a super tight-knit family from Pewamo, Michigan, which is about 6.5 hours from Saint Meinrad. I am the oldest of five kids and in this interview you are going to hear from two of my siblings, Ross and Shelby.
Two of my sisters weren't able to make it. Stephanie, my youngest sister, was home with her young family, and my sister sister, that is Sr. Marie Faustina, who is also in religious life and actually entered before I did with the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan.
BR. JOEL: This episode will be similar to the last one with Br. John Mark talking with his parents. We're going to play some of the conversation Br. Kolbe had with his parents and sister and brother without any interruption from us. Let's begin with some introductions.
SANDY WOLNIAKOWSKI: Hi. I'm Sandy Wolniakowski and I'm Brother Kolbe's mom.
STEVE: Hello there. I'm Steve Wolniakowski and I'm Brother Kolbe's dad.
SHELBY WOLNIAKOWSKI: Hi, I'm Shelby Wolniakowski. I am Brother Kolbe's sister.
ROSS WOLNIAKOWSKI: I am Ross Wolniakowski and I am Kolbe's brother.
BR. KOLBE: So, we will kind of just jump right in. We're going to see where this takes us. When I started to seriously look into religious life, we were actually all together on the phone with my sister who is in religious life. I was in a time in my life where I was kind of trying to decide what I felt God was asking me to do.
And I had prayed, "God, I think there's more that you need me to do. I'm willing to look into it, but you need to make it very obvious." Then my sister called in the next couple of days and, while we were all gathered on the phone, she told kind of all of us together that her religious community believed that I may have a Benedictine vocation.
So, we kind of all found out at the same time that that was probably the route I was going to end up looking into. I remember looking at my mom right when Sister said that to gauge how she was handling the news. Do you remember that?
SANDY: Yes. Yes.
BR. KOLBE: What were you guys thinking during that phone call?
SANDY: Well, I had been praying for you a lot, too, because I could tell that you weren't really peaceful. You would come home from work and I would say, "How was your day?" And your response would be, "Well, it wasn't horrible." And I thought, "Yikes. That's not the best response."
So, I had been putting a lot of prayer into it, too. I really kind of had a gut feeling that maybe that was where God was wanting to take you. So, I think the only thing I remember not liking about Sister's comment, if I remember correctly, she was saying she wanted you to -
BR. KOLBE: Join a Benedictine community in Germany.
SANDY: In Germany. I thought, goodness gracious. Not what I want, but I remember kind of thinking that was maybe where God was taking you. It was your birthday, by the way, when she told you this. She called home for your birthday. We're all around the phone. She said, "I have something to tell you from our community. Do you mind if I tell you right now with everybody there or should we talk in private?" He said, "Go ahead." Yeah. So, I remember that pretty clearly.
STEVE: I do remember it, but I think I remember mostly, well, we'll see what comes of it. So, I wanted you to be happy and I wanted you to do what you wanted to do. I wasn't going to stop you, but I thought, let's just see what comes of it.
BR. KOLBE: Shelby and Ross, what did you guys think when you heard I may be entering religious life?
SHELBY: I thought: another one? Seriously? We have to do this again. I think it's more difficult for me personally because Brother Kolbe and I, we're very close, and I thought that I didn't really want to have him move away. So, that was difficult, but I think it's also difficult for another reason.
I do not see myself as somebody who is going to be called to a religious vocation. So, me personally, trying to understand the calling and also his need to fill that obligation was difficult for me to understand, because I don't have that calling. He will be here three years in May.
Sister Marie Faustina has been almost six years. The joy that they have and they almost glow, honestly, with it. It's very easy to see this is where they belong. So, once you come to that understanding, it's a lot easier to let go, in a sense.
ROSS: I think it was a lot easier with Kolbe joining, because he had more of the ability to talk to us throughout the process. He was able to communicate where, when Sister first joined, it was kind of like she fell off a cliff for a while, but Kolbe, you could see it as he was here. He was a happier person and so, like Shelby said, it was a lot easier to accept like, OK, this is happening.
BR. KOLBE: I don't actually remember when I told you about Saint Meinrad. Yeah, I remember one of our cousins were graduating and I was sitting at the graduation ceremony and I was looking at Saint Meinrad's webpage and I looked at my sister Shelby and I said, "I think we're in trouble." I was like, "I think this might be where I end up."
SANDY: Well, the beauty of that was it wasn't Germany. I thought Indiana. Indiana is close. I didn't know you were at the bottom of Indiana, but it's still good. Still good.
BR. KOLBE: I found Saint Meinrad because when I asked Sister, when she was giving me all these monasteries, she actually was trying to direct me to a monastery in Germany. Then she also wanted me to see a monastery in Kansas. Every time she said Kansas, I thought she was saying Kentucky. And we're right on the border of Kentucky.
The vocation director out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, he's like, "Well, I don't know of a Benedictine monastery in Kentucky, but there is one in southern Indiana. I bet you that's where she meant." So, it was through that that I started to come down. I contacted the vocation director and came for a visit, but I remember finally getting accepted by the community.
Then I remember the drive down because my mom, my dad, my sisters Shelby and Stephanie, my brother Ross and Stephanie's fiancé at the time, Adam, all came down to drop me off to enter the monastery. So, there was a carload. We were adults mostly and mom wanted to all come down in one vehicle. We're like, "Mom, are you crazy? It's a six-and-a-half-hour drive." Do you remember that?
SANDY: Oh. Very, very firm. I wasn't budging on that.
BR. KOLBE: Yeah. She was very firm in that. So, we drove. We kind of even took back ways. A little back way here so it took us a little bit longer. We went through -
STEVE: The Indiana State Forest.
BR. KOLBE: Yeah. The Hoosier National Forest.
STEVE: Yeah. It seemed longer than what ... I thought, "Oh boy. We're going to be driving this." But yeah, took a long time.
BR. KOLBE: It did take a long time. Do you remember that stretch when we got off the highway the last five miles coming into town? I was so nervous because I was showing you guys the place where I was really considering. Because you guys had seen pictures at the time, but this was the first time you guys were going to step on campus. So, I was so nervous and we rounded the last turn in the bend and I could see the towers. I was like, "Well, there it is."
SANDY: Yeah. It was breathtaking. It was beautiful. Yeah.
BR. KOLBE: So, we spent a weekend here.
SANDY: It wasn't a weekend. It was a night.
BR. KOLBE: It was a night, oh geez.
SANDY: We came in. We only spent one night, if I remember correctly.
STEVE: Yeah, it was only one night.
SANDY: Then we left. We left the next morning.
BR. KOLBE: I guess I'm curious. Have you seen change in me since I've been at Saint Meinrad?
SANDY: Definitely. A lot of peace. A lot of just peace. There's just an inner peace about you. I think that's the foundation for everything that comes from that. Your joy. Yeah. Confidence. When you're at peace with yourself, that's a tremendous gift.
STEVE: Yeah, I think the same thing. You just seem really happy.
BR. KOLBE: I am happy. I do love it down here. We get to talk every Sunday pretty much. On most Sundays, I Skype with my whole family except for my sister who's in religious life. They'll be sitting around a TV. I think I'm on a TV, right?
BR. KOLBE: So, I think my little nephew believes I'm a movie star or something like that.
STEVE: Yeah, he does. Actually, the other night we were over there and we mentioned Br. Kolbe and, all of a sudden, he turned around and looked at the TV like he was supposed to be there. Like he was going to be popping in any second.
SHELBY: It's hilarious. As soon as that Skype call starts, Lincoln is running around the living room showing off. He's making sure that Uncle Kolbe has an eye on him and can see all of his new tricks that week, so it's a lot of fun.
BR. KOLBE: You guys have, to me, changed a lot. It feels like my relationship with you two has to be more intentional in order for me to have a relationship with you two. Because it was when I was in Pewamo, it was just convenient. I knew I was going to see you on the weekend or see you. So, while my vocation definitely called me to give up that convenience, I feel like it's helped me kind of get closer to you. At least, I hope you guys think that, too.
ROSS: Yeah, I would say so.
SHELBY: I think as we all age and mature, hopefully, our relationships are going to age and mature with us.
ROSS: Well, they're praying for me constantly. So, I feel like I've grown.
BR. KOLBE: I am praying for you all the time. I'm worried for your soul.
ROSS: Join the line.
BR. KOLBE: What would you tell other parents who have children who are discerning religious life?
SANDY: I would tell them to let God do what God needs to do. It's difficult.
STEVE: It's difficult, but you know that that's what they want to do. We always told our children, "Do what makes you happy." I don't want them to be going to a job every single day that they hate. It just would make just a miserable life. We found what we like to do.
SANDY: Well, I think there's more to it than that. Not just what makes you happy, but what gives you that inner peace. Excuse me. Whatever it is that God calls us to, he gives us strength to do. We were all created for a very real purpose. It isn't always to be something that's easy or comfortable.
Our books of saints and our books of heroes of history, they're not the people who were always seeking their comfort and what was easy. You have to be willing to sacrifice, to step out in faith. And, for both of our kids, I just knew I was not going to get in God's way because if that was what he was calling them to, I had to be open to that because that was where they would find their peace, their joy.
You also need to be very careful. If you act like it's horrible or it's not good or it's not possible, you're sending that message to the person in the family who is discerning, because no person discerns a vocation without it affecting other people. You're all discerning. You all have an opportunity to say "yes" or to say "no" or to say "this is too difficult."
But you need to trust God, because if you don't, what might you be missing that he has in store for you and for the world? The people that you'll encounter when you're living your vocation, whatever that vocation is, and the people whose lives you can change. You just have to trust him.
BR. KOLBE: It's kind of funny too because I remember after the phone call I looked at you and I said, "Are you okay, mom?" You said, "I'm done fighting God." Do you guys have anything else that you guys would want to add?
SANDY: I feel that when both of our kids joined religious life, people say what a sacrifice it is. But when a child gets married, they bring another person into your family who becomes your family. Then through the blessings of God, maybe there's more family with children and that's wonderful. But I truly believe that that's equally relevant with religious life. I feel that the priests and brothers here at Saint Meinrad's are connected to us as family. I pray for them every day. I feel the same about the Religious Sisters of Mercy.
We have formed relationships. They're family. They're a part of us and we're a part of them. It isn't a loss. It really isn't. I suppose it can be if that's the way you choose to look at it, but it is an opportunity for your family to grow in maybe a way that you would not have expected, but there's so much joy in it and so many gifts. Saint Meinrad's is filled with beautiful men serving God and I'm so grateful to have met them and to know them.
ROSS: Yeah. It really is like a new family down here. It's nice coming to see you, but it's so nice to see all the other brothers and get to catch up with them and play cards with them. So, that is the one benefit of the many benefits of the religious life, but it's like we did gain a lot of members of our family.
SHELBY: We have a great aunt who is a nun. Because she's a great aunt, she's always been older. So, any religious, I thought they're quiet and they're very prayerful.
ROSS: I thought they would be locked up in a room and not talking much and then when we got here, it was like, "These guys are actually funny. They're nice. They're young." I thought he was going -
SHELBY: Well, they're relatable. They're relatable. They want to play cards. They want to joke and laugh. They brew beer. They run. They bike. The Religious Sisters of Mercy, they play ice hockey and they go snowmobiling. They're not how you think they are. They're normal people.
BR. KOLBE: That's one of my favorite pictures of Sister and her habit on the Jet Ski flying down the river.
BR. KOLBE: I hope you enjoyed getting to know my family a little. I know I enjoyed talking to them about this time in our lives.
BR. JOEL: Today's episode was edited and produced by Krista Hall, with the help of Mary Jeanne Schumacher, Tammy Schuetter, Jim Paquette, Christian Mocek, Br. Kolbe and myself, Br. Joel.
BR. KOLBE: Br. Joel wrote and produced the music in our episode. Thanks, Br. Joel!
BR. JOEL: A special thanks goes to Sandy, Steve, Ross and Shelby Wolniakowski. I'm looking forward to catching up and playing cards with you again soon.
BR. KOLBE: If you are enjoying "Echoes from the Bell Tower," please share it with your friends. And don't forget to subscribe to "Echoes" on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you are listening.
BR. JOEL: You can view some pictures of Br. Kolbe and his family in the blog post for this episode at saintmeinrad.edu/echoes.
BR. KOLBE: This is our last episode of the year, but don't worry, all of our past episodes are available online for you to listen to. Thanks for listening to our podcast!
BR. JOEL: They're real card sharks, those Wolniakowskis!
ROSS: And I am Ross Wolniakowski and I am Brother's Kolbe brother.
SHELBY: And that's a blooper.