Letters with a common touch

Father Sebastian Kolinovsky writes letters, by hand. What's unusual about that, you say? Well, for the past twenty-two years Father Sebastian has been writing thousands of letters from his office in Union City, New Jersey, to the many people who write to the Passionists requesting prayers, asking questions and offering their support. And he does it the "old fashioned way," by hand.

Fr Sebastian"Sure, I can't count how many letters I've written, appealing for donations for our sick and elderly religious, our seminarians, and our various ministries. I hand write thank you notes, promises of prayers, little pieces of advice and comfort to those who are sick or facing difficulties of any kind. I answer them to the best of my ability, and I always praise people, because people are good."

Like clockwork, Father Sebastian is at his desk each day at his letters, and he is a master at what he does. No form letter for him; he writes real letters, in simple terms his correspondents understand and appreciate. He has the common touch.

Born with a common touch

His own life, from early on, nourished a common touch. He was born into a hardworking Slovak family in Taylor, Pennsylvania; his father was a coal miner and his mother sometimes had to work too to support six children.

"At home, prayer was a big part of our life," he recalled, "We got down on our knees together and said our morning prayers and evening prayers: the Our Father, Hail Mary and the Apostles' Creed. Of course, Sunday Mass was important to us too. My mother and father not only spoke of the faith, but they lived it and instilled it into us."

Sebastian never thought of being a priest as a young boy. "When the bishop came around for confirmation and asked who want to become a priest, I kept my hand down. I didn't even give it a thought."

His vocation came later on, after he quit high school before graduation and took a job cleaning dishes and doing odd jobs at The Blue Lantern, an all-day, all-night restaurant in downtown Scranton, a few blocks from the Catholic Cathedral. It was in the 1930's. He worked twelve hour shifts, seven days a week, and made one dollar a day.

Then he heard God call.

Three laypeople helped him decide to enter the Passionists, he recalls. The first was a young coworker, who left the Blue Lantern each day to visit the nearby Cathedral, say some prayers and then put some of his hard-earned tips into the poor box. "I thought it was a good idea and I did it too, and I became more aware of my faith."

Another was a teacher at Scranton's St. Thomas College, who asked Sebastian one day if he had ever thought of becoming a priest.

"I told him I was too old, twenty-one, and hadn't finished school. But he told me I could go back to school and get the studies I needed. I didn't do much about it, but he got me thinking."

Finally, a cashier from the local bank who stopped at the restaurant suggested that he talk to a Passionist he knew, Father Malachy Haggerty. Thanks to their encouragement, Sebastian began the process of entering the Passionists.

He recalls an awakening of faith at this time too. "Someone told me while I was working at the Blue Lantern about a New Testament with the words of Jesus in red. I sent for the book by mail, and every day when I would come home after work, I would read it. I got to know Jesus through that book; I loved his words and the stories about him."

A Passionist Priest

After ordination as a Passionist priest, Father Sebastian studied the Slovak language and began to preach missions, retreats and Forty-Hours Devotions, many of them in Slovak parishes throughout the eastern part of the United States. Then, he served for six years at the Passionist Monastery in Baltimore, Maryland, as Vice-Rector. Afterwards, for ten years he served as superior and member of the retreat staff at Cardinal Spellman Retreat Center in Riverdale, New York. Since 1978, he has been engaged in fundraising at the Passionist Development Office in Union City, New Jersey.

At Mass each morning in the small community chapel at St. Michael's Residence, Union City, where Father Sebastian lives, he invariably prays for "our benefactors, the sick, healing for them all, if it is God's holy will." Then, after breakfast he heads to his office and his mail. Pen in hand, he writes with his special touch letters that bring his special common touch far and wide.

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