By Steve Neill Of The Catholic Virginian
When he was in a Catholic high school and first shared his thoughts about becoming a priest, Deacon John Christian was advised by a Jesuit priest to first finish his education and in a sense put that vocational choice on the back burner.
Deacon John followed that advice and is now clearly focused on being a Catholic priest and serving God’s people.
Born in Lynchburg, he was the youngest of three children of Michael and Patricia Christian, parishioners of Holy Cross, Lynchburg.
“As a young boy, I liked going to church,” he said. “I guess when I really began thinking about being a priest started with my experience serving on the altar at Holy Cross.”
Deacon John attended Holy Cross Regional School from kindergarten through the 8th grade. He then went to Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Md., an all-boys school staffed by the Jesuits. There he was one of about 100 boarding students.
Following graduation from Georgetown Prep in 2005, Deacon John entered Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. He chose anthropology as his major.
“It was the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences,” Deacon John explained. “It let me do a little bit of everything.”
His courses included history, folk lore, archaeology “and all kinds of good stuff,” he said.
He graduated from Lafayette in 2009 with a B.A. majoring in anthropology and had a minor in classical languages and civilization.
During college Deacon John was active with the Newman Association for Catholic students.
Although Lafayette was nominally a Presbyterian school, perhaps 80 percent of the students were Catholic, he said.
“We had a full-time Catholic priest, Father Charles Norman, a Salesian,” Deacon John said.
Looking back on his early school days, he feels an important component of his future priesthood was “exposure to things that were Catholic” at Holy Cross School with the Rosary as one example.
“I was open to being a soldier, astronaut, cowboy and a priest,” Deacon John replied when asked if his four years at Georgetown Prep influenced his call to be a priest.
“I was open to it only in as much as I was to anything else,” he added.
Deacon John remembers a powerful experince he had when he was alone in the school’s chapel during his sophomore year.
“I was sitting in that beautiful chapel and felt like I might be called to something,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was, but I had a strong sense of being called to something.”
When he shared that thought with one of the Jesuits, he was advised to “focus on what you’re doing now.”
“He said that may be something for the future,” Deacon John said.
But he could not seem to shake the thought of being called when he graduated from Lafayette. He thought of being a lawyer.
“I found that call to something was still there,” he said. “It got to the point that it was impossible to do anything else.”
As a result, thoughts of career options and developing relationships were drowned out. During that period he worked for a local historical association in Lynchburg for two years.
In 2011 he went on a family pilgrimage to Fatima which inspired him.
“That was really a pivotal moment of my spiritual life,” he said.
It was not long after that his daily routine changed.
“I called Father (Michael) Boehling (Vicar for Vocations) and before you knew it, I was at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore,” he said.
He admits he was still not sure then if he wanted to be a priest, but felt he needed to explore the possibility.
“It was through discernment of the call that ultimately begot the desire,” Deacon John said.
“The call got more persistent and clearer,” he added.
As a seminarian, his first parish assignment was at Our Lady of Nazareth, Roanoke, in the summer of 2012 with Msgr. Joseph Lehman.
He was at St. Anne in Bristol in the summer of 2013 with Father Kevin Segerblom.
Deacon John spent his pastoral year of 2014-2015 at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Newport News with Father John David Ramsey.
“That was a great experience,” he said. “Father Ramsey was an excellent mentor to me.”
After his ordination as a transitional deacon, Deacon John spent the summer of 2016 at St. Andrew’s, Roanoke with Father Mark White.
“The experience of serving as a deacon in a parish pulled everything together for me,” he said.
“My experience at Holy Cross School and the example of my pastor, Monsignor (J. Kenneth) Rush led me to where I am today,” Deacon John said.
The newly ordained Father Christian will celebrate his first Mass Sunday, June 4, at 10 a.m. at Holy Cross, Lynchburg.
While in college Deacon Mark Kowalski had set his sights on becoming a professional golf trainer and actually pursued that goal for a year.
Although he enjoyed that year while working in a small town in the North Georgia mountains, he found that the Lord had other plans. The end result is that he will be ordained a priest for the Diocese of Richmond by Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo on June 3.
Born in Fairfax on July 30, 1986, Mark Kowalski was only one when he and his parents moved to Roanoke where he spent his childhood and teen years. He is the only child of John and Val Kowalski. His mother died in January 2013.
“Dad is an only child as well,” Deacon Mark said. “Dad and I are now the only members of our immediate family, but our spiritual family is very large.”
Deacon Mark is a product of Roanoke Catholic School, attending from kindergarten through the 12th grade. He attended Florida State University in Tallahassee, graduating in 2008 with a Bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Administration. His major was Professional Golf Management.
“My ambition was to become a PGA professional, teaching lessons and being involved in day-to-day club professional activities,” he said.
He worked in that field for a year at Brasstown Valley Resort in Young Harris, GA, a place he described as being “in the middle of nowhere.”
“I enjoyed it, it was my first full-time immersion into that life,” Deacon Mark said.
“It was also at a time in my life that I had a deeper encounter with Christ,” he continued. “I had a busy social life and dated the same girl for a couple of years and that ended.
“It was an experience of how much more I wanted to be holy and really make a strong effort at it.
“I wanted to live the Christian life as best I could.
“When you see Christ and meet Him, your life changes and goes in a different direction.”
Deacon Mark also got involved with LifeTeen, a Catholic youth ministry which is parish-based.
He was attending St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Blairsville, GA and got involved with the youth group. He enjoyed contemporary Christian music.
After he met youth missionaries who were helping in the small parish, he made a visit to them at the LifeTeen Covecrest community, 45 minutes drive from Blairsville.
“I joined them and served as a missionary for a year,” Deacon Mark explained. “I felt this desire to focus on prayer, community and mission.
“I was growing deeper in my faith.”
Soon the resort in which he worked had massive layoffs. He was invited to join the small community the same day he lost his job.
He immediately felt that it was God’s providence that his life changed. He began to have thoughts of the priesthood.
“I resisted them, but they were there,” Deacon Mark said.
He was invited by Father Michael Renninger, then Vocations Director for the Diocese of Richmond, to come as a discerner at a four-day seminarians retreat.
“The thoughts of priesthood started to percolate,” he said.
On a visit to Richmond to see Father Renninger, then in residence at St. Bridget Parish, he learned about a job opening for youth minister at St. Bridget’s. He applied and was offered the job by Msgr. William Carr, pastor.
Father Michael Boehling, who succeeded Fathert Renninger as Vocations Director, was in residence at the parish. He and the new youth minister began getting together casually for coffee and sometimes played golf together.
“The neat thing about it was that he became like a big brother to me,” Deacon Mark said of Father Boehling. “I saw the joy of his priesthood and it impacted my own discernment, my journey.”
Father Boehling invited him to a seminarians retreat at Roslyn conference Center.
“I said I would go, but I had no intention of going into the seminary,” he said. “I came for prayer and fellowship.
“It ended up being the moment of grace when I felt the call to pursue the vocation to the priesthood very strongly.”
He was especially struck by watching the procession of clergy during the Mass on the retreat weekend.
“This sense of peace overwhelmed me,” Deacon Mark said. “The Lord said ‘Mark, will you follow me in this way? Let go of your fears and worries.
“‘Come see if this is the life I have for you. Come follow me.’”
Parishes in which Deacon Mark served were Sacred Heart in Danville, summer of 2012; Holy Rosary, Richmond, summer of 2013; St. Anne, Bristol, Pastoral year 2014-2015, and St. Bridget’s, summer of 2016.
Of his last summer assignment at St. Bridget’s, he says “I’ve come full circle.”
“I absolutely cherish that pastoral year at St. Anne’s,” Deacon Kowalski said. “You really get to know the people and Father Kevin (Segerblom, pastor of St. Anne’s) taught me many things.”
He also had kind words for the three other pastors who supervised him in summer assignments — Father Anthony Marques, Father David Stanfill and Msgr. Carr.
He sees his new role as being “God’s instrument in those very special moments of people’s lives.”
The newly ordained Father Kowalski plans to celebrate his first Mass on Sunday, June 4, at 11 a.m. at St. Bridget’s, Richmond.
Deacon Miguel Melendez claims that faith and family growing up in Christiansburg are the two major factors which led him to the priesthood.
Other influences include a few priests with whom he felt close and his time listening to a Christian radio station while in high school and living in an area where there were relatively few Catholics.
But before he chose the path to priestly formation, he graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and considered being a meteorologist.
Born May 9, 1984 in Corpus Christi, Texas, Miguel Melendez is the second of three children of Deacon Jose and Karen Melendez. He has an older sister, Christy, and a younger brother, Kyle.
His father, Deacon Jose, serves at Holy Spirit, Christiansburg, and Holy Family, Pearisburg. His mother, Karen, is Director of Adult Faith Formation and RCIA at Our Lady of Nazareth in Roanoke.
In 1986 the Melendez family moved to Christiansburg. The three children all attended the Christiansburg public schools.
“I think when I was young we had a prayerful family (and still do),” Deacon Melendez said. “We had prayers before meals and Mom would read the Bible to us as a family.
“Church was always central to us as long as I can remember.”
The family attended Mass initially at St. Mary’s in Blacksburg and then went to Holy Spirit in Christiansburg after it was established in 1995.
“We were always friends with the local priest and he’d come over for meals,” Deacon Melendez recalls. One was the late Father Paul Gallagher.
“Father Gallagher is a part of my story,” he continued. “He always came to family events, soccer games and school events.
“He planted a seed and while I was in high school he asked me ‘Have you considered being a priest?’
“At the time I wasn’t open to it. That continued to be the case in college as well.
“He encouraged me to think about it and pray about it.
“As a Catholic in a non-Catholic area, God and family were the two elements that fostered my vocation and also having a close relationship with Father Gallagher.
“When I went to college and began to consider the priesthood, I knew if I served as a priest I’d want to serve families and be in the Diocese of Richmond because that was home.”
Deacon Miguel went to the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., after graduating from high school. He points out that he had exposure to the military since his grandfather was a retired Army officer and his sister went to the U.S. Naval Academy.
“I chose the Coast Guard because it was a humanitarian service and I had a desire to serve in that way,” he explained.
In 2002 he joined a group of Coast Guard cadets in praying the rosary “and I found myself studying the Bible,” Deacon Miguel said. He was a member of the Academy glee club and joined a Catholic choir.
“I found my identity in college in being Catholic,” he says.
“I had a strong conversion. This is when I said ‘God, whatever you want, I want.’
“It was amazing and freeing. I was on fire for the Lord and I came in contact with the Legionaries of Christ through my sister at the Naval Academy.”
He went on a mission trip to Mexico in his sophomore year.
“While we were there we visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” he recalled. “Seeing the people there and their devotion to the Lord and Mary, I realized my love for the Church.
“It was soon after that in spending time with Legionarie priests and my fellow Catholics at the Coast Guard Academy and experiencing God’s mercy in confession and the Mass that I became open to being a priest.”
Deacon Miguel knew he had to honor his commitment to the Coast Guard.
“The Coast Guard was a very promising career and I was successful in it,” Deacon Miguel said. “I was commanding officer of the King Fisher in Jacksonville.
“But I found the most peace in the discernment with the priesthood in the Church.”
He moved to Norfolk, knowing that he might apply to the seminary.
He developed a friendship with Father Dan Beeman, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Norfolk, who encouraged him. But there was still five years of obligatory service to the Coast Guard. He received encouragement from Father Stephen Rock, a priest from the Archdiocese of Boston who was his military chaplain at the Coast Guard Academy.
“He, like Father Gallagher, continued to support me and keep up with me as I was discerning the priesthood,” Deacon Miguel said.
In the fall of 2010 he met Father Michael Boehling and on his third visit with him he said Yes to entering the seminary.
“My time at the seminary has been very fruitful,” Deacon Miguel says. “It has confirmed my calling to the priesthood with the help of the Sulpicians and my brother seminarians.”
But the journey has not been “a cakewalk.”
“Both spiritually and humanly speaking, discernment has been challenging at times,” he said. “It’s what God wanted me to experience.”
Parishes in which Deacon Miguel was assigned while in the seminary were Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Salem, summer of 2012; St. Bede, Williamsburg, summer of 2013; Holy Spirit, Virginia Beach for his pastoral year of 2014-2015, and the Parishes of St. Peter’s, Richmond; St. Patrick’s, Richmond, and St. John’s, Highland Springs, 2016.
The newly ordained Father Melendez will celebrate his first Mass on Sunday, June 4, at 3 p.m. at St. Joan of Arc, Yorktown, the parish where his parents were married.