Aleteia

Meet “Brother Ave”—the handyman who brought Christ to Canada by repairing hockey sticks and loving Mary

Anthony Kowalczyk
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He had to have an arm amputated and found the strength to endure it by clutching his crucifix.

Anthony Kowalcyzk was born in Dzierzanow, Poland, on June 4, 1866. He was the sixth child in a family of 12, and his mom and dad were devout Catholics. They had Anthony baptized at the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation in Lutogniew, Poland, and it was here that young Anthony developed a great devotion to the Blessed Mother that would inspire him his entire life.

Anthony entered the local school at the age of seven. When he finished his elementary education, his parents took him out of school so he could help them work their small farm. Anthony did that for three years, and then his parents allowed him to accept a position as an apprentice blacksmith.

At the age of 20 and having completed his training, he was classified as a “journeyman blacksmith.” He then left for Hamburg, Germany, to find a job. He found work in a factory, but to his dismay, when his co-workers and “friends” discovered he was Catholic, they began to mock and abuse him. He was continually made fun of and provoked. The constant abuse actually made him ill. 

Praying hard for guidance, he left for Cologne. His prayers were answered as a Catholic family took him in. They treated him as their own and introduced him to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. It was then that Anthony heard the call to service through religious life. He said goodbye to his friends in Cologne and traveled to Holland. Here he was accepted into the Oblate novitiate. 

He spent the next three years praying and learning and on October 2, 1892, he made his vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Two years later he renewed his vows for one year and was sent to the mission of St. Albert in what is today Alberta, Canada. From there he traveled to Edmonton and then north to Lac la Biche to work among the Cree and Metis tribes. 

Brother Anthony worked hard and spent many hours in prayer while in Lac la Biche. He was an excellent mechanic and handyman and kept all the machinery running smoothly and the stationary equipment in perfect condition. But he was soon to be faced with a tremendous challenge.

The friars were busy working in the lumber mill when the power belt turning the giant saw blade snapped. It sounded as if dynamite had exploded and the belt hit Brother Anthony in the right forearm mangling his hand and arm. When they helped him up, he said, “It is God’s will.”

It took four days for them to get Anthony to the hospital in Edmonton. When they finally reached the hospital, gangrene had already set in, and the arm and hand had to be amputated. They had no anesthesia, so Anthony asked for his crucifix and held it tightly as they removed his lower arm. They say he never made a sound. 

Recovery was hard, but Anthony worked every day to improve. In 1897, he was sent to the mission of St. Paul de Metis. He and two other Oblate brothers set up a sawmill and flour mill. On January 17, 1899, Brother Anthony knelt before Bishop Legal and took his final vows accepting his role as an Oblate Brother for the rest of his life.

Brother Anthony was eventually sent to St. John’s College in Edmonton and would remain there for 36 years. In 1912, he was fitted for an arm prosthesis with a hook on the end. He became so proficient with his “new hand” that he became the resident blacksmith, gardener, bell-ringer, sacristan, and even took care of the animals. He also repaired the hockey sticks and sharpened the blades of the students’ ice skates. 

Most importantly, he was always there for the young people for words of advice, encouragement, and prayer. They called him “Brother Ave” because he had such devotion to Our Lady and the Rosary. Plus, he always asked those who requested his prayers to pray an extra Ave (Hail Mary). 

On July 10, 1947, after a brief illness, Brother Anthony Kowalcysk died. He was 81 years old. He had been the first Polish Oblate to come to Canada.

On March 28, 2013, Pope Francis declared  Brother Anthony Kowlcyzk a man of “Heroic Virtue” and therefore worthy of the title of Venerable Anthony Kowalcyzk.

Venerable Anthony Kowlcyzk, please pray for us.