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Fr. David Gawenda is a priest and firefighter. He belongs to the Volunteer Fire Brigade in Chwałowice, Poland. On a daily basis, he serves as a vicar at the local Shrine of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus.
Even as a child he dreamed of becoming a firefighter. Before entering the seminary, he studied construction for three years. He wanted to become a construction manager. He also thought about the fire department, but didn’t want to leave Silesia for Warsaw, where the Central School of Fire Service is located. God had other plans for him.
“When the moment of choosing to follow my vocation came, I no longer felt any dilemmas,” Fr. Dawid emphasizes.
He recounts that the decision to join the ranks of volunteer firemen was influenced by a specific situation from his life. “Driving in my car, I witnessed the fire department helping a motorcyclist who had an accident. They were attempting to resuscitate the man at the time. As a priest, I stopped and went to anoint him. Later I learned that the man had died.”
Fr. David thought he could minister to people spiritually and physically, giving the sacrament of anointing and absolution, and bring hope when human life and property were in danger.
He underwent a demanding five-week course to prepare for a volunteer firefighting brigade. The first two weeks included theoretical classes. “We had a lot of time for individual study. We had to assimilate extensive material on technical rescue and first aid principles. The course included the physics and chemistry of fire. The theoretical part ended with an exam,” explains Fr. David.
After passing the course on theory, it was time for practice. “We performed various rescue operations with all the equipment. We also learned how to control stress and emotions. The result of the exam was decisive for whether or not someone would be able to join the ranks of firefighters,” he adds.
The first priest in the history of the local fire department
There are 40 firefighters in the local brigade. Among them are retired firefighters who have finished their work and are now honorary members of the Rybnik-Chwałowice volunteer fire department.
“When there’s an alarm, we all get notifications. Whoever can, jumps into action. There are only six of us at the station, so it’s first come, first served,” says the priest.
“Once I had a very unpredictable situation, because it was shortly before Mass. I was called up to help with an event. So, I asked one of the retired priests residing at the parish to replace me. I also happened to get called to help with a fire once while I was at the school where I teach. The principal wasn’t too happy, but she understood this unique situation,” says Fr. David with a smile.
The priest tells us that he’s grateful to the parish priest for understanding his firefighting ministry. “Fr. Gregory is very supportive and interested in the fire department. He often asks me what’s going on there in the brigade and what rescue operations I’ve participated in,” he adds.
Apartment fire, accident, cat rescue
Fr. David shares with Aleteia a memory of an incident he was recently involved in. “Our brigade was called up to put out a basement fire. The smoke in the room was very thick and nothing was visible. We were actually operating in the dark. We were aware that we had to save someone’s belongings.”
There was also an intervention that turned out not to be very dangerous, but the incident was presented in a dramatic way. “We were going to a man who had supposedly been covered by earth from a dump truck. A helicopter was even called in. At the scene, it turned out that the man could breathe, and his body was only half covered with earth. It’s hard to describe what was going on in my head while beating a path to the place indicated by the duty officer,” he recounts.
Evangelization at the firehouse
What part of this work is Fr. David most passionate about? “Every situation is different. When the siren wails or the phone rings, that’s when you get that powerful adrenaline rush. You have to respond quickly. On the way we get more detailed information about what kind of action we’re actually going to do. It could be an apartment fire, a serious car accident, or pulling a cat out of a sewer manhole,” he explains.
“Going to the scene, we’re the ones people are waiting for, we’re their hope, their lifeline, the ones who save their lives and the whole world around them,” the clergyman adds.
Fr. David says that serving as a first responder gives him the opportunity to learn about the realities of the lives of people he might not meet in church.
“I’m among people who have different relationships with God. There are those who participate in the life of the parish, but also those who don’t have much to do with the church. Working on the brigade is a way for me to evangelize. The idea is to be with those who are not in church, to show them that a priest is a normal person, not someone detached from reality. Following the voice of God doesn’t mean at all that you have to give up your dreams, if they’re in line with his will. We can do good at any place and time,” explains the priest-firefighter.