Called to help those in need

by Mandy Moran Froemming
Union Editor

For the last two decades Joan Bednarczyk has dedicated her time and her talents to caring not only for the parish of the Church of St. Stephen, but extending her reach into the entire community.

After 22 years with St. Stephen’s, Joan Bednarczyk will be leaving her position as director of pastoral care on Sunday, Jan. 22. Photo by Mandy Moran Froemming

Her tenure ends Sunday at the Anoka Catholic church, where she has worked for 22 years, the last 20 as the director of pastoral care.

“She has been a tremendous presence, not only within our parish, but also in the city of Anoka and more widely throughout Anoka County,” said Rev. Mike Van Sloun in a farewell piece included in the church bulletin. “For many, particularly non-parishioners and non-Catholics, Joan is the best-known member of the staff and the face of the parish to the public.”

Sunday, Jan. 22 will be an appreciation day for Bednarczyk’s ministry and will include a special ceremony after Holy Communion at the 9:30 and 11 a.m. masses. After both masses there will a reception in the Family Community Center in her honor.

Van Sloun calls Bednarczyk a one-person emergency responder. An important part of her ministry has been to respond to urgent requests for help, making disbursement’s from the church’s charity assistance account.

“When people need help, I am the person they come to see,” said Bednarczyk.

And that help comes in many different forms, from providing groceries or financial help with a utility bill to gas vouchers or coordinating shelter.

“People here (at St. Stephen’s) are very charitable and very generous,” she said. “So I’m fortunate to have a lot to work with.”

Bednarczyk said her days are filled with miracles and what she calls “God moments.”

On one morning, there might be a call from a parishioner letting her know they have an extra couch available. An hour later, someone calls in need of furniture.

“Some days by 10 o’clock in the morning I’ve already had three little miracles,” she said.

Last Thursday she had received a thank you note from a woman she had given one of the most basic necessities – toilet paper.

“She came in for some help with a utility bill and she was just so happy that I was able to give her a pack of toilet paper,” Bednarczyk said.

The vast majority of the people on the receiving end of the church’s charity are not affiliated with St. Stephen’s, although Bednarczyk does enforce the criteria that they must be referred to her through another agency, to make sure they are getting additional assistance and access to resources.

“Chances are if someone comes to me for gas money, they have a lot of other unmet needs,” said Bednarczyk.

Compassionate leadership

In the 20 years that Bednarczyk has been the director of pastoral care, the job has grown. Along with managing the church’s charitable resources, there are many other aspects to her ministry.

Bednarczyk leads the parish’s Stephen ministry, identifying and training lay ministers who offer pastoral care to parishioners and the community at large.

“Over 20 years Joan has trained hundreds of Stephen ministers, both for our parish and neighboring parishes,” said Van Sloun.

She then organizes those lay ministers, sending them to home visits, lead prayer services, visit the sick and dying at hospitals as well as those seeking treatment at the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center and the elderly local care facilities. In addition, she coordinates the parish’s bereavement ministry, which reaches out to those mourning a loved one.

Bednarczyk says she has loved all aspects of her job at St. Stephen’s.

“I love the variety,” she said. “When I need a change or a fresh look at things I go see people at the hospital or the care center.”

She says she loves to visit with the dying – a statement some might find startling.

“I think it’s just my call,” she said. “It’s not meant for everybody, but it’s meant for me.”

Bednarczyk recounted a recent visit with a man just a week before he died, the day after Christmas.

He was a descendant of the poet Robert Frost and a published poet himself. She asked if he had a favorite piece of Frost poetry. It was “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which she happened to be able to recite by heart to this dying man.

“Who gets chances like that? That’s a God moment,” she said. “You have an experience like that and you know there is a power much bigger, better and finer than you.”


Reaching out

Bednarczyk has been actively involved in a number of social service agency boards.

“Joan is widely known and respected throughout Anoka County for her concern for the poor and her ability to network, organize and lead,” said Van Sloun.

She says she is fortunate that Van Sloun, along with previous priest Rev. Mike Paquet, were supportive of her being gone from the church as much as she has been, while actively serving on boards and committees and working on fund-raisers.

Homelessness has been a primary concern for her and she was a founding board member and current president of the board of directors for Stepping Stone Emergency Housing. She has also had memberships with Anoka County Homeless Prevention, Anoka County Mediation Services, the Community Emergency Assistance Program (CEAP) and Free2B!.

Her road to ministry

Parishioners of the church since the 1983, Bednarczyk and her husband Peter have lived in Andover for 35 years.

During the 1980s Peter was accepted into training to become a deacon for the church and Bednarczyk chose to take part, as wives were invited to do.

She believes it was early in her life she became attuned to the work of helping, and caring, for others.

“My mother was a person who had severe handicaps so I believe I had a heightened sensitivity to people who are in pain or struggling,” said Bednarczyk.

But she long believed that would mean a career as a social worker.

Her first two years were with St. Stephen’s faith formation department before she became the director of pastoral care.

Van Sloun told parishioners that Bednarczyk has certainly left her mark on St. Stephen’s.

“Joan is a one-of-a-kind individual,” he wrote. “No one will be able to fill her shoes in quite the same way. God has blessed Joan with an immense number of talents and abilities and she has invested them well and produced a rich yield for the Lord.”

Bednarczyk did not come to the decision of leaving lightly.

“There was an act of spiritual discernment I engaged in,” she said. “That’s the way I do things – a lot of prayer, reflection.”

Although Bednarczyk doesn’t know what’s next, it isn’t retirement. She wanted to take her time, fully immersing herself not only in making the decision to leave her position, but also the act of leaving. Next, she will pause and take time to renew before moving on.

“I trust in God’s will that I will know what it is when the time is right,” she said of her next calling.

She is a mother of three and grandmother to nine. During her personal time she enjoys writing and walking the labyrinth her husband built on their Andover property.

It is difficult for Bednarczyk to predict what she will miss once she leaves her position.

“I imagine I’ll miss the daily interaction with really good folks, but I expect I will find that wherever I go,” she said.

She and her husband will remain connected to the church as parishioners. Three of their grandchildren currently attend St. Stephen’s School.

Bednarczyk said it has been a huge joy to get to know people throughout Anoka County’s social services department, those from area non-profits and other local churches over the past two decades.

“This is a community that works together,” she said. “I’ve witnessed that and experienced it first hand. It has been a real gift.”

That also includes the membership at St. Stephen’s.

“The parishioners are amazing,” she said. “I’ve just been so deeply touched over and over again by the faith, the generosity, the humility of the people here. I am in awe of them.”

Mandy Moran Froemming is at [email protected]