The concentration camp prisoner who became a Queensland priest

The concentration camp prisoner who became a Queensland priest

Warren Losberg

Father Joachim Alfred Dlugaj was born in Cerekiew in Salesia in 1916.

One of Father Dlugaj's sisters was a very talented pianist who played classical pieces for up to six hours a day. He later remarked: "I am extremely grateful to my sister. It is said people without a musical formation are not fully educated", adding that his appreciation of good music was calming and uplifting to him in his darkest days.

After attending German and Polish schools, he studied chemistry and on graduation in 1939 worked for a time in his father's pharmacy.

Following the Nazi invasion of Poland his family had to move to a grandmother's home and when the Nazi persecution intensified, Joachim escaped to Slovenia, but was captured by the Germans and put into a concentration camp at Begunie.

In March 1945 he finally escaped to Innsbruck (Austria) before finding his way to Brussels to rejoin his family. He went to England in 1946, where he worked and mastered the English language, and then in 1949 set out for Sydney, working there briefly before moving to Brisbane. Here he was offered a position as manager of the Friendly Society's pharmacy at Ayr, North Queensland, in 1950.

Father Dhigaj later recalled: "The hardships under Hitler and Stalin and in foreign labour camps turned out to be a blessing for me. I fear for those who live under the circumstances they do today. God has a plan and that is what we have to accept".

Several years later, after a long period of prayerful reflection, he spoke to Bishop Ryan of Townsville, who accepted him as a candidate for the priesthood. He commenced studies in 1955 and was ordained in Sacred Heart Cathedral on 29 June 1961.

Father Dhigaj commenced pastoral work assisting the parish priest of Mundingburra, Father W. Grennan, and over the following decades served as assistant and parish priest in many parts of the Townsville Diocese, including Julia Creek and Mt Isa.

He was for a time chaplain to the Mater Hospital, Townsville, from where countless patients of all persuasions became his lasting friends. His sincere and holy influence was an inspiration to many and a number of seemingly miraculous death-bed conversions were attributed to him.

On 11 June 1990, the Traditional Latin Mass returned to Townsville, and for the next twelve years Father Dlugaj celebrated it without fail at 11am each Sunday.

He was a priest who exuded goodness, generosity, humility and love for God, Our Lady, the Holy Father, the Church and all mankind.

He is survived by his sister Dorothy, the only remaining member of his family. She was with him and remained at his bedside in the closing hours of his life on the afternoon of 15 September 2002.

Although very humble himself, Father had a deep appreciation of the dignity and supernatural role of God's priests and hierarchy. His confidence was rewarded by the reverence and kindness extended to him during his period of grave illness, and at his bedside, by Bishop Michael Putney.

In his homily at the Requiem Mass in Townsville's Sacred Heart Cathedral, Bishop Putney recalled: "I visited him each day in hospital and was sad as I watched him die, because he just disappeared before my eyes, withdrawing into his own private world as he faced the God he had served so well for so long."

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