With faith as his anchor

First slide

There's a pin that Tom Grodek, program director of St. Martin de Porres Senior Services in Alexandria, wears on the lapel of his jacket. It's small and nondescript; you'd need to be just a few feet away to make out the shape - the soles of two tiny feet with silver finish.

The pin is called "Precious Feet" and is the size and shape of a 10-week-old unborn baby. Grodek said the pin was designed in the 1970s and has become an international pro-life symbol. He wears the pin proudly to show his commitment to life at all stages - from birth to natural death.

Grodek was born in 1956 in Chicago to Steve and Bernice, one of eight children in a Polish-American Catholic family. He attended St. Gall Elementary School in Chicago and St. Laurence High School in Burbank, Ill. His childhood was idyllic.

"(It's the life) people write books about," said Grodek.

It was an insulated world of Catholic churches and schools. Grodek said back then there were two religions in Chicago - "Catholics and publics." And they rarely mixed.

As he grew older, that world changed. He watched people he grew up with and attended Catholic school with leave the Church.

"I stayed," he said. "I had a certainty of Faith."

After graduating from high school in 1974, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. He brought his strong Catholic Faith with him.

"My faith was my anchor there," said Grodek.

At the academy, he'd attend weekly Mass, more frequently during special liturgical seasons.

His roommate was Catholic too, and he would wake Grodek up at 6:30 a.m. during Lent and Advent for daily Mass.

In 1978, he graduated with a bachelor's in electrical engineering and three days later married Marilyn. They had dated since sophomore year in high school.

Grodek's first assignment was as a surface warfare officer on the USS Arthur W. Radford. His Catholic faith preceded him.

"Welcome aboard," said the commander. "You're our new Catholic lay leader."

He took over the job from an enlisted man who was a bit more ecumenical than the Church allowed, distributing Communion to anyone who asked.

As Catholic lay leader, Grodek would take consecrated hosts on board, conduct a lay service and distribute Communion. Being an officer he could store the consecrated hosts locked safely in his quarters.

"I had a tabernacle in my stateroom," he said.

Grodek went on to receive a master's in electrical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., in 1986.

The Grodek family has faced challenges.

The father of four children, he missed the births of his two daughters, Bridget and Maureen, because his naval career took him away from home for long periods of time.

His daughter Maureen was born with intellectual and other disabilities.

"(She lives) at home with us, and will do so as long as God gives us the grace and the health to care for her."

Grodek said that Maureen's birth was uneventful, but they noticed developmental delays soon after.

After six months, they went to a Navy hospital in Portsmouth, but were told not to worry, she would develop normally. When that didn't happen they took Maureen to an Air Force hospital where she was diagnosed with the rare chromosomal disorder - Trisomy 9q.

Maureen will need care her entire life.

"We're dedicated to her," Grodek said. "She's a gift from God."

"It's all part of the pro-life story. We defend life," he said.

When Marilyn was pregnant with each their two sons, Stephen and Tom, doctors suggested she undergo amniocentesis because of Maureen's Trisomy 9q.

Marilyn had asked, "What would I do with that (information)?, said Grodek

"Tom and Stephen are just fine," he said.

In 1992, Grodek was assigned to Crystal City, a good assignment for a family man because he could concentrate on Maureen's needs. They joined Holy Spirit Parish in Annandale where he is active in the Knights of Columbus, as a lector and in the men's club.

When he retired from the Navy in 1998, he went to work for the MITRE Corp. in McLean.

Grodek left MITRE in 2007 to teach math and physics at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax. He said he loved teaching and the students, but teaching takes a lot of time and he needed to concentrate on his family, especially Maureen.

His advocacy for Maureen made him an expert on navigating the state bureaucracy for the disabled and disadvantaged, skills that would prove valuable in his job with Arlington diocesan Catholic Charities.

He left Paul VI in 2009 to take the job at the St. Martin de Porres Senior Services, which operates under Catholic Charities.

It's a job he loves.

"I like hanging around the seniors," he said. "It's a joy to see the services delivered."

There's a line that's popular around Catholic Charities. It's a paraphrase of the late Washington Cardinal James Hickey.

"We don't serve them because they are Catholic; we serve them because we are Catholic."

For Grodek, it's all anchored in the Faith.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011