Fr. Julius Cilinski: 'I Wanted Them See a Good Priest'

Many stories are told about Father Julius Cilinski’s great sense of humor, but everyone, from his family to the professional football coach, who years ago served as his altar boy, agrees that he is first and foremost a great priest. Julius Cilinski, the second son of Polish immigrants Emilia and Peter Cilinski, was born June 19, 1918, in Curtis Bay, Md. Peter’s work for the railroad brought the family to Alexandria. The family grew to include seven children, Walter, Julius, Emilia (Sister M. Camilla), Mary, (Msgr.) John, Edward and Helen. Julius attended St. Mary School and the Xaverian Brothers’ School in Alexandria. The Cilinskis lived at 402 S. Pitt Street in Alexandria, across from a Jewish synagogue. Julius played with the rabbi’s children and attended their bar mitzvahs. Msgr. John Cilinski said they had a "very happy childhood," although his older brother "was always getting into mischief." "I loved to watch the pastor at Mass from the time I was four or five years of age," Father Julius said. He often accompanied his mother who attended daily Mass. At seven, Julius became an altar boy and vividly recalls leading two dozen boys in procession before High Mass. Julius attended St. John’s Military School in Washington. On a special occasion, a formal portrait of the large class had to be taken in two sections. For the first sitting, Julius, who was flagbearer, stood at one end of the class. As the photographer changed film for the second sitting, Julius ran behind the students and stood at the other end. In the joined photograph, he stands proudly with his flag at either end. After Julius graduated from St. John’s in 1935, the St. Mary’s pastor took him to visit St. Charles College in Baltimore. The pastor paid the first year’s tuition and Julius received scholarships for the remainder. After graduating from St. Charles in 1939, Julius attended St. Mary’s Seminary on Paca St. in Baltimore. Father Julius Cilinski was ordained on March 3, 1945, by then Richmond Bishop Peter Ireton. His first assignment was associate pastor at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Parish, in Port Richmond, about 20 miles from Richmond. This was a "very poor parish," recalls his sister, Helen Terry. The pastor was very happy to have Father Julius because most of the parishioners were Polish, but, in spite of his mother’s efforts to teach him, Father Julius had never learned the language. He often visited St. Peter Parish in Richmond where he met Father John Hannan, later Msgr. Hannan, from New York, who became a lifelong friend and practically another son in the Cilinski family. Father Julius invited Msgr. Hannan home for Thanksgiving and other family occasions. It was Msgr. Hannan who gave the homily at the Mass celebrating the Cilinskis’ 65th wedding anniversary in 1980 and the Mass of Christian Burial for Peter Cilinski in March 1985. In 1948, Father Julius became associate pastor of St. Paul Parish in Richmond. The church building desperately needed renovations including air conditioning and a new floor. When the bishop came to celebrate Mass in August, Father Julius supplied him with heavy woolen vestments. Later that week, a check arrived in the mail for the needed renovations. Father Julius ran a youth program at St. Paul and "was very protective of his kids," recalls Msgr. James McMurtrie. "To this day when I am in Richmond, people still ask, ‘How is Father Julius?’ He’s still beloved in Richmond … He’s a great priest. His outstanding characteristic is his great love of the priesthood," said Msgr. McMurtrie. One of Father Julius’ altar boys at St. Paul was professional football coach Bobby Ross, who remembers Father Julius as "a very special man" who coached the parish football, baseball and basketball teams and ran the St. Paul summer camp that Ross attended. "He spent the whole two or three weeks there with us and said Mass every morning … The kids looked up to him and respected him," Ross said. At school, Father Julius handed out eighth-grade report cards, making comments about each one. He kidded with all the students and knew all their names, said Ross. Every once in awhile during his coaching career, Ross answered the phone and heard, "Hey, Ross" and knew it was Father Julius. "He was a great people person," said Ross. Father Julius was assigned to Sacred Heart Parish in Winchester as associate pastor in 1955. He became pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Martinsville in 1959, St. John Parish in Wayneseboro in 1961 and St. Paul Parish in Portsmouth in 1964. Father Julius was in residence at Queen of Apostles in Alexandria from January to August 1974 before being named pastor. In 1978, Father Julius returned to Winchester as Sacred Heart’s pastor. After his ordination in 1980, Father Christopher Buckner was assigned to Sacred Heart Parish. "Those four and half years with Father Julius were the best of my life. He was like a father to me," said Father Buckner, who, as a young boy in New York, had lost his own father. "In Winchester I brought seminarians to the rectory so they could spend the weekend. I wanted them to see a good priest, the best that we have," said Father Buckner. "You have to really like your pastor to go on vacation with him," said Father Buckner of his travels to the Holy Land with Father Julius. Although he always had many humorous stories to tell on these trips, Father Julius was very serious about celebrating Mass every day, said Father Buckner. "He couldn’t tell you what else was going on, the music, or anything else, he was so focused … Every day Father Julius read his office, read from his book of daily meditations, prayed the Rosary. That was his life. It was a blessing for me," said Father Buckner. Father Buckner brought other priests to visit. "I wanted them to see an old priest who was happy. I wanted them to see that was possible ... Father Julius was very important in my life as a priest. It was very hard when he was transferred to Middleburg," said Father Buckner. Father Julius was named pastor of St. Stephen the Martyr Parish in Middleburg in 1984. On the day he drove his Buick into Middleburg, Meredith Krueger was born. Although the Krueger family has since moved to Wisconsin, Father Julius has stayed in touch and attended Meredith’s high school graduation this year. As the nephew of two priests, Father Bob Cilinski of All Saints Parish in Manassas said he was definitely influenced by his Uncle Julius. "The happiness he found in his priesthood was quite evident and I found that attractive," Father Cilinski said. Father Julius paid for his nephew to fly to Indiana to visit a college seminary and visited him there during his years of study. "My uncle’s priesthood has been an inspiration to many priests. He has a great enthusiasm for life, a joyful spirit, a human touch and a great love for the Church," said Father Bob. In June 1993, after a farewell reception at the St. Stephen parish center, Father Julius retired as pastor and moved to St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Clifton. Father Julius’ 50 years in the priesthood was celebrated with a Mass at St. Mary Church in Alexandria on March 15, 1995. As on so many important Cilinski family occasions, Msgr. Hannan gave the homily. The Knights of Columbus honored Father Julius on April 1, 2000, in recognition of his 50 years as a Knight. Father Julius holds the offices of Worthy Chaplain of the St. Andrew and St. Clare Council No. 10947 in Clifton and Faithful Friar for the Acts of the Apostle Fourth Degree Assembly in Centreville. Now, for the first time in more than 55 years, Father Julius is not living in a rectory. But he is slowly getting used to his new home at Sunrise Assisted Living in Fair Oaks. Photos of family and friends and his collection of religious and travel videos surround him. St. Andrew parishioners call, drop off a plate of cupcakes or drive him to the doctor. "Having served as a priest for over 55 years, my uncle continues to evoke loving support from God’s people. People from St. Andrew and the Knights of Columbus have embraced him with loving care. It shows how they value his priesthood and his person," said Father Bob.

Copyright ?2001 Arlington Catholic Herald.  All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2001