The Rev. John Stawasz, the charismatic priest who served St. Theresa Church in Kihei for nearly 18 years and launched its well-known Hale Kau Kau meal program, died Nov. 8 at his home on the Big Island. He was 86 and served as a priest for 59 years.
Hawaii Bishop Larry Silva celebrated a Mass during funeral services Saturday in Kailua-Kona.
Fondly known as Father Jack, Stawasz was St. Theresa's priest from 1979 until his retirement in 1997. Although officially retired, he remained active in his priesthood, serving as a priest in residence at St. Michael the Archangel in Kailua-Kona.
REV. JOHN STAWASZ, served St. Theresa Church in Kihei for nearly 18 years
"He was so kind and generous to all people," said Jody Brodie, a Kihei resident and St. Theresa parishioner for 21 years.
Stawasz had retirement income from his former 20-year career as an Air Force chaplain, during which he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel, and he was apt to pay for lunches or dinners of parishioners during outings, she said.
But he was frugal with church funds, Brodie said.
"He would never think of spending a dime of church money" on himself, she said.
With his stirring homilies, magnetic personality and beautiful singing voice, "he brought so many people back to church," Brodie said, adding that people still ask about him when they come to St. Theresa while on vacation.
"He left a great impression on so many people," she said. "He made me more thoughtful of my religion. His homilies were so touching, so full of meaning. You could learn something from his homilies."
Stawasz was born in Pottstown, Pa., on Oct. 11, 1926. He attended Sts. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Mich., and was ordained May 30, 1953.
Stawasz left a long-lasting mark at St. Theresa Church. He's credited with leading the effort to build the current church, which was dedicated in April 1985 and has a capacity for more than 600 people. And Stawasz founded the church's daily meals program, in which needy residents receive an evening dinner with no questions asked. The church hall is named after Stawasz.
"He was greatly loved in the community," said St. Theresa Adult Choir Director Kathy Worley. "He was the most amazing priest."
She remembered that when the meals program was proposed to Stawasz, after other churches and agencies had rejected it, he said, "Of course, we have to do this."
"That was the beginning," she said.
Stawasz loved animals and was accompanied by a number of dogs with names like Gertrude, Rambo and Thumper, she said. Sometimes, his dog would wait outside church for him or wander inside, and he would work it into his homily or once into a nativity scene.
Worley recalled Stawasz as an unassuming man, remembering that visitors would come to the church, looking for the priest, and parishioners would point out Father Jack, wearing a tank top and pulling weeds.
"That's the priest?" they'd ask, she said.
Stawasz composed a Hawaiian kyrie, which is still sung by the choir, Worley said.
"He was extremely musical," she said, adding that he played the accordion and the piano. "He was responsible for the spirit at St. Theresa's.
"He will always live on at St. Theresa's through the music," Worley said, recalling that he would often tell the choir, "Come on! Come on! Pick up the tempo!"
She said Stawasz once told her, as choir leader, "You with the big mouth, start 'em and stop 'em."
"He was exhibit A for 'God loved a cheerful giver,' " she said.
Worley said that she visited Stawasz recently on the Big Island when he was already quite ill.
She said that when he picked her up at the airport and began driving to town he said he was ready to go.
"I guess God heard him," she said. "He was everything a priest should be. He was greatly, greatly loved."
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.