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Priest survived Andrea Doria disaster

Obit phoReverend Richard Wojcik

Obit photo of the Reverend Richard Wojcik

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Updated: March 2, 2013 11:57AM

A late-night Scrabble game may have saved the life of Rev. Richard J. Wojcik.

He was returning from studies in Rome, playing Scrabble in the ship’s lounge on the Andrea Doria, when he felt something unsettling.

“It was as if someone, coming behind you, kicked the back of your chair,” said Father Wojcik.

In fact, it was the impact of the S.S. Stockholm, a Swedish ship that plowed into the Andrea Doria, an Italian liner, on a foggy night off the Nantucket coast on July 25, 1956.

He was about to experience one of the world’s most notorious maritime disasters, filled with the cries of screaming passengers, and decades of the rosary, as he and other priests worked to calm the voyagers.

Of about 1,706 passengers and crew, 46 people on the ship died.

Father Wojcik lived to be 89. He died Saturday, after spending nearly 35 years as director of music at Mundelein Seminary.

In an oral history of the disaster compiled by then-seminarian Kyle Lee, Father Wojcik described returning to his stateroom, destroyed by the collision. “I look across the room and my bed has been ripped from the wall and cut in two, which says if I had gone to bed like a good priest. . . I’d probably be sliced in two pieces.”

In another interview with Lee, Father Wojcik’s cabin mate, Msgr. John Dulciamore, recalled what Father Wojick said when he saw their room. “Don’t come in here,” he told Dulciamore. “There’s no outside wall. The outside wall is disappearing and it’s just the ocean.”

A poignant parting happened in the room next to his, Father Wojcik told Lee. The impact pinned a woman into the workings of her mattress. No matter how hard he tried, her husband and crew members couldn’t free her. Her husband obtained medications from a doctor on board, Rev. Wojcik said.

When the ship was close to sinking, “He took the medication, and he gave it to his wife to benumb her, I guess; put her to sleep. And he left her . . . he left the room.”

Grasping onto the listing walls, he and three other priests — including Chicagoans Bishop Raymond Goedert, and Dulciamore, who died last November — consoled passengers.

“We recited the rosary together. We tried to calm down the people, anybody who tried to yell or scream, we’d get to them quickly, quiet them down,” Father Wojcik told Lee. He performed mass confessions, absolving people of their sins.

Ironically, on the day of the collision, he told Lee, he stood on the deck, noticing the fog, and thought of another maritime catastrophe: “We were talking about the Titanic that afternoon.”

The priests stayed on the ship until the end, leaving only when the doctors and mechanics did. “We just grabbed the ropes and shinnied down into the lifeboats,” he said.

He lost a treasured music book that contained Gregorian chants for mass, including 15 years of notations, according to a book about the disaster, “Desperate Hours.”

But the tragedy taught him that it was more important to help others than worry about possessions, he told Lee. To the end of his days, he kept a picture of the Andrea Doria in his room. “Every morning, when I wake up, that’s one of the first things that I see on the wall. It’s always a reminder that whatever is happening is providential,” he said.

“Father Wojcik spent his life expressing his love of God by training seminarians and others to praise God in song,” said Cardinal Francis George. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he were now teaching the angels.”

“He was an incredibly humble man, very quiet, and immensely dedicated to the job of preparing seminarians to serve the church musically,” Lee said.

Father Wojcik graduated from St. Bruno School on the Southwest Side, Quigley Prep and Mundelein Seminary, according to the archdiocese. He served at St Mary of Perpetual Help parish in Chicago and Prince of Peace parish in Lake Villa.

He is survived by a brother, Eugene. His wake is 3 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Kristan Funeral Home, 219 W. Maple Ave., Mundelein. His funeral mass is at 10:30 a.m. Friday in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at Mundelein Seminary. Cardinal George will be the main celebrant and the Very Rev. Robert Barron will deliver the homily.

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