The life of a hermit, away from technology and with limited access to the outside world, is not a life most people would choose. In some cases, however, an order such as the Order of St Paul the First Hermit, chooses you.
Fr Peter James Strohmayer OSPPE, Provincial Administrator and Assistant Priest at St Margaret Mary’s Parish in Merrylands, initially studied at Macquarie University to be a teacher.
“I thought my life was going to follow the path of Religious Education Coordinator, Assistant Principal, then Principal,” Fr Peter said.
Fr Peter grew up in a Catholic Polish/Austrian family and despite straying from the faith in his early high school years, the local Antioch group came knocking when he was in Year 11.
“I was in my dressing gown and the Antioch group came to my house. My Mum didn’t give me a choice, I had to go,” he recalled.
Fr Peter became heavily involved in the Antioch youth movement, beginning in Cabramatta and ending in Smithfield.
“A friend told me the Polish priests were now at Smithfield and could do with my assistance,” Fr Peter explained.
“It was after a Saturday evening Mass that I met the then parish priest of Smithfield, Fr Albert Wieslaw Wa’sniowski OSPPE. He told me to come in for a coffee with the Pauline Fathers, and I guess I’ve never left.”
But Fr Peter was still pursuing a career as a teacher and completed his four-year teaching degree.
“I had gone for a job in Granville but I was unsuccessful. I told Fr Albert that I hadn’t got it and he said, ‘Thank God, my prayers have been answered,’” Fr Peter said with a laugh.
“We were sitting in the church at Smithfield and Fr Albert said I had to make a decision. I was going to turn 30 and I had to choose whether to stay and discern the priesthood or to pursue teaching and marriage.
“I said I would give it a go but that I couldn’t guarantee anything, and so I entered the novitiate after World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney.”
Fr Peter had four days to pack and pen his final reports as a contracted teacher. He packed his life into a 20kg suitcase and set off for Poland.
“I couldn’t even speak the language. I could say basic things like ‘cup’, but I couldn’t put sentences together,” Fr Peter explained.
“The word for soap and the word for honey are similar in Polish. So I went to my Novice Master and I asked him for honey so that I could shower. Needless to say, he gave me a very strange look.
“But it was a good group. We spent nearly two months in Kraków and then we moved to the Novitiate in Lesniow, which is the Sanctuary of Our Lady Patroness of Families. It was essentially a huge farm.”
Fr Peter had no access to electronic devices. He was allowed to send one letter home a month to his parents and one letter to a Religious, and his parents could call him once a month for 15 minutes.
“There was a lot of frustration. Before I left, I had my own car and my own money. I had certain freedoms, but in giving them up, I gained a new level of freedom,” Fr Peter explained.
“You gain so much in the brothers who surround you. We’d start the day at 5am and be in bed by 10pm. We had to grow and pick tomatoes and vegetables, hew trees, shovel coal and serve Mass.”
The pathway to Fr Peter’s vocation had been paved.
“I had visited Europe in 2007 before the novitiate and I now realise that was the start of my vocation. After visiting Jasna Góra, I was mesmerised by Our Lady’s gaze in the Icon of the Black Madonna,” Fr Peter said.
“I do not suit the order at all. It’s a semi-contemplative Order of Hermits. Even in Poland, I would get in trouble for being too loud. They knew where I was by my laugh. But I suppose the Holy Spirit has a funny side.
“That is why I am absolutely sure that you do not choose your order, your order chooses you.”