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    Army Chaplain, priest crosses ocean for religious freedom

    Kopec Greets Malpartida

    Photo By Master Sgt. Ryan Matson | Chap. (Maj.) Rajmund Kopec (left), Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 96th...... read more read more

    Sgt. Ryan Matson
    101st Combat Aviation Brigade

    It has been a long time since a then 22-year-old Rajmund Kopec, Headquarters and Support Company, 96th Aviation Support Battalion, arrived in New Jersey from his native Poland with $10 in his pocket, not knowing a word of English.

    "That was a little bit of a bumpy ride," Kopec recalled, "The Polish government and myself had a difference of opinion."

    Kopec, who grew up in Nisko, Poland, said he had always known God would be part of his life. About the time he was finishing up high school, Kopec said he went on a pilgrimage to the sanctuary in Czestochowa, Poland, that would change his life. It was on this journey that he said he realized he wanted to devote himself fully to serving the Lord.

    "I didn't see any bright lights or anything crazy like that," Kopec recalled. "But I was 17 years old and it was a great spiritual experience. It was at that point that I knew."

    So at 18, Kopec broke up with his girlfriend and joined the Franciscan monastery to begin his quest to become a monk and a priest.

    "When growing up in Poland at the time, by 18, you really needed to know what you wanted to do with your life," he said. "My generation had to mature a little faster."

    He had studied four years when it was rudely interrupted. At the time, Poland had a communist government. Religious freedom and the Catholic faith were frowned upon, even though a large percentage of the country's population has always been Catholic.

    "We were considered suspicious," Kopec said. He recalled the time that the SB, the Polish version of the KGB, came through his high school, looking for "dirt" on him. It soon became clear to Kopec that if he was going to continue pursuing his religious goals, Poland was not the place to do it. So he left.

    "It wasn't really a problem getting out, since they didn't really want me there," he said with a smile.

    With $10 in his pocket, Kopec headed to Newark, N.J., where he arrived June 21, 1988. There he reunited with his mother, who had come to the U.S. a couple years prior.

    "I wanted to continue to study to be a priest, so the first thing I did was started to learn English," Kopec remembered. He took classes five days a week for six hours a day for three months while living at the Rectory of The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Wallington, NJ.

    "Some priests from the Polish Immigrant Parish looked after me," he said. "They took care of my food and gave me a place to stay."

    By December, Kopec had already learned enough English to apply to college and continue to pursue his religious dreams and become a Catholic priest. Becoming a priest is a lengthy endeavor. In the United States, a priest must have a 4-year bachelor's degree, then pass a psychological test and apply for major seminary. Seminary is an additional four to five years of graduate school, to become an ordained Catholic priest.

    Kopec was accepted to Seton Hall University and worked two part-time jobs in addition to taking 24 credits a semester. Still, after having taken 12 to 15 subjects at a time in college in Poland, Kopec said he had "a blast" in college. He secured loans to help pay for his education, and on May 30, 1992, Kopec was ordained in Newark, N.J.

    Once ordained, Kopec said he was working in a Catholic parish when he heard about Army chaplains. He did some research and the idea of providing ministry in the Army excited and interested him, so he decided to give it a try. That was nine years ago. He was 31 when he entered the Army.

    "I decided it would kind of be a pay-back for all the opportunities this country has given me," he said.

    Kopec, who serves in Headquarters and Support Company, 96th Aviation Support Battalion, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, is one of only 98 Catholic priests in the Army.

    He said working as a priest in the Army has enabled him to learn more about and respect other religions, and also give him a stronger love for the tradition of the Catholic religion.

    He said he looks forward to working with and discussing the faiths of other Army chaplains and rabbis. He enjoys being in the Army but also said that every time he meets a new commander he tells them he is first and foremost a priest.

    "I will stay in the Army as long as I am able to continue to serve as a priest," he said.

    During this deployment to Iraq, Kopec, who was recently promoted to Major, has presided over Catholic services to Soldiers throughout the 101st Airborne Division, and has even got a chance to work with members of the Polish Army.

    Kopec said when he was growing up in Poland, he never thought he would ever live in the United States, much less be a Catholic priest and an Army chaplain.

    "The United States seemed like such a far away land, I never thought I would live there," he said.

    But now that he is serving as an Army Chaplain, Kopec said there is nothing he would rather be doing.

    "I am having so much fun in ministry right now, I couldn't think of doing something else," Kopec said. "This is one of the greatest blessings in my life."

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    NEWS INFO

    Date Taken: 05.01.2006
    Date Posted: 05.01.2006 13:09
    Story ID: 6192
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    Web Views: 436
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