Shareable and delicious, pizza is a dish for friends. Parishioners and staff at St. Joseph’s in northwest Calgary know this from experience. This year their priest, new to the parish since August 2020, served them up over one hundred of his own homemade pizzas, spread over several occasions.
Fr. Marek Paczka described himself as “not a cook,” but nonetheless decided he might be able to learn to make something as simple as pizza.
The story behind the pizzas is both sad and hopeful. Fr. Marek spoke about an Italian couple who befriended him when he was a parish priest in Port Alberni, BC.
“They invited me to dinner and we became friends. I would dine at their house at least once a week for 15 years, even when I moved parishes and had to drive 110 kilometers.”
Having fallen in love with Italian culture while spending 2 years in Rome, Fr. Marek found it easy to spend time with this special couple and their friends around the dinner table, and was even included on special occasions like Christmas and Easter
“There is something about sitting down together and just facing each other,” he said, adding that in Italian culture it is common for families and friends to spend thousands of hours together at the table.
He spent many hours with his friends eating wonderful meals at dinner parties, and mentioned mushroom picking and enjoying produce from their vegetable garden.
This past year, the husband half of this couple passed away fairly suddenly from cancer. Fr. Marek was shocked.
“I didn’t make it to see him before he died,” he said, “but I did make it to his funeral.”
Because he wanted to preserve something of the friendship he had with this man and his wife and guided by his feelings for Italian cooking, Fr. Marek said he asked another mutual friend, Elvia Orli, how to make pizza.
“I could never cook the wonderful Italian meals that my friends made,” he explained, “but I thought I could try to make pizza,” he said.
“I tried and tried and tried and it never worked. I gave up when my dough didn’t rise. I had done something wrong. But this year I thought I’d try again, so I phoned Elvia and asked her again for the recipe and had her tell me what to do.
“I realized it was simple, and this time I was successful. I was shocked because I’m not a cook. It’s just flour and water, yeast and salt and a little bit of oil.
“I made four pizzas with ham and veggies and some chives from the garden here (at St. Joseph’s) and I tested it first myself, secretly. Then I shared with my secretary and eventually a few of the other staff.
“Then one Sunday after Mass I shared pizzas with the parish.”
Thus far, Fr. Marek has made over one-hundred-and-ten pizzas for various people in his parish. “I thought that once I’d made one-hundred, I could be comfortable with it.”
“I was just fascinated by the fact that I was making pizza. I have used over 30 kilograms of flour, not to mention the meat and other ingredients.”
Inspired by a friendship and helping his relationship to his parish, pizza making has become a hobby, though Fr. Marek said that cooking has never been his passion.
He also cites the attitudes that bring communities together as another inspiration for the pizza.
“I learned this growing up and also from my time building houses in Zambia, that material things are not as important as people. The poor appreciate things, and they have a culture of making things themselves, and sharing, contributing to community life.”
“My mother grew up in a poor family and we were poor, but she shared what she had, and I suppose I wanted to share what I can do with the people around me. There is a joy in helping someone with the essentials, and I guess I am feeding people.”
A few parishioners had great things to say about Fr. Marek’s pizzas,
“The pizza is delicious, writes Susan Couture, “but what makes it so special is the love that goes into it. “The topping is always a nice surprise. We had one that had leek on it which I’ve never seen on a pizza before but it was delish.” Mia Drewniak writes, “I love the crust and the healthy toppings. Lots of garden herbs and even leeks made it on to the pizza. Inspiring!”
Out of a desire to honour dear friends, to honour a mother’s example and to serve his parishioners, Fr. Marek has in a unique way brought together tradition and connection.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers