BY NATHAN PAYNE
---- — PESHAWBESTOWN — Father Andy Buvala won’t say goodbye Sunday when he finishes his last service at the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha church.
“Indian language has no word for goodbye,” said the 93-year-old priest as he rocked slowly in his office chair. “I don’t know what I’ll say.”
The elderly Catholic priest has worked in the tiny congregation north of Suttons Bay for more than 30 years. He will reluctantly leave the community Sunday to retire in Wisconsin.
For two weeks the experienced orator worked and reworked his last message for the community he joined as an outsider and will leave as family.
“The way he ministers to the people, that will be a tremendous loss,” said Barbara Kennison of Traverse City. “And I think that loss goes both ways.”
Kennison has known Buvala for 28 years and says he is the reason she continues to make the 30-minute drive each Sunday morning to attend his services. His committment to his congregation has been shown by countless trips to the airport to help welcome members home and special arrangements he has made to provide services.
Buvala has been known especially for his willingness to adjust his services to accommodate Native American culture.
He recalls one of his first interactions with a member of the community when he arrived in the early 1980s. The woman, a community matriarch, challenged the 60-year-old priest. She asked how long he would be staying since the church had seen a perpetual rotation of new priests during the decades.
It was a challenge he responded to with his actions.
“I don’t think words mean too much,” he said. “That’s a commodity, that’s cheap.”
Outside the church, Buvala recalls the landscape when he first moved into the attic apartment above the church. There were few trees and even fewer tombstones in the cemetery that borders the backside of the building.
During the decades, he planted trees, baptized children and became part of the community.
“I had a lot of funerals,” Buvala said. “Funerals are a lot more common.”
He also made constant efforts to incorporate Native American traditions into his services. Buvala’s altar, pictures and even his sashes reflect his efforts. He even went as far as using cedar oil for anointing because of its spiritual significance in the community.
Despite his time in Peshawbestown, few people know much about Buvala’s history. He doesn’t talk much about himself, instead often directing conversations to how he can help others.
“People treat the Indian people like a pair of socks, one size fits all,” he said. “And it’s not true. I’ve been working with Indian people long before I came here.”
Buvala is the son of a Wisconsin farmer and at a young age began attending the seminary. One of 14 children, he in an area that offered few opportunities for work outside of farm life, the church appealed to him.
He went on to college and eventually worked a career teaching before moving to Michigan. He had worked an entire career before he arrived in Leelanau County.
Still, he dedicated 30 years when most people are retired to helping a small community.
“I think the thing I remember and will always remember is his generosity,” Kennison said. “In terms of giving of himself to other people. People will miss him greatly.”
And he will miss them.
Buvala isn’t sure what retirement will bring. He will live at a Fransiscan facility for retired clergy. The group has asked him to bring his trademark golf cart to Wisconsin to help shuttle other retired priests around the campus to appointments and activities.
Facing the unknown, Buvala hangs on one of his favorite quotes, “Let us begin for up to now we have done nothing,” he said.
“I’m no youngster, you know.”
Members of the church have planned a goodbye party for Buvala tomorrow after morning mass.