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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"Struggle, study, simplicity"

Years of hard work culminates in ordination of Jamie Utronkie
By Heather Kendall
Originally posted at Barry's Bay This Week.

Deacon Jamie Utronkie of Killaloe, Hagarty and Richards Township will be ordained in Ottawa on May 30 and will return to St. Casimir’s Catholic Church in Round Lake Centre on May 31 for his first mass as a priest.
Photo by Heather Kendall
Family and friends will gather at St. Casimir’s Catholic Church in Round Lake Centre on May 31 to attend Deacon Jamie Utronkie’s first mass as an ordained priest. With more than 50 first cousins on his father’s side alone, the church is sure to be packed.

Deacon Utronkie, his older brother and two sisters grew up on Mask Road (west of Simpson Pit Road) and they are the fourth generation to live there; his parents Jerome and Patsy Utronkie operate the Natural Waters Trout Farm.

He attended St. Casimir’s Catholic School and Madawaska Valley District High School before heading to Carleton University in 1998 to study commerce. While finishing his third year there, he became ill.

“I had a lot of abdominal pain,” he says. “I was bleeding, I was losing weight and I was tired. I didn’t know what was wrong and neither did the doctors.”

He says he grew desperate to discover what was causing his illness.

“I was ready to face whatever it was – good or bad,” he says. “I just had to know what was wrong.”

There were some mornings Deacon Utronkie couldn’t get out of bed and he began to wonder if he was dying. He turned to prayer and promised God he would surrender his life to Him, in whatever capacity He chose, if the cause of Deacon Utronkie’s illness was revealed.

“I kept seeing my life from the end,” he says. “I looked back to see if I had regrets. I didn’t, but I saw that glorifying God meant a lot to me. I thought I could help people along their faith journey – that’s when the possibility of the priesthood came to me.”

In January of 2002, he finally got a diagnosis: he had ulcerative colitis. He was put on powerful drugs and went into remission. He continued to lead a busy life – full time studies at Carleton, full-time work at a bank and a Catholic Outreach program at the university. He was setting himself up to burn out, he now says.

After the diagnosis, he wanted to keep his promise to God, but was not sure what path was the best to take.

“I was keeping all the doors open.”

During this time, Deacon Utronkie was attending Holy Rosary Parish in Ottawa, which is run by the Companions of the Cross. He found he was attracted to how they preached, their mission and their vision. He decided to visit with that community to see if it was right for him. He stayed for a week in April, 2002 and while there he went through the application process.

The Companions of the Cross believe in living simply, detached from material things; they are committed to cooperating with bishops of the dioceses. The community’s beginnings date back to 1984, when Fr. Robert Bedard, a seminarian, and two others planning to enter the seminary began to meet regularly to provide spiritual support to each other. By 1985, a vision for ministry had crystallized: participation in the renewal of the Church through an effective evangelization founded on looking to the Cross. There are currently five communities – Ottawa (the home base), Toronto, Halifax, Houston Texas and the Philippines.

Back at the bank, Utronkie came across a job posting for a full-time teller and decided to apply. When he didn’t get the job, he took it as a sign that he was not to pursue a career in commerce. However, his boss then recommended he be interviewed for a loan manager position.

“I did the interviews, but by this time I was leaning towards joining the Companions of the Cross community,” he says.

April 18, 2002 was a pivotal day. It was the anniversary of the death of his beloved grandmother and on that day he had two key telephone calls. The first was from Fr. Bedard, founder of Companions of the Cross, who informed him that he was accepted into the community. When he hung up the phone, there was a message waiting: his boss at the bank said he had great news.

“I called him back and asked if I could talk to him about the news the next day. I wanted to spend the evening reflecting on what I should do.”

The bank position would give him financial stability, job security and room for advancement, but he realized that these motives were materialistic. On the other side of the coin, life with the Companions of the Cross meant no financial security.

“My illness taught me that material things pass away,” he says. “Something about being disconnected from material things appealed to me. I didn’t want to be attached to ‘stuff.’ So I felt peaceful about joining the community.”

The following September, he and 17 others joined the Companions (only two of the 18 are left). The first two years – called the applicancy – are a period of discernment to “make sure this is what you want.” He spent four months at the Formation House in Combermere; in all he had a term of formation, two terms of philosophy and another term of formation. They were the most difficult two years – spiritually, physically and psychologically – of his life.

“I had a nasty relapse of colitis while in Combermere,” he says. “I began to wonder if I’d made a mistake.”

By Christmas, his weight was down to 100 pounds. His specialist ran tests and made an appointment for him early in the morning of Jan. 2, 2003. He was shown pictures of the colonoscopy test.

“A normal colon is pink,” he says. “Mine was black. The ulcers had ruptured. I didn’t want to hear that at age 23.”

The results put him back in a state of turmoil and anger. The doctor recommended radical surgery to remove his colon and rectum. Deacon Utronkie was put on prednisone and had to wait nine months for the surgery. The drug put him in remission and he gained 60 pounds during the wait. In October, just after he’d entered his second year of applicancy, he had his operation. He was off school for seven weeks, but found the community was very supportive.

“It was a good place for me to be,” he said.

In April, 2004, he had a second surgery, with nine days in hospital and another 10 recuperating at home. He then did a retreat to decide if he would make the temporary commitment to the community.

“I had a lot of anger and confusion with regard to what I had in my mind about what seminary life would be like,” he said. “Why would God take me off track with the surgeries and recovery time? The sense I was getting in my prayer time was that my sickness was not a diversion, but was part of the journey I needed to do.”

He says his experience has given him more empathy for those who are ill.

“I understand the spiritual turmoil one goes through,” he says. “It’s hard to understand when you’re going through it, but when you look back, you understand God allowed it so you can grow.”

It’s been five years since the surgeries and his health has been good, he says. He studied theology for three years at Dominican University; last September he was ordained a deacon in Ottawa. He has been a part time student at St. Paul’s University, doing studies in canon law. As deacon, he can perform some sacraments (baptisms, weddings); he can also do funerals.

“A deacon is sort of the first stage of holy orders,” he says. “There are permanent and transitional deacons; I’m transitional, which means I intend to become a priest.”

He expects to be ordained in Ottawa May 30 and will hold his first mass (a mass of thanksgiving) as a priest on May 31 at St. Casimir’s.

His family is proud of him and supports his decision. He says it took his father a long time to adjust (“he always saw me as married with kids”), but his mother was immediately supportive. His sisters had mixed reactions at first and his brother, who he’d been living with while in university, was not surprised.

He is looking forward to full-time ministry and should learn where he will be posted before his ordination.

“The excitement hasn’t hit me yet,” he says. “But I’m content with my decision.”

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