OSHKOSH — Kyle Holewinski, one of seven 2016 graduates of the Emmaus Lay Ministry Program, says the program has completely changed his life. “It was a beautiful experience and program for me,” he says.
Although Holewinski was born and baptized a Catholic, his family was not active and his parents worked on weekends. He spent weekends with various other relatives and family friends and attended whatever church services they did.
Holewinski chose not to get confirmed because he had no real understanding of the Catholic faith or any other faith. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps and then studied police science. For the past 25 years, he has worked in law enforcement with the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office, including time working within the jail.
Working in that kind of environment negatively affects many people in law enforcement, he said. “I was becoming very cynical and jaded. I didn’t want to be around people. It started to affect my personal life. I didn’t care about anybody or my own family. I needed to change and figure out what I needed to do with my life before I spiraled out of control.”
Within the sheriff’s department, chaplains work with officers, families of victims and inmates. When the chaplain working within the jail was about to retire, Holewinski felt the nudge to talk with him, despite his cynical and negative reputation.
“‘Do you think I would be a good replacement for you?’ I asked him. What he said really affected me. ‘I’ve been praying for someone to come and talk to me to take my place, and here you are,’ he said.
“People really do receive a calling,” Holewinski added. “It depends on if you hear it or not. There was something driving me or pushing me to do that. You have to tune in. That’s what a calling is. You have to accept it. I believe God will try to find a way to talk to you.”
He was certified as a law enforcement chaplain through the American Police Chaplains Association and began working within the sheriff’s department.
“All chaplains who work for the sheriff’s department are volunteer ministers from area churches,” Holewinski said. “I have to walk a fine line because of church and state. It would be hard for the inmates to distinguish if I were a chaplain or a deputy at any certain time. I can’t run programs, but I can hear the inmates and listen to them.”
Holewinski also was being nudged spiritually through the example of his wife’s family. Jennifer and all her siblings attended Catholic schools in Green Bay. Her older brother attended St. Norbert College in De Pere.
“Her family has helped me get back into Catholicism,” Holewinski said. “All I had to do was watch them, their structure and routine. I found that very comforting. They pray before a meal as a family.”
He joined St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in Oshkosh and is a catechist for youths preparing for confirmation. He’s also a member of the Education Commission Committee.
“But I wanted to get more involved with my spiritual side,” he said. “A priest recommended the Emmaus program as a way to enrich and enhance my faith.”
In classes through St. Norbert College in De Pere and Silver Lake College of the Holy Family in Manitowoc, Holewinski was able to gain knowledge and skills necessary to be an effective minister in the Diocese of Green Bay. He focused on the specialized tracks of faith formation and youth ministry and attended classes part time for four years.
“It’s been an eye-opener,” Holewinski said. “It has allowed me to change how I look at everybody as people. I don’t do my job now just because it’s a job. I really look at people. It’s easier for me now to empathize and put myself into that person’s spot. It’s amazing. This is an educational program and it has opened my eyes, my heart and my mind.”
He likes the fact that the courses are taught by priests and sisters who have longtime experience in the field and are teachers of “top-notch quality,” he said. “They’ve done it. They’ve worked it. It’s not like any other program I’ve been involved with.”
He said the Emmaus program “helps identify a person’s strengths and will make you a better version of who you are. You learn not to be so humble. If you’re identified as having compassion, then use it. I’m a compassionate person. I believe the inmates can see that in me. They can tell when you’re not sincere. The Holy Spirit has allowed me to project that so the inmates can see that.”
Holewinski said being a part of the Emmaus program has had far-reaching effects. His own view of his place in the world has been adjusted. “I am number three,” he said.
“There’s God, then everyone else, then there’s me.”
He said he’s also seen changes in his family because of his new direction. “They were, at first, surprised that I wanted to do this,” he said. But his wife and family have been supportive, and when Holewinski chose to get confirmed, Jennifer was his sponsor.
Their son, John, 16, is a sophomore at Lourdes High School in Oshkosh. John prays and talks about religion, said his father, and he recently asked to lead a prayer before he and his father went turkey hunting together.
“Just as I observed my wife’s family (and their faith), I believe he’s observed me,” Holewinski said. “There’s an influence, and I believe it’s a positive influence. It’s something you experience. It’s in your heart and soul not something automatically you can see.”
Holewinski plans to retire from the sheriff’s department in four years and hopes to begin a second career working in ministry at St. Raphael the Archangel Parish.
“At the very least, I’m going to be a volunteer chaplain for them on patrol, in the field,” he said. “It was something I was gently being pushed toward all along. I believe in where I am now and the direction I’m going. Now I have a purpose and a direction. It’s up to me to make sure I stay on the right path.”