Different languages and cultures sometimes divide members of Highlandtown's Sacred Heart of Jesus church, but on Sunday everyone wanted the same thing: a photo with their pastor.

The Rev. Robert Wojtek celebrated his last Mass in Baltimore Sunday as pastor of Sacred Heart. Wojtek is moving to a parish in Annapolis after more than a decade serving in Baltimore, where he led a large Spanish-speaking congregation during a time of transition, as the Archdiocese of Baltimore consolidated churches and the city's Latino population grew.


More than 1,000 people attended the Spanish mid-day service, which was followed by pasta, salad, and cookies, as well as farewell presentations from committees representing the church's different communities: Anglo, Mexican, Peruvian, young adults, musicians and more.

"We are very sad because he's going," said Esperanza Juarez, 51, who has known Wojtek for more than 10 years and drives from Harford County for the services. "We haven't had another father like this one."

Wojtek, 60, a Baltimore native, was ordained as a priest in 1981 and sent to Puerto Rico for his first assignment, starting a life of ministering to Spanish speaking communities.

A member of the Redemptorist order, which emphasizes missionary work and serving the poor, Wojtek studied in Spain and worked in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and New York before returning to Baltimore in 2005 to lead the Catholic community of St. Patrick and St. Michael in Fells Point.

In Baltimore — the city where he has spent the longest time as priest — Wojtek has been an anchor of the Latino community, helping new families navigate the immigration system, and listening to young and old who felt adrift, congregants said.

"I feel very fortunate and our city is very fortunate to have had Father Bob as an ally," said Catalina Rodriguez Lima, director of the mayor's office of immigrant and multicultural affairs, who presented Wojtek with a certificate recognizing his tenure during the two-hour Mass. "He is an anchor."

Wojtek's tenure coincided with the closure of St. Michael in 2011, after the archdiocese and the Redemptorists decided the buildings were beyond repair.

The decision to shut the 1845 church, a historically German church that was one of the first in the city to host regular Spanish masses in the 1990s, upset longtime parishioners, while at Sacred Heart, the influx of a larger Spanish-speaking congregation was a difficult change.

"He had a hard time," said Joan Lewczak, 74, of Baltimore, a lifelong member of Sacred Heart, which started as a mission of St. Michael in the 1870s.

Wojtek, who became pastor of the new bilingual parish in 2011, created committees to represent each country. Meetings were conducted in English and Spanish, so no one felt left out, while festivals and other parties have forced mingling. Kind and a listener, Wojtek was also "strict," said Juarez, noting who attended services regularly and who did not.

Some members left, but many returned, and new families have joined, longtime churchgoers said. The church now regularly draws more than 1,000 people on Sundays for Mass in Spanish or English.

"That's his legacy, building faith within the community and building the community itself," said Maritza Morales, 59, of Rosedale.

Gerard Knapp, who was pastor at Sacred Heart before Wojtek and now is a top leader for the Redemptorists on the East Coast, said the challenges of creating one community with members from many different cultures is one facing the Catholic Church throughout the country.

"He did his best," Knapp said. "I think it's going to take a much longer time for the community to really assimilate into one parish."


Wojtek starts Jan. 1 as associate pastor at St. Mary's in Annapolis, which also has a large bilingual community. He requested the transfer, which is not unusual in the Redemptorist tradition.

The Rev. Bruce Lewandowski, who is currently serving in Philadelphia archdiocese as vicar for cultural ministries, will be the new pastor at Sacred Heart.

Fully integrating the church will take new blood, Wojtek said. He said he is also looking forward to relief from the administrative duties that come with heading a large parish.

"I'm ready," Wojtek said, as families flocked to him in the church basement for selfies, portraits and final blessings.

Wojtek, the son of a Baltimore City policeman and a medical technologist, said he started studying to be a priest almost by accident, simply following the example of his brother and cousin, who attended a high school that offered seminary training.

"He blames us, but I think more than anything he had a calling," said brother Thomas Wojtek, 61, who unlike his younger sibling, stopped his religious training, but was one of several family members who attended Sunday's Mass and party in Wojtek's honor.

Morales, the parish secretary, said she is heartbroken to see Wojtek go, but also understands his desire for change.

"He wants to be more than a pastor. He wants to be a missionary like he used to be, in the community instead of being behind the desk," she said.