By Meg McSherry Breslin
Tribune Staff Writer
September 3, 1998

Rev. David John Staszak was the kind of priest who was greeted by scores of smiles as he walked the streets in the Pilsen neighborhood he served for 41 years. His parishioners affectionately called him "Father David."

He was also the kind of priest who believed in acting fast when he recognized a community need. That spirit drove him to seek grants and local funding for two homeless shelters in Pilsen, one for homeless men and another for women and children. He was also a chairman of the Pilsen-Little Village Habitat for Humanity program, working to secure better housing for area residents.

After years of directing the shelters and devoting himself to the community he loved, Father Staszak, 72, died Sunday following a heart attack in Waukesha, Wis. He had moved to his native Wisconsin a few months ago after retiring last year.

Residents of Pilsen, which is predominantly Hispanic, remember him as an extraordinary priest, a simple and modest man most comfortable in jeans and T-shirts as he went to work in the neighborhood.

"Father was the pope of Pilsen," said Helen Delacruz, a longtime Pilsen resident who became one of Father Staszak's many fans. "He was a priest like a priest should be. He would give people the shirt off his back. He founded the shelters, and he was so dedicated to the people of Pilsen. He was a saint in my book."

Father Staszak grew up in a Polish family, the youngest of 14 children. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and was ordained a Dominican priest in 1955.

His first assignment was as associate pastor of St. Pius V Parish in Pilsen. At the time, the community was largely Polish, and Father Staszak's Polish-language skills allowed him to quickly develop a close rapport with his parishioners. As the neighborhood changed, he learned Spanish so he could better relate to the Hispanic community he served.

By the early 1980s, Father Staszak began to notice a growing number of homeless people sleeping on the streets and in abandoned buildings near the church. He decided to open a shelter for homeless men and spent months seeking government and community funding to get it started.

The San Jose Obrero Mission opened in 1981 in rented space at a community center, but a fire destroyed the building. After securing more funding, he quickly opened a new shelter at 19th and Loomis Streets. Father Staszak left St. Pius in 1987 to become the shelter's full-time director.

Father Staszak is survived by four brothers, Joseph, Harry, Leo and Florian. Visitation will be from 4:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday, with a wake service at 7:45 p.m., at St. Pius Church, 1909 S. Ashland Ave. Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Friday at the church.