He hailed from Minnesota, also known as “The Land of 10,000 Lakes.” But from the early 1950s on, Father Austin Budnick, OFM, got by fine with just one body of water in New York state.
That would be Seneca Lake, which is visible from the former St. Anthony of Padua Minor Seminary and Prep School, high above the Village of Watkins Glen. Padua served as Father Budnick’s home for more than a half-century as he developed a unique legacy in the Schuyler County area.
The remarkable life of this Franciscan priest came to an end on May 31, 2009, when he died at Geneva General Hospital from cancer, two days after his 84th birthday.
“Father Austin was the holiest and most spirit-filled person, and lived by the Franciscan rule to the nth degree. I and so many others will miss him dearly,” said Kathy Decker, parish secretary for Schuyler Catholic Community, who knew Father Budnick for more than 40 years. “Father Austin truly lived by the Franciscan rule — in love with God and all of God’s creation.”
He was born James Budnick in Winona, Minn. In 1943 he entered the Franciscan Friars of the Assumption Blessed Virgin Mary Province in Pulaski, Wis., and was given his religious name, Austin. In 1944 he professed temporary vows; in 1947 he made solemn profession; and in 1951 he was ordained in Green Bay, Wis.
In 1952 Father Budnick was assigned to the faculty of St. Anthony of Padua. The facility had once been the site of the Glen Springs Resort and had been acquired three years earlier by the Franciscans for the purpose of forming a high school and seminary for boys. During the 1950s and 1960s Father Budnick served Padua as a teacher, librarian, disciplinarian and spiritual director.
Following discontinuation of the school in 1970, Father Budnick stayed on as caretaker of Padua’s property and buildings. In 1983 he opened a free university there after the facility had gone unused for several years. This program provided continuing adult education by volunteer teachers in such areas as oil painting, scuba diving and sketching.
“I’ve always been interested in the field of education, interested in alternatives. The alternatives of the day become the conventional of tomorrow,” Father Budnick said in a 2004 Catholic Courier article.
Father Budnick — who earned post-graduate degrees from St. Bonaventure University, Catholic University of America, Cornell University and Syracuse University — was well-known in the Franciscan order for his unconventional approaches to education.
“Even where others would give up and move on, Austin, true to his convictions, remained steadfast, come what may,” observed Father Jerry Tokarz, OFM, provincial secretary.
In 1995 the Franciscans closed the free university. Father Budnick was the lone resident at Padua by this point, continuing as caretaker. Recent years saw Father Budnick continuing to assist area parishes, particularly the Schuyler cluster of St. Mary of the Lake in Watkins Glen and St. Benedict in Odessa. He also maintained involvement with such groups as the Knights of Columbus and Third Order Fraternity, even saying Masses on race weekends for crowds at Watkins Glen International Speedway.
“What’s not to love?” Eleanor Jackson, Father Budnick’s longtime volunteer secretary, remarked in the 2004 Courier article. “When you see Father Austin, you see the Lord at work. He is totally in tune with his Lord and the Holy Spirit. He is the most humble person I have ever met in my life. I have never heard him use a profanity or even say a derogatory word about another person.”
In September 2001 Father Budnick was nearly killed in a car accident in Pennsylvania. After a one-year recovery period at friaries in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, he returned to the Southern Tier and resumed his ministry rather than opt for retirement. Even when the Padua property was sold by the Franciscans in 2002, the new owner gave Father Budnick permission to still live there.
According to Decker, Father Budnick was slowed after undergoing surgery in late 2007, and he later moved to Waterloo.
His funeral Mass took place June 4, 2009, at St. Mary of the Lake Church, with Bishop Matthew H. Clark serving as celebrant. Interment was at St. Mary of the Lake Cemetery in Watkins Glen.
Father Budnick is survived by his sister, Clare Swegel of Waterloo; his Franciscan brothers; and many friends.