'I'd love to live and die here' - Catholic Courier

‘I’d love to live and die here’

As St. Anthony’s Day is celebrated June 13, there is also much to celebrate for a Franciscan priest who’s been linked for more than 50 years with a school named after St. Anthony of Padua.

Father Austin Budnick, OFM, was nearly killed three years ago in a car accident. But upon turning 79 years old on May 29, he was back in his familiar role of ministering in the Southern Tier.

“He just keeps plugging along. If he were a quitter, he would be dead by now,” remarked Eleanor Jackson, Father Budnick’s longtime volunteer secretary.

Father Budnick has also returned to his beloved Padua — the former St. Anthony of Padua Minor Seminary and Prep School, high above the village of Watkins Glen, where he continued to live after the school closed in 1970.

“I’d love to live here and die here,” Father Budnick stated.

His only absence of any length from Padua began in September 2001, when he was transferred to Pennsylvania while his Franciscan order was preparing the Padua property for sale. Later that month, on Sept. 27, Father Budnick was driving alone on Interstate 80 when he collided with a tractor-trailer. His car was hurled nearly 100 feet through the air; he suffered numerous broken bones and was not expected to live.

However, Father Budnick remarked, “I’ve jokingly said I was rejected by God. The friars said I was a miracle baby.”

“His whole side was crushed and the car was a ball of metal,” Jackson added. “It was unbelievable that he survived; it is absolutely amazing.” She noted that a group from St. Mary of the Lake/St. Benedict parishes in Watkins Glen and Odessa — where Father Budnick has assisted for many years — began praying the rosary around the clock for him.

The priest recovered in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, then returned to the Southern Tier in mid-2002. He has lived at Jackson’s residence as well as at Padua, while gradually returning to regular priestly ministry in the Watkins Glen area.

“They love him over there. What’s not to love? No matter what the problem is, he’s there for them,” said Jackson, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception in Ithaca. “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.”

Father Budnick, a Minnesota native, was ordained in 1951. One year later he moved to Padua, which had been acquired in 1949 by the Franciscans’ Assumption of Blessed Virgin Mary Province in Wisconsin for the purpose of forming a high school and seminary for boys. The complex, originally constructed in the mid-1800s, had been the site of the Glen Springs Resort, which hosted such famous people as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bette Davis before closing in 1942. Hotel guests, as well as sightseers, have been attracted by the property’s stunning view and widely renowned mineral-water springs.

During the 1950s and 1960s Father Budnick served St. Anthony of Padua as a teacher, librarian and disciplinarian. After the school ceased operation in 1970, he went on to earn his doctorate from Cornell University. In 1983 he opened a free university at Padua, which had gone largely unused for several years. The free university provided continuing education for adults 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 1995 the Franciscans closed the free university, and a year later some buildings on the 282-acre Padua property were razed. By this time Father Budnick was living alone at Padua, serving as the property caretaker. He had resided for many years with two friars, Brother Casimir and Brother Marty; both are now deceased. The post-Padua School years also saw Father Budnick continuing to assist parishes and maintain involvement with the Knights of Columbus; he is a fourth-degree Knight in Ithaca Council 277.

Two years ago Martin Wojcik, a wealthy entrepreneur from New Jersey, bought Padua from the Franciscans following many years of failed attempts by other would-be developers. According to Jackson, Wojcik paid more than $1 million and has begun a massive renovation, with the hope of possibly developing the property into a restaurant or senior-citizen residence.

Though Padua’s grounds are no longer open to visitors, the new owner has allowed Father Budnick to continue living there and is remodeling a place for him to live. “No matter what, this is Father Austin’s house until he dies,” Jackson said.

Father Budnick is driving again and happy to be back in the Southern Tier, both for community aspects — “I’m very close to a lot of people” — and the scenic surroundings at Padua — “Overlooking the lake, it’s beautiful where the lake meets the horizon.”

He also foresees a beautiful future: A chapel at his new living facility is nearly completed, and Father Budnick hopes to erect a memorial to the Blessed Virgin Mary as well. “The miracle is putting up a shrine to Our Lady,” he said. He’s also looking forward to a reunion of Padua students this summer, saying, “Some of them whom I taught are grandfathers now.”

In regard to his accident, Father Budnick simply attributes that mishap — and all his other life experiences — to being part of God’s will.

“The trials that we go through on a daily basis help us understand the full meaning of our life,” he said.

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