Franciscan friar donates kidney to seminarian

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Claudia_photos_2By Claudia Mathis
Staff writer

There was a time in Franciscan Deacon Reto Davatz’s life in which he felt extremely anxious and fearful. When he was 19 years old, he was diagnosed with nephritis inflammation of the kidneys. After a biopsy, it was determined that the organs were functioning at only 25 percent of what they should be. “I was anxious from not knowing the timetable of the disease,” said Deacon Davatz. “They didn’t know how rapidly it would decline.”

Today, 16 years later, Deacon Davatz has a new kidney. One of his fellow Franciscan Conventual Friars, Father Brad Milunski, OFM Conv., rector of the Franciscan Church of the Assumption in Syracuse, donated one of his kidneys to him in a kidney transplant operation on Aug. 18, 2010. “It was a no-brainer for me to help out when the opportunity came up,” said Father Milunski.

New to Assumption Church, Father Milunski said that he enjoys the parochial ministry and restructuring that is taking place there. He is a native of Amsterdam, N.Y. He professed final vows as a friar in 1989 and was ordained in 1993.

Father Milunski studied philosophy and Franciscan studies at St. Hyacinth College and Seminary in Granby, Mass. and received a Master of Divinity degree in 1994 from Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C. In 2000, he was awarded a Licentiate in Sacred Scripture form the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, Italy.

Father Milunski is currently completing his doctorate in theology with a specialization in Sacred Scripture at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He was a vicar provincial of his province and is a co-director of post-novitiate formation for his community in Washington, D. C.

The two men met in 2000 when Deacon Davatz was a novice at St. Francis Friary in Mishawaka, Ind. Later, when Father Milunski served as Deacon Davatz’s formation director when he attended Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C., they developed a close relationship.

“The seed to help him was always in the back of my mind,” said Father Milunski.
Deacon Davatz was born in Switzerland and grew up in Montreal. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Concordia University in Montreal, graduating in 1998. Before entering seminary school in Washington, D.C., he attended Dominican University College in Ottawa. He graduated in 2003, earning a master’s degree in philosophy.

Halfway through completing his seminary studies in Washington, D.C., he transferred to the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He resides at the San Damiano Friary in San Antonio. “I hope to graduate in May 2011 with a master’s in divinity,” said Deacon Davatz. He was ordained to the transitional deaconate in November and will be ordained a priest in October.

Over time, the condition of Deacon Davatz’s kidneys deteriorated.
Deacon Davatz said that his strong faith has helped him deal with the challenges of living with his disease. He continued to pray as he had for many years, to both St. Joseph and Blessed Brother Andrė of Montreal, who founded the Shrine of St. Joseph in Montreal.

After reading Blessed Brother Andre’s biography, The Miracle Man of Mount Royal at 14 years of age, Deacon Davatz was so impressed by his humility and prayerfulness that he decided he wanted to work at the shrine. He did so for six years. “It felt like my home there,” he said.

When Father Milunski learned that Deacon Davatz’s disease was worsening, he volunteered to be tested to determine if his kidney was a match. Concerned about Deacon Davatz, he noticed that his coloring wasn’t healthy-looking and that he often experienced a lack of energy. “I felt like I was doing this for a brother in the community, like I was laying down my life for my brother,” remembered Father Milunski. “It was a call to be a real friar. It was something that was good and something that I wanted to do.”

When Father Milunski asked Deacon Davatz if he needed a donor, he replied that he was most grateful to him, but because his father planned to donate one of his kidneys, he said that he could instead serve as his backup donor.

Deacon Davatz was immensely touched by his offer. He knew that Father Milunski was a man of his word and the way that he offered his kidney in a spontaneous way really impressed him. “It was amazing,” said Deacon Davatz. “Here’s a guy that has everything together — he’s dedicated to the liturgy, plays the organ, speaks Polish — it humbled me to hear him say that to the likes of me. I knew I could count on him.”

Deacon Davatz eventually asked Father Milunski to donate his kidney because during the transplant surgery in May his father’s heart stopped twice. The surgery was halted because the doctors felt that it was too risky for his father to continue.

“I was at a pilgrimage in Rome, Italy when I got the phone call from Reto about the surgery,” explained Father Milunski. “I was willing to cut my trip short to come to San Antonio for the surgery if it was necessary.” He was able to complete his pilgrimage.

Father Milunski said he is relieved that the transplant operation went well. The procedure was done by laproscope; therefore it wasn’t as invasive as if it were done in the traditional way. He said he felt a little discomfort after the surgery.

“The incision is only a few inches long,” Father Milunski said. “There’s no difference in my health. I don’t feel any different and I feel well.”

Father Milunski is especially grateful for the support he received from many sources. His brother, Mark, a cardiologist in Orlando, Fla., travelled to San Antonio to lend him support. “I was glad that the surgery took place in a city that had one of our friaries,” said Father Milunski. “We went there to recuperate. They were so warm and hospitable. And my brothers came for the surgery — it was a great comfort.”

Deacon Davatz’s parents were also present during the surgery to offer support. They said that the gift of life that Father Milunski gave to their son will stay in their hearts forever and that they consider him part of their family.

Deacon Davatz is also pleased with the results of the transplant. “I feel a world of difference,” he said. “I hope to go a long time with this new kidney — 20 years is the average.”

The men recovered side by side in the hospital. Deacon Davatz remembers Father Milunski saying many times, “I would do it again. It’s still worth it.”

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