LA CROSSE, Wis. — The Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., has opened the beatification cause of Wisconsin priest Father Joseph Walijewski on March 19, a missionary known as a humble man who helped the poor of Latin America.

“This guy was a saint,” Father Sebastian Kolodziejczyk, executive director of the Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II orphanage in Lima, Peru, told Catholic News Agency.

“He was all about doing God’s will as a priest,” Father Kolodziejczyk said. “He was always working with the poor, sharing the hardships of the poor people.”

Bishop William Callahan of La Crosse opened the cause for beatification, another step on the priest’s path to possible canonization. Canon lawyer Andrea Ambrosi will be the postulator for the Wisconsin priest’s beatification cause.

An edict tacked to the front door of La Crosse’s Cathedral of St. Joseph the Worker asked for anyone with positive or negative testimony about the priest to give testimony to a diocesan tribunal investigating his cause.

Father Kolodziejczyk, who worked with Father Walijewski and succeeded him as orphanage director, said the opening of the beatification cause was not a surprise to him or to those who knew the priest personally.

“With Father Joe, what you saw was what you got,” he said. “He was a man without guile. He was very hardworking, very simple in his expectations. He lived in a very simple room.”

Father Kolodziejczyk said the missionary was “unpretentious” and “very humble.”

Father Walijewski was born to poor Polish immigrant parents in Grand Rapids, Mich., on March 15, 1924. He sold newspapers beginning at the age of 5, during which time he decided he wanted to be a priest.

In the face of academic difficulties, he promised God that he would serve in Latin America if he were ordained.

He was ordained for the Diocese of La Crosse in April 1950, served as a pastor or assistant pastor at several Wisconsin parishes and began missionary work in Bolivia in 1956.

Father Walijewski founded Holy Cross Parish in the unpopulated jungles of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The parish he founded is now part of a high-density urban center, the Father Joseph Walijewski Guild says.

After further missionary work in Ecuador and pastoral work in Wisconsin, he traveled to Peru to minister to earthquake victims in 1971. He became pastor of a new barrio called Villa El Salvador, located on the outskirts of Lima. While there, he helped organize breakfast stations that fed 8,000 children per day.

He founded the Lima orphanage Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II, the House of John Paul II, in 1987. The orphanage housed six to seven children with a married couple in an apartment. The married couple would help teach them life skills, while the orphanage helped catechize the children and gave them access to the sacraments.

At the age of 76, Father Walijewski helped establish a home for the elderly, staffed by consecrated religious. Undaunted by age, he still drove into the rainforest on Sundays to celebrate Mass for small communities of Ashiko Indians.

He died at the age of 82 on April 11, 2006, at a Lima hospital, after suffering pneumonia and acute leukemia. He was a priest for 56 years.

Father Kolodziejczyk said Father Walijewski was regarded as “a very holy person.” When the priest died, people from Villa Salvador took his body on a tour through areas he used to work in so that others could pay their respects and say their goodbyes.

Thousands of people, including several bishops, attended his massive funeral procession.

“His priestly life was entirely at the service of the poor and everything that comes with it,” Father Kolodziejczyk said. “He was not just preaching poverty; he lived it. It was not just something for show. He was actually doing everything he was preaching in his personal life.”