Slovakian Priest: ‘If You Want to Cook, You Must Have Love in Your Heart’
Father Francis Conka experienced Slovakia’s liberation as a teenager, and the joy of following Christ into the priesthood as a young man.
Underscoring the universality of Catholicism, Slovakian priest Father Francis Conka is a former pastor of the merged parish of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Tappan, New York, and St. John the Baptist Church in Piermont, New York, overlooking the Hudson, and is an active member and co-founder of the New York Oratory of Saint Philip Neri. A native of the small town of Zalobin near Lake Domasa in Eastern Slovakia, Father Conka admitted that he never imagined he would be living in the United States.
As he recalled his Slovakian childhood, Father Conka talked about spending his youth in then-communist Czechoslovakia. When he was 15, however, Slovakia became independent. “Then we had our freedom,” he said. “My mother was a teacher, and because she was a teacher, we were not allowed to go to church or to receive the sacraments.” But he was able to be confirmed in a different parish, and the family’s faith was growing stronger.
“My dad was a plumber at that time,” he said, “and because of the circumstances in our country then, our faith was growing in the family. Faith and food … we always had a table of plenty at my parent’s house. I remember starting our Sunday lunch; we were all around the table even though I was late. Starting our socializing and sharing food always with sayings grace. Our family was very devoutly Catholic, and we stayed connected, even though all other members are still in Slovakia.”
Although as a youngster Father Conka was an altar server, he never imagined he would become a priest. Even though my grandmother and some of our parishioners were praying for me. “I felt that there was guidance ... through my parents," he said. “My patron saint was St. Francis of Assisi. When I went to high school, my dorm was next to a St. Francis of Assisi church, so he was always with me.”
By his fourth year of college, he needed to decide whether he would continue in a university or whether he would go find a job. “I thought that I could become an immigration officer,” he said, “but something happened in my heart." He said, ”a significant encounter with Jesus. God was calling me to study theology.” That choice was intensified when Father Conka reflected on his troublesome teenage years, and he realized he had to change his life.
He said to himself, “Now, Jesus, here I am.” He entered the seminary in 1992 in the east part of Slovakia, Spiska Kapitula, the second opened seminary after 1989. During the communist era, there was only the seminary in the capital Bratislava and the communists were limiting the number of students.
He was ordained as a diocesan priest of the Archdiocese of Kosice in the beautiful gothic cathedral of St. Elisabeth of Hungary in Kosice.
Now 23 years later, Father Conka remembers chatting with four of his best friends at the seminary, and then as priests, they were talking about where they would like to be assigned. He wanted to serve a Czech and Slovakian community in “London Velehrad” and knew he had to learn to speak English. Eventually, however, his bishop offered him a request from a bishop from Chicago. For him, it was a new challenge since he did not want to leave his native country alone. After spending a couple of months in Nyack, New York, improving his English language and meeting with another three Slovakian priests, they decided to found the first New York Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Tappan in 2007.
It was in New York when his cooking really took off. “I did a lot of cooking at my parent’s home,” he said. “My dad had been a chef in the army, so he was the main cook at home. We kids would watch him and he taught us how to cook. I am so thankful to Jesus. I never thought I will use my experience with cooking in our Oratory.”
“We brought that idea here, and now we have three days of our community life at the Oratory,” he said. “On Wednesdays, we have prayers, meditation and meeting connected with dinner. Each member has his turn. So when it is my turn, I am cooking for a whole community, and on Thursdays, we have a seder like the Last Supper where the main thing was the food and prayer.”
Not surprisingly, Father Conka’s dishes are basically Slovakian. As he noted, “Our Oratory was founded by four Slovaks, and now with our new members from India and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the food is mostly fused. So in our kitchen, you will always find Slovakian and Indian ingredients and spices.”
And he always remembers his father’s words about cooking: “If you want to cook, first of all, you must have love in your heart, use your imagination instead of just following recipes and have a company to cook for.”