With Gratitude…

This extremely long post offers a farewell to the Carmelite Priests who have served in my parish for the past twenty-seven years. For those who aren’t a part of my parish family, I commend you and thank you for your endurance in making it to the bottom of the page…

The writer in me wonders how I might chronicle this special day. Is it possible to feel sadness at the close of a quite remarkable era while also feeling joyful anticipation regarding the things to come? If our parish family means anything to you, you understand my quandary. For some of us, it wasn’t easy to leave friends and familiar worship spaces to build a new faith community. For others of us, this opportunity offered a glimpse of hope in the midst of the pain which had made our former parish affiliations difficult. For still others of us, the prospect of helping to build a new parish where none had been before was life-giving. Some of us who had given up on church all together embraced this possibility. We came with the hope that God’s Spirit would renew us. Perhaps this would become the parish family which we would call our own for years to come…

I call us “family” because family is precisely what our founding priests hoped we would be. To achieve this, our founding pastor Father Farrell Kane and our associate pastor Father Phil Nessinger happily welcomed us early volunteers. We saw to a plethora of tasks even before we celebrated our first Mass. Sixty-seven individuals and families registered at our first gathering at the Gurnee Holiday Inn in February 1992. During our first weekend as a parish, March 7-8, 1992, our priests, Deacon Mike Penich, Deacon Bob Tomasso and we volunteers welcomed hundreds to each of our first Masses. More than two hundred additional individuals and families registered in the parish. Our parish family grew every weekend thereafter. At the same time, additional volunteers stepped up to offer religious education and other essential ministries which established parishes provide. In every instance, Father Farrell and Father Phil acknowledged the generosity of all concerned. They consistently overlooked the flaws which with we sometimes implemented our good intentions. Father Farrell and Father Phil admitted with smiles often that they were fully human as well.

It was during those years at Woodland School that we intentionally began to be present before and after every Mass. Father Farrell and Father Phil agreed that our people needed to see familiar faces to help them to feel that we were becoming a parish family. Both remained on site for every Mass regardless of who was celebrant. Both were thrilled that Deacon Mike and I and a core of volunteers did the same. At the same time, we looked longingly toward the day we would have a church building to call our parish family home. Until then, Father Farrell drove our van filled with liturgical paraphernalia to the Woodland School gymnasium every weekend. He allowed us “do our thing” as he perched himself on the sidelines to watch. Father Phil worked beside us as we set up folding chairs and prepared our portable altar for Mass. Throughout all of this, we and our priests shared tidbits about our families, our jobs, everything else of interest and our faith. In the process, we caught glimpses of one another’s hearts.

By the time we attended to the business of erecting a building, we had evolved into an authentic parish family. This building would simply provide a permanent home for us. Father Farrell and Father Phil had taken the time to get to know us and they welcomed all who were interested to participate in this process. Building committee meetings were sometimes lively and always productive. Our capital campaign unfolded smoothly and without pressure. Our priests considered every donation a gift. Father Farrell often said that this parish church was ours to build. It would evolve into the place where we would all feel at home. In the end, this building bears witness to our priests’ conviction that the talents of our parish family members are our greatest asset.

Just prior to the church’s completion, Father Phil moved on to a new parish. His vast experience assisted his new parish family as they weathered some difficult times. While we truly missed Father Phil’s warmth, wit and generous spirit, we welcomed Father Ray Clennon with open arms. After all, it had become our custom to welcome all of our new parish family members. Father Ray shared himself with us from Day 1, throughout his six years as associate pastor and his twelve years as pastor. His warmth and generosity were second only to his wisdom and his amazing skill with a camera. While he managed to hide the fact that he is also an accomplished pianist, Father Ray found it impossible to hide his love for God, God’s word and God’s people. This physics teacher-turned parish priest offered homilies which often gave us reason to chuckle and always gave us something to think about. He joined Father Farrell in serving our parish family in both practical and quietly profound ways. Indeed, Father Ray made it his mission to welcome us to God’s table, to enrich us with his stories and to break bread with us just as loving families do.

Happily, Father Bernie Bauerle also joined our parish family to assist on weekends. Year after year, he drove more than an hour each way from Darien to celebrate Mass with us. He did this in addition to his day jobs which included administration of Carmelite personnel and finances. Father Bernie continued to share himself with us when he took on his current role overseeing the Carmelite National Shrine and Museum of St. Therese in Darien. Father Bernie always had a line of parishioners waiting to speak with him after Mass. He often heard a confession or two before returning home. When he came to help with our parish reconciliation services, Father Bernie consistently had the longest line. He never minced words in his homilies and he always spoke from his heart. Father Bernie seemed convinced that, though we are imperfect, God loves us with our imperfections intact and God simply asks us to do our best as only we can. I heartily agree!

While our parish family continued to grow, Father Farrell’s health began to deteriorate. In an effort to help, the Carmelites sent Father Herman Kinzler to us. Father Herman went to the seminary after working in business for several years. His administrative skills complemented Father Ray’s and Father Farrell’s efforts. His late vocation impelled him to feel that he was still learning when it came to integrating himself into our parish family. While he was with us for only a few months, Father Herman spent every weekend of those months in the gathering space. He was full of questions! He often asked parishioners’ names as he wanted to get to know as many of us as possible as quickly as possible. Though he was actually a bit shy, he shared Father Bernie’s propensity not to mince words. When a parishioner questioned a line or two of his homily, Father Herman listened and explained. He always took these exchanges to heart. Father Herman took his leave unexpectedly to become pastor of a parish out east where a fellow Carmelite had passed away suddenly.

While all of this was unfolding, Father Dave Genders had been busy assisting with our LifeTeen program. Though he had a busy weekday position with the Carmelites, Father Dave made time to share his weekends with us. He related well to our teens, their families and their teachers. Father Ray appreciated this effort and he felt that this young priest would be an asset to our parish family. Eventually, Father Dave was assigned to St. Paul’s where he quickly made his home among us. Numerous parishioners from the very young to vintage members have benefited from his caring ways. This tech-savvy, artistic and caring young man became part of our parish family in no time. As for me, I cannot thank Father Dave enough for his generosity and loving patience in caring for Father Farrell during his last few months with us. Father Dave made a difficult ordeal bearable for his Carmelite Brother.

One year after Father Farrell passed away, Father Ray retired. Father Greg Houck had been to St. Paul’s to assist with reconciliation services and weekend Masses on occasion. During one visit, we asked if he’d ever consider leaving his work with Carmelites-in-training to return to a parish. Father Greg said he would do this only if the parish was very special. Apparently, we met this criteria because Father Greg became our pastor not long after that conversation. From his first day among us, Father Greg has embraced our parish family and made it his own. He has schooled us in the ways of his favorite saint, Therese of Lisieux. He has revealed his own faith journey through his homilies and personal interactions with so many of us. Father Greg has approached his life among us and everything else with a passion which has drawn unexpected surprises from the most uncommon sources. He has welcomed all who have crossed his path regardless of where that fork in the road pointed. Father Greg has enriched our parish family as only he can.

In the process, Father Greg invited Father Leopold Glueckert to join us for weekend Masses. In generous Carmelite fashion, Father Leopold has done so even after knee surgery which threatened his mobility. Father Leopold has fed our parish family with both his presence and his preaching. This teacher-priest speaks to the point; another Carmelite who doesn’t mince words! He does so with such simplicity that we cannot miss his message. Behind the scenes, Father Leopold always has a kind word to offer, a bit of profoundly simple wisdom and the perfect joke to retell to your kids or grandkids.

Today, it seems impossible to express our gratitude adequately. Still, we thank our Carmelite Family for enriching our parish family. While Father Farrell and Father Phil witness our gratitude from above, we express the same to Father Ray, Father Bernie, Father Herman, Father Dave, Father Leopold and Father Greg. The Carmelite Fathers have treasured their affiliation with us and it is with heavy hearts that they return the care of our St. Paul the Apostle Parish Family to our archdiocesan priests. With deep gratitude, we ask God to bless each one of you with all you will need to continue the journeys which lie ahead for you!

Is it possible to feel sadness at the close of a quite remarkable era while also feeling joyful anticipation regarding the things to come? It is the spirit of our parish family which causes me to respond with a resounding “Yes!” So it is that we open our hearts to our new pastor Father Chris Ciastoń and our new associate pastor Father Joe Curtis. Both come to us from parish families who are deeply grateful for their presence among them and who have also had a difficult time saying good-bye. Just as we wish our Carmelites well in their new communities, we welcome Father Chris and Father Joe into our parish family. We know that God has sent only the best to care for us and we will do our best to return God’s goodness in kind!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Things That Stay With Us

It was after dinner Monday evening. Since my dear husband and I had spent the day with our grandson, I was fully prepared to snuggle in my recliner until bedtime. Mike sat a few feet away in his own chair with his laptop in position for an email and Facebook check. I would have dozed off as Mike typed away if he hadn’t begun to whistle Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. Before I could question Mike’s choice of melodies, I remembered that Danny and I had sung that song several times throughout the day. Danny is allowed to watch an episode or two of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood most days and he’s learned the lyrics to this and a few other favorites. Danny often sings them while we play. As for me, I remember every word because I used to sing those lyrics decades ago with Mr. Rogers and with our own sons. As Mike whistled away, I offered my thanks for Mr. Rogers’ influence during our sons’ formative years and for his continued presence to Danny through Daniel Tiger. I ended my prayer by observing, “Nice that those lyrics have stayed with me.”

Mike stopped whistling as he became engrossed in the evening’s Facebook posts and I dozed off. I awoke only when Mike asked me what my plans were for Tuesday. I didn’t tell him that I’d been napping and that I’d dreamed myself back to my own childhood. I’d been gazing skyward toward the white clouds which lingered above the backyard of my childhood home. Many a summer evening, I sat on a swing with my eyes fixed on the billowing white clusters above me. I loved the clouds because I knew that just beyond them God kept watch over me and my loved ones. Though my parents had never put it quite this way, their continued reliance upon our benevolent Creator assured me of this reality. “Nice that those memories have stayed with me,” I mumbled to myself.

When I finally turned my attention to Mike’s question, I told him that I had nothing special planned except to write. When he went on to ask if I wanted to see a movie and then added that the Mr. Roger’s documentary was available, I jumped at the opportunity. Mike would likely have chosen to see something else since we haven’t been to a movie in some time. Still, in spite of the thirty minute drive we’d have to make for the showing, my very dear husband checked the show times and then asked which one I’d prefer. As for me, I’d already begun to anticipate this viewing because I’d seen snippets a few days earlier. As I considered Mr. Rogers’ contribution to the welfare of so many children, I pictured him in his trademark sweater singing his welcome to the neighborhood to everyone within earshot. “Nice that his kindness has stayed with me,” I thought to myself.

The following day when Mike and I made our way into the theater, I was grateful that the Tuesday afternoon crowd was sparse. If my reaction to the previews I’d seen earlier was any indication, this would be a joyful and tearful afternoon for me. As it happened, the documentary offered far more than I expected. I recalled several of the episodes which were featured. I’d forgotten that Mr. Rogers had tackled tough topics which challenged even the most seasoned parents. He addressed divorce and death, racism and war. He featured persons with disabilities whose different bodies also housed amazing talents. Mr. Rogers explained everything in terms children could understand. At the same time, he reminded the adults who took the time to watch to appreciate the value each one of us brings to this world of ours. Outtakes with the crew revealed Fred Rogers’ humanity and his genuine nature. What we saw in those decades of episodes was indeed the real deal. What we saw in Fred Rogers’ activism in support of children’s television and in support of all of our humanity was the real deal as well. “Nice that the importance of this dear man’s work has stayed with us,” I told Mike on the drive home.

I share all of this because Fred Rogers learned from the best. When he focused upon the most important messages our children need to hear and did his best to see that those truths stayed with them, he did as Jesus did. When Jesus sent his disciples out on their first missions, Jesus hoped a few things would stay with them as well. Mark’s gospel (6:7-13) tells us that Jesus prepared his disciples carefully. After offering them the best of his teaching and the best of his example, Jesus gave a few final directives: Take nothing but a walking stick… Wear sandals and a single tunic… Stay where you are welcomed… Shake off the dust of any place that doesn’t welcome you… I can’t help wondering what Jesus whispered as he watched his best friends walk out into the distance: Remember I am with you… Reveal God’s love in every word and deed… Know that your best is good enough for me… I love you… This passage closes with the happy news of the disciples’ success. Nice that the things Jesus shared stayed with them, isn’t it? Nice that the things Jesus shared stay with you and me.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Good Samaritans All

After the funeral and burial of a dear friend’s brother, we stopped for lunch at a nearby restaurant. This small group included our friend’s family and my husband and me. When we gathered at the table, I sat across from Mike and between a fourteen-year-old boy and his uncle. Because I hadn’t seen this young man since he was a little boy, I expected our conversation to be awkward at best. I’m happy to share that I was proven wrong just minutes into our exchange. Billy and I quickly discovered our common knowledge of my childhood neighborhood in Chicago. Apparently, Billy and his dad drive through my old stomping grounds when they visit extended family in the city. As Billy and I talked, he shared stories from his dad’s childhood which have become part of his own history. I responded with accounts of a few of my Chicago adventures which have also become part and parcel of who I am today.

By the time we parted ways, I realized that Billy has developed very strong feelings regarding many things as a result of his dad’s experiences and his own, especially our responsibility to step in to help when someone is in trouble. Apparently, his dad’s experiences and recent news reports contributed to this assessment. In Billy’s mind, this is the only logical response to a person in need. I admit that I share Billy’s conviction in this regard. I lived through similar events with my mom who habitually stepped in to see to the basic needs or safety of others. Billy seemed not to be surprised that my mom intervened in a fight on a bus. “That’s the only way you can keep people from getting hurt,” he observed. “Good for your mom!” he added. When we parted ways after that day, I offered a prayer of gratitude for this encounter and for Billy. I also added two requests: That someone like Billy intervenes the next time I’m in trouble and that I have the courage to do the same for someone else.

I think Billy’s sense of responsibility speaks to the heart of Luke’s gospel (Luke 10:25-37). Luke tells us that a scholar of the law asked Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus replied with a question of his own: “What is written in the law?” The scholar answered that we must love God and our neighbor. Jesus complimented the man for identifying the means to eternal life. Unfortunately, the scholar wasn’t satisfied with Jesus’ reply, so he persisted by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” It was then that Jesus offered the story of the Good Samaritan who stopped to care for a man at the side of the road who had been left for dead by robbers. A passing priest and a Levite not only ignored the man, but also crossed the road so as not to be contaminated by him. Their concern over the law regarding ritual cleanliness -staying away from defiled people and things- kept them from helping a fellow traveler. The Samaritan, considered to be an enemy of the community, stopped to help. When Jesus asked who was neighbor to the injured man, the scholar admitted that the Samaritan had acted as a neighbor. Jesus ended this encounter by telling the scholar, “Go and do likewise.”

Though we don’t know how the scholar responded to Jesus’ story, we can determine our own responses. The Samaritan’s remarkable compassion compelled him to help the wounded man. He dressed his wounds and delivered the man to an inn to recuperate. He left money to provide for the man’s care and promised to repay the innkeeper for any additional costs. It seems to me that the Samaritan could have no more left this man to die than his own mother or spouse or child. His compassionate heart urged him to do something. As I consider the goodness which defined the Samaritan, I wonder what defined the priest and the Levite who left the man to die. What drove them to value ritual purity more than they valued the life of a fellow person? What allows any of us to walk by, to step over or to run across the road from a brother or sister in need?

Most of us will never encounter a scene which demands action as dramatically as that dying man on the side of the road. I hope Billy and all of us never have to step into situations like those his dad, my mom and recent people in the news have endured. At the same time, I do hope that Billy and the rest of us embrace life’s frequent opportunities to do what we know is right when we encounter someone in need. Each good deed will become part and parcel of who we are. Eventually, we’ll find it impossible to avoid stepping up because helping has become second nature to us. Eventually, we’ll all become compassionate Samaritans as well.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Called and Chosen

My husband’s recovery from recent foot surgery seemed to be going well. I arrived at this assessment after a day together running -I mean walking- errands. Since Mike’s right foot needed repair, he was not allowed to drive until he shed his therapeutic boot. Thus, I served as designated driver for the duration. I normally don’t mind. However, on that particular day, I had had enough by our third stop. I persisted only because Mike thoroughly enjoyed making his way up and down the aisles at Menard’s, Jewel and the Lewis Market. When we arrived at home, he was quite pleased with our progress and his endurance throughout. As for me, frustration threatened because this reflection was due and I hadn’t yet begun to write it.

My husband recuperated from our outing by elevating his overly-taxed foot and pouring over his laptop. I attempted to retreat to my keyboard, but made it only halfway up the stairs when Mike called me. He interrupted my climb with an invitation to read his niece’s Facebook post. “You have to read what Crystal wrote. It’s really nice.” I let go of my annoyance because I love Crystal and am always happy to hear from her. As I perused the post, I realized that Crystal had not simply given us an update on her life. She had also wrapped a beautiful mantle of reality around the sentiments I hoped to share with you today…

Crystal wrote, “It has been a very long week… Working all the time, the oh so fun sounds of the roof being replaced on our house, 3 teenagers at home, getting up twice an hour… not to mention we have only 3 weeks before we get to meet our sweet little girl… swollen everything at this point, and no energy… and I wouldn’t trade it for anything… Really, what is there for me to complain about… I have 4 beautiful teens, a husband that I love with all of my heart, a job, a home to live in, food on the table, a great loving family, and a little one on the way… It may not seem like it at times, but I am very blessed with all that I have…”

If Crystal had been there, I would have hugged her before running back up the stairs to share her wisdom with you. You see, I had prepared as usual by reading scripture. As I read, I found that each passage addressed being called and chosen to bring our unique gifts to this world. In Amos 7:12-15, we meet Amos, a shepherd whom God calls to straighten out the Israelites though his prophesy. Amos was a simple man who had no intention of doing anything other than caring for his sheep. Yet, in spite of his surprise over the path which lay before him, Amos did what he was called to do. In Mark 6:7-13, the disciples experienced the same. They had been drawn to Jesus by his teaching and his example. They didn’t expect to preach as Jesus did or to work the wonders Jesus worked themselves. Still, Jesus sent them out to do just that. The disciples also did what they were called to do.

When I read Crystal’s post, I found that it echoed the adventures of Amos and the disciples. I am quite certain that twenty years ago Crystal did not anticipate her current situation. I am also quite certain that she often wondered with Amos and the disciples what God was up to in her life. Nonetheless, Crystal embraced the circumstances that unfolded before her to do what she was called to do. Like her friends in the scriptures, Crystal has not been disappointed with the results. St. Paul (Ephesians 1:3-14) summed up the reason any of us find the strength to do what we do when he wrote, “In him we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things…” Called and chosen, indeed!

Sometimes, the adventures of our biblical friends seem distant from our experiences today. As I considered this writing, I struggled with the concepts of being called and responding to that call in the here and now. I wondered if those who lived in the days of Amos and Jesus had an advantage over us. After all, they received their calls up-close and personal. Then, I turned to Crystal, an extremely busy mother of teens who will soon unexpectedly welcome a new baby into her life. I found a woman who hasn’t the time to deal with another anything. Still, she looks ahead with love and with gratitude for her far too busy life. Though it was no easier for Crystal to answer the call to be wife and mother than it was for Amos to prophesy or the disciples to preach and heal, she answered. All that we are asked today is to do the same: to appreciate our circumstances, to embrace what we have and to respond to our circumstances as only we can –like Crystal.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved