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

Embrace The Journey and Ride On!

It was early Friday morning when I checked email before tending to this writing. I didn’t know at the time that a light-hearted message from a childhood friend would guide my efforts. Since we’re both products of the West Side of Chicago, Trino sent a link to a recent tidbit regarding electric scooter rentals now available in some areas of the city. He asked if I’d ever dare to ride one, but quickly added that he assumed he already knew my response. How I surprised my dear friend! After acknowledging that I’d heard about the city’s scooter experiment, I added that I have indeed ridden one!  Though it wasn’t the model available in our home town, it was both electric and fast. Our eldest grandchild has had an adult-scale e-scooter for some time. Last summer, after watching our granddaughter, our sons and my dear husband ride it, something urged me to do the same. Happily, I responded to that nudge without incident and with great pleasure. I resolved that I’d ride that scooter again at every opportunity.

After recounting this accomplishment in my reply to Trino, my thoughts turned to similar adventures from years past. It was 1968. A co-worker at the grocery store where I worked owned a motorcycle and offered to give me a ride. This very responsible twenty-year-old insisted that I exchange my work uniform for jeans and a jacket and that I wear a helmet.  After complying, he biked me through our Austin area neighborhood for 20 minutes. What an awesome experience! Decades later, probably 1992, my husband’s nephew used a motor scooter to get around his local habitat. During a visit, Jimmy offered me the opportunity to ride it. With a bit of hesitation, I climbed on. For 10 glorious minutes, I rode. My last adventure in this vein occurred a decade ago. Mike’s cousin Connie is married to a former state trooper. Connie and Lou took lots of road trips on Lou’s motorcycle after he retired. Eventually, Lou traded in his two-wheeler for a three-wheeler. Though a three-wheeler may sound a bit tame, I assure you that the extra wheel only adds to the fun! When they were in for a visit, Lou offered me a ride. Once again, I happily donned a helmet and climbed on behind him.  Once again, I enjoyed the ride of my life! I guess there’s something special to be said about riding out in the open air. There’s something special to be said regarding every adventure with which God blesses us…

Today, four good men I know are embracing new adventures. Though they won’t travel on motorized scooters or cycles, they will be energized by their amazing journeys. After all, God’s love for them, their faith in God’s wisdom and the love and support of those nearby will urge each one on. On July 1, my pastor Father Greg will hand over the keys to our parish to Father Chris, our new pastor. I’m not worrying too much about the new guy trying to navigate the parish. Father Greg will stay for two additional weeks. He’ll see to it that Father Chris wears his helmet (or the appropriate jogging shoes) as he makes his way among us. At the same time, Father Greg will fine tune his own vehicle. He’ll trade in his censor for a book bag and ease from his role as pastor to that of student. Perhaps he’ll inspire his Loyola classmates by riding one of those motorized scooters around the university! I’m certain he’ll inspire his teachers with his wisdom and depth. As for Father Chris, he’s far more athletic than I’ll ever be. Whether he’s riding a scooter, a motor bike, a motorcycle or jogging through the parish as Father Greg did, he’ll embrace his new adventure with a generous heart and great gifts. If the homily he offered at his previous parish (when my husband and I sneaked in for Mass there) is any indication, Father Chris is an expert regarding God’s mercy and love. No. I’m not worrying about the new guy because it is God who welcomes this kind and humble priest to guide our parish throughout the journey ahead.  

Though I’m uncertain of their affinities to motorized cycles of any sort, I do know that our associate pastor Father Dave and our new associate pastor Father Joe also embrace the adventures ahead. Father Dave has shared his amazing artwork, his tech skills and his gentle heart with us. Now, he’ll take these gifts on the road where he’ll enrich the new friends he meets along the way. Father Joe will do the same for us here. While his experience as pastor and his openness to God’s plans for him will sustain him, Father Joe’s kind and generous spirit will sustain those he meets here.

I admit that my scooter and cycle-riding experiences seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Still, I’ve come to realize that every journey we undertake is of significance to someone. The uncharted roadways ahead are among God’s greatest gifts to us. Jesus acknowledged often that, in spite of our current locations or our vehicles of choice, we accomplish the amazing when we respond to the opportunities at hand. In Luke’s gospel (9:51-62), Jesus appeared harsh when he rebuked those who delayed embracing his call. Apparently, they had things to do beforehand. Jesus scolded them because they didn’t realize what they were missing by not coming forward to take that first step. Though these four priests have truly embraced God’s call, I’m fairly certain that they’ve committed to their journeys with a bit of uncertainty as well. So it is that I ask my parish family -And all of you!- to join me in praying for each one. To Fathers Greg and Dave to whom we’ll soon bid farewell, we promise our prayers for your safe journeys and for happiness on the road ahead! To Fathers Chris and Joe who join us at St. Paul’s, we say, “Welcome and Godspeed! We’ll be here for you every step of the way.”

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Come To Me…

Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome,
and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28

As I drove along the dark wintry road for a gathering at my parish, I longed for the days when I walked to church…

The parish church of my childhood stood just a block down and around the corner from our two-flat on Polk Street. My parents married there. My siblings and I were baptized there. We celebrated First Communions, Confirmations and funerals there. This place was almost an extension of our home. Our close proximity gave us ample opportunity to interact with the parish staff. These included five priests at any given time, the three women who worked as cooks, housekeepers and receptionists, the sisters who staffed our parish school and the janitors. Many of them passed our house on the way to their cars or to the bus stop to and from work. The sisters didn’t drive by, but they often walked to local stores or simply to enjoy the weather.

When life was difficult, I walked or ran down to church to find consolation. I habitually looked up at the ceiling to read the inscription overhead: “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest.” Every time, I found rest from one childhood burden or another. Years later, though those words were absent from the other churches I frequented, I discovered that their promise was fulfilled just the same. The truth is that wherever I am, I am in God’s company. I need only to open my heart to find God’s comfort at hand.

Loving God, help me to echo your promise of hope on my way through Advent and always.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Happy Anniversary!

This weekend, I join my parish family in celebrating our 25th Anniversary. For those readers who aren’t a part of my parish, I ask your indulgence as I couldn’t help chronicling this experience with some detail…

We were in the midst of Year 1991 when my husband-the-deacon served on an archdiocesan committee charged with determining how the church could better serve northeastern Illinois. In the midst of the process, fellow committee member Father Merold shared news of a new parish to be founded in Gurnee. Father added that Carmelites would staff the parish and a certain “Father Farrell” would serve as pastor. As soon as he learned that this pastor-in-waiting resided at the monastery at Carmel High School, Mike contacted him. When he called, Mike immediately addressed the man who answered with, “Hello, Father Carroll?” In his excitement, he’d Mike had stumbled over the priest’s name. Our founding pastor good-heartedly replied, “No, I’m Father Farrell. Can I help you?” Apparently, Mike’s error didn’t bother Father Farrell as their conversation led to a face-to-face meeting shortly thereafter. The two must have hit is off as Father Farrell invited Mike to join him at the new parish if he was interested. After sharing his impressions with me, Mike reminded me that his grandparents were founding members of Mother of God Parish in Waukegan. What an honor it would be to repeat history here in Gurnee! Mike’s enthusiasm was contagious and I couldn’t resist joining him in this endeavor.

When Mike shared this news with Father Farrell, he asked if he and his associate pastor Father Phil could meet me. Fortunately, neither my cooking nor my demeanor frightened them away because they welcomed me as well. When Father Farrell inquired about my hope for the new parish, I immediately replied, “Welcome! I want it to be welcoming. Regardless of people’s stories from previous parishes or from their lives up to this point, I want them to know that this parish is a place where they are welcome just as they are.” The good news is that my new pastor, Father Phil and I agreed completely on this point and this has never changed.

Our official affiliation began with Cardinal Bernardin’s letter of December 1991 which appointed Father Farrell as pastor. Shortly thereafter, Father Farrell convinced the Woodland School District Superintendent to rent gym space to us for weekend Masses. To prevent having to tote hundreds of folding chairs each weekend, Father Farrell arranged for the school to store them in exchange for their use them during the school week. Mike also introduced Father Farrell to Father Merold who supplied us with vestments and other liturgical items to get us on our way. Sister Christine from St. Therese Hospital commissioned her master carpenter to fashion a portable altar for us. Father Farrell secured a van to transport our liturgical equipment every weekend. In an effort to manage costs, that van served as his personal vehicle as well. In February 1992, Father Farrell and Father Phil hosted a meeting at the Gurnee Holiday Inn where they welcomed everyone interested in the parish. That evening sixty-seven families and individuals registered as parishioners. Many of those present also volunteered to chair ministries which continue to serve us today. A small group also volunteered to host a “house warming” shower for the priests to equip the house they’d occupy until a permanent parish house could be built.

On the first weekend of Lent 1992, Saturday March 7, we celebrated our first Mass as The Warren Township Catholic Community. Father Farrell selected that name to welcome parishioners from throughout the Village of Gurnee and beyond. An hour before that first liturgy, Father Farrell paced back and forth. Finally he asked, “Do you think anyone will come?” Those of us who had prepared the gym for Mass responded with a resounding “Yes!” Still, I don’t think Father Farrell fully believed us until a few minutes before 5:00 P.M. when he processed into a very full gymnasium to begin.

If I was convinced that this writing isn’t already too long, I would happily recount the remainder of our parish history. Though the process would have given me great joy, the result would not have been as telling as the wonderful people who are St. Paul the Apostle Parish. Whether you are a vintage parishioner who registered at the Holiday Inn, a member who joined us last weekend or someone who has joined us along the way, each one of you speaks to our parish history far more eloquently than my words ever could. When I reflected upon today’s scripture passages, I found that I couldn’t have chosen a better gospel for our celebration this weekend.

During this liturgical season of Ordinary Time, the gospels feature the best of Jesus’ teachings regarding discipleship. The passage we read from Matthew’s gospel today (Matthew 13:1-23) offers a retelling of the parable of the sower and the seed. Jesus told his followers of a benevolent and perhaps foolhardy farmer who planted his seed quite indiscriminately. Some fell on a shallow path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns and some on rich soil. Now if you have ever farmed or planted a backyard garden, you know well the importance of planting carefully in rich deep soil which is free of rocks and weeds. Unlike the sower in Jesus’ parable, farmers and serious gardeners select only the best conditions for their planting.

As I consider the evolution of our parish, I can’t help thinking that our founding pastor walked in the shoes of that indiscriminate sower. Father Farrell couldn’t and wouldn’t pick and choose parishioners from among those who appeared in our place of worship each week. He welcomed each and every one with absolute faith in our ability to yield fruit. I’m certain that he scratched his head on occasion as he wondered what I and many of the rest of us were up to. Still, he allowed us to plod along and to serve one another as best we could. This is the reason some of us continue to be present around Mass times on Sunday mornings. We’re providing the welcome which Father Farrell intended for us all.

As for me, I’m most grateful for those occasions when I’ve yielded good fruit like the seeds which fell upon rich soil. Regret surfaces when I consider those times when I’ve failed to produce much at all. Sometimes, I’ve been petty and shallow like seeds planted on a path where hungry birds gobble them up. At times, I’ve wasted my effort in rocky areas which would have been better left alone. Worst of all were the times I lost myself in thorny patches which threatened to choke the life out of me. What was I thinking? The good news in all of this is that all the while my indiscriminately Benevolent Sower invested divine trust in me. Somehow, God knew that my best efforts would surface and yield good fruit once again. God knows that the same is true for each one of us.

Today, we celebrate the twenty-five year of the life of our parish family where our Benevolent Sower chose to plant each one of us with our unique gifts and flaws intact. We celebrate Father Farrell Kane who led us as best he could in the Spirit of our Benevolent Sower. We celebrate Father Phil Nessinger, Father Ray Clennon, Father, Bernie Bauerle, Father Herman Kinzler, Father Dave Genders and Father Greg Houck, Deacon Mike Penich, Deacon Bob Tomasso, Deacon Mark Purdome, Deacon Ivan Siap and Deacon Bob Birck who have walked with us on this amazing journey. Though this space allows me to thank our clergy by name, it would be impossible to list the wonderful ministry heads, staff members, religious education volunteers, musicians and volunteers of every sort who have given this parish life. It is impossible for me to list twenty-five years of parishioners whose presence has and continues to sustain our parish family in ways that they’ll never realize. Today, we celebrate our Benevolent Sower who planted the amazing garden which we call St. Paul the Apostle Parish. Happy Anniversary!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved