By Megan Dooley
When Rev. John Carolan was born, now 86 years ago, he didn't exactly seem destined for the priesthood. He was born on the South Side of Chicago, to a father who worked in the stockyards, and died when he was not yet two.
His grandfather, too, worked the stockyards, and an uncle was a truck driver. Nowhere in his family was an ancestor who had been a member of the clergy.
Raised by his mother, who lived, at various times, with his paternal grandmother, maternal grandparents, and maternal aunt, he didn't have many of life's luxuries as a child. But he entered parochial school as a youngster, and credits that Catholic school upbringing with preparing him for the priesthood.
On Sunday, at a potluck celebration with parishioners at St. Catherine of Sienna – St. Lucy Church on Austin, he celebrated 60 years as a man of the cloth. Nearly 35 of those — minus a handful after his initial resignation at 65 — were spent here in Oak Park.
"Very rewarding," he called his time here so far. "I'm the kind of person, I just like to be with people," Carolan said.
Despite some early challenges and the continuously changing face of a church that straddles two neighborhoods with very different demographics, Carolan has found a place he is happy to call home.
Carolan arrived at St. Catherine in the 1970s, before it merged with St. Lucy's, located only blocks away. The Archdiocese of Chicago asked that the two churches be united, and a gradual merging of the parishes began. The St. Lucy school closed, but masses continued to be held in both churches.
Keeping both St. Catherine and St. Lucy open eventually no longer made sense, and the diocese finally completed the merge two years later. "That became the first big challenge I had since [St. Lucy's parishioners] didn't want their parish closed," Carolan said.
A shift was also occurring around that time in the neighborhoods surrounding the church. "The city limits are right out the front door," Carolan said. East of Austin, the neighborhoods grew to be inhabited primarily by African Americans, and to the west, Oak Park boasted a more diverse population. As the surrounding neighborhoods continued to diversify, so too did the church's congregation, along with the student body in the school.
Today, the school is made up primarily of black students, and the class sizes are dwindling. "It's been that way for 20-something years," Carolan said. That's in part because suburban parents generally choose not to send their kids to the school, and partly because it's getting harder and harder for city families to afford the tuition.
This year, some 15 students graduated from St. Catherine of Sienna – St. Lucy School, which offers classes from preschool through eighth grade. Carolan said it used to graduate closer to 30 students per year.
In another trend, he estimated that roughly 95 percent of today's students aren't even Catholic. "We don't force them to be," he said.
But Carolan said recent graduating classes have been some of the best in memory. "The kids are well behaved and respectful," he said. "We worked on that, to teach them respect for one another and adults. They're doing well."
They have someone looking out for them, it seems, just like Carolan did in his younger years. As a young student in Catholic grammar school, he remembers well the priest who introduced the idea of a life in the priesthood.
"He's the oldest priest in our diocese," he said. "He's 101, [and] he's still alive."
Carolan remembers being in sixth grade when he talked to him about joining the clergy. "I knew nothing about priests, really, except the ones I saw in action. They were all happy guys," he recalled. "I admired them."
Eventually he won two scholarships to different Catholic high schools. He chose the seminary and the path to future priesthood. He went on to the University of St. Mary of the Lake seminary, and was ordained a priest at age 26.
Since then, he's presided over five different parishes, including St. Catherine.
When it became common practice in the church to move priests around every dozen or so years, Carolan was allowed to remain at his post at St. Catherine.
"They called me once, and I said I don't want to go," he said. The diocese didn't force him. "I'm just happy to be here and lucky to be here."