Tina Lillig, 64, religious educator

Visionary religious educator, wife, and mother Valentina Lillig, 64, died on Dec. 13, 2009, at Loyola University Hospital in Maywood. She was 64. Ms. Lillig, who was known by all as “Tina” had been hospitalized since Friday afternoon after suffering a stroke while working in her office at the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in Oak Park.

A longtime resident of Oak Park, Ms. Lillig was born Valentina Varias in Hyde Park and grew up in the Galewood neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. She attended St. William School, where she was class president, and Trinity High School in River Forest, where she was president of the Sodality and vice president of her class. Ms. Lillig, who was of Italian and Filipino heritage, was fond of telling her sons that she was the first non-Irish girl to serve as a class officer at Trinity, whose students were overwhelmingly Irish at the time.

After graduating Trinity in 1958, she attended Loyola University, traveling to Rome, Italy to study at Loyola’s Rome Center Campus in 1966. While in Rome, she learned to speak Italian, which aided her in later graduate studies and in her professional and personal correspondence with Italian theologians and religious educators. She would sometimes resort to Italian expressions to counsel her sons or to explain ideas that she felt English could not adequately express.

She left Loyola in 1965 without finishing her degree to begin teaching in Catholic schools, which was allowed at the time. At the age of 19, she taught first grade at Our Lady Help of Christians School on Chicago’s West Side. That class, which had 52 students, was the start of a lifelong career of teaching and working with children. In 1967, she married John Lillig, a teacher, former seminarian and Help of Christians parishioner whom she had known since she was 15. That year, she taught kindergarten at St. Attracta School in Cicero. She later taught at Providence-St. Mel High School and worked as a copy editor for The New World, the newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.

In 1968 the first of her three sons, John, was born. He was followed by Matt (1970) and Thomas (1973). The family lived in Help of Christians Parish until 1972, when they moved to Oak Park. She raised her three sons at home while her husband worked as a Chicago Public Schools teacher. During this time, she contemplated returning to finish her college degree and perhaps eventually becoming a librarian.

In 1976, Ms. Lillig entered her 3-year-old son, Thomas, in a religious education program called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at the St. Giles Family Mass Community in Oak Park. This simple act would change her life. Thomas was enthralled with the rituals and songs presented to him at catechesis, repeating songs and prayers at home in the family dining room. Ms. Lillig was profoundly affected by her young son’s behavior, which validated her longtime belief that even very young children enjoy an active spiritual life, and it inspired her to register for a training course to become a teacher of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. She was able to take the course only because it fell within a three-week period during which her husband, a CTA bus driver in the summer, worked an all-night shift and could stay at home with the children during the day.

Ms. Lillig devoted the rest of her life to the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, eventually becoming its national director and teaching courses to train other teachers throughout the country and in Europe. She worked as a catechist at St. Giles Family Mass Community, St. Giles Parish and Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park. Under her visionary leadership, the Catechesis expanded into an organization, used in thousands of Catholic and Episcopal parishes worldwide. In 1998, she published a book, The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in a Parish Setting, to guide religious educators who wished to implement a catechesis program in their own parishes. Over the years, she served as an editor and advisor to many other religious educators who sought her editorial guidance in publishing their own work.

In 1980, Ms. Lillig returned to Loyola to complete her undergraduate degree in theology, commuting several nights a week to Loyola’s Lewis Center campus. She went on to earn a master’s degree in Pastoral Studies from Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park.

In 2002, she became a grandmother for the first time. The first grandchild would be followed by five more within a three-year period. She delighted in her grandchildren, especially enjoying reading to them and taking them to her bedroom to show them the small crucifixes, candles, and religious statues that she kept carefully tucked away in her drawers. Her love for her grandchildren allowed her respite from a variety of painful conditions which she began to experience in her last few years. While she was often in significant pain, almost no one around her except her husband realized it because she never complained or expressed any resentment, and it failed to slow her tireless work at the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd or any other aspect of her active life.

When she died, Ms. Lillig was in the midst of an ambitious new project, developing a comprehensive Web site for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd that would provide, online, the numerous books and teaching materials she had written or helped publish throughout her career.

Tina Lillig is survived by her husband, John Lillig; her sons, John (Anna Lee), Matt (Laura Salvarini) and Tom (Cindy Ivanac-Lillig); her grandchildren, Eun Hae, Tae Won, Juan, Mariana, Meche, and Coleman; her brother, Angelo (Denise Fedewa) Varias; and her mother, Frances Fiscella Varias. She was preceded in death by her father, Gonzalo Varias, and her sister, Graziella Figi.

Visitation will be held on Friday, Dec. 18 from 3 to 9 p.m. at Drechsler, Brown & Williams Funeral Home, 203 S. Marion Street, Oak Park (708-383-3191). Funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. on Dec. 19 at Ascension Church, 808 S. East Ave., Oak Park (708-848-2703), followed by interment at Maryhill Cemetery, 8600 N. Milwaukee Ave., Niles (847-823-0982). In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, P.O. Box 1084, Oak Park 60304.

John Wright, 94, Former Oak Park resident,
Navy WWII vet

John G. Wright, 94, a resident of Wheaton, formerly of Oak Park and Berwyn, died on Dec. 9, 2009 at Wynscape Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Wheaton. Born on April 17, 1915 in Naperville, he served in the Navy during WWII and was recently honored for 50 years of distinguished service to Masonry. He was preceded in death by his wife, Mae LaVerne Wright.

John Wright is survived by his brother, William Wright, and his nephew, Barry (Virginia) Wright.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 18, 2009 at Wynscape Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, 2180 Manchester Road in Wheaton. Private interment will be held at Acacia Park Cemetery in Chicago. Family and friends may sign a guest book at www.hultgrenfh.com. For more information, please call Hultgren Funeral Home at 630-668-0027.

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