Diversity personified: Rev. George Omwando greets his parish at St. Catherine - St. Lucy Church.Photos by JENNIFER WOLFE/Contributor

Fr. George Omwando stepped to the microphone at St. Catherine-St. Lucy Catholic Church on Sunday, July 1, and looked out over the pews at the black, tan and white faces who were waiting to hear their new pastor give his first homily.

He began by saying that, since he was born in Kenya, he was going to teach them how to say something in Swahili and asked the parishioners to repeat after him, “Hakuna matata.”

“That’s good,” he told them after their second try and with a big smile added, “But you have an accent!”

The church erupted in laughter. They enjoyed their new pastor’s sense of humor, but they also understood his point. In a genuinely multicultural church, everyone is from “another culture.” Everyone, as it were, has an accent. Fr. Omwando’s new parish, standing right on Austin Boulevard, has a long history of living amid change and diversity. The longtime members know from experience how difficult it is hold a parish together when the members see reality through many different cultural lenses.

Scholarship on multicultural churches confirms that making e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) is a daunting task. Charles Foster and Theodore Brelsford in We Are the Church Together write, “Uncertainty characterizes these communities in a myriad of ways. The norms in diverse communities are continuously up for grabs. What is ‘good’ music? What is ‘proper’ attire, or ‘courteous’ behavior or ‘normal’ breakfast food or ‘traditional’ Christian beliefs or practices?”

In many ways, Omwando seems uniquely suited to his new parish. Born in a traditional rural Kenyan village where “I would go to fetch water from the river and boil it for drinking” and walked 8 miles roundtrip to go to school and back, he learned to adjust to big city life at the boarding high school he attended in Nairobi. He then had to adjust to American culture when he enrolled at Mundelein Seminary in 2003.

“But things are different culturally in Nairobi than in Chicago,” he said. In Nairobi, if you walk into a restaurant and people are seated at a table with one empty chair, you are welcome to sit and have a meal with them. “In the United Sates,” he observed, “everyone sits alone.

“Here people are always busy. In Kenya if I tell you, ‘Let’s meet at 10 a.m.,’ that’s the time I leave the house. If, on the way, I meet someone I haven’t seen in a long time, I might stop and talk or even have a cup of tea with him. I make an allowance for some time between 10 and noon. Now, I’m so much with American time that I get mad when someone is late.”

Adjusting to change

The members of St. Catherine-St. Lucy responded to the humor in their new pastor’s homily because they, too, have lived through major changes.

Jim Hargodan — the pastoral associate, director of religious education, and member of the parish for 35 years — said that St. Kate’s (as it is still called by locals) was a prestigious church back in ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Growing up near where the Eisenhower Expressway now intersects with Western Avenue, he recalls thinking, “Oak Park is where the rich people live.” The neighborhoods on both sides of Austin, he said, were very different then, racially and economically.

Rapid resegregation in the 1960s resulted in the closing of St. Lucy Parish on Lake Street, just east of Austin Boulevard, in 1974. The members of that church then joined those worshiping at Austin and Washington to form St. Catherine-St. Lucy Catholic Church, just when racial tension was high on both sides of the boulevard. Hargodan gives a lot of credit to Rev. John Carolan — the pastor at the time and now the pastor emeritus of St. Catherine-St. Lucy.

“He did everything he could and did it well,” said Hargodan, “to make sure the folks from St. Lucy felt at home here.”

As often happens when neighborhood demographics are changing, the newly merged church continued to lose members and as a result, faced financial challenges.

Those were also the years following Vatican II when major change was happening inside the Catholic Church. Overnight the liturgy changed, nuns dressed differently and pursued ministries other than teaching, and priests were being laicized and getting married. A gifted nun who worked at the parish 1979-1991, Sr. Teresita Weind, created controversy when she gave homilies at St. Catherine-St. Lucy.

“We don’t always welcome changes,” said Hargodan of those years at the end of the 20th century, “but we embrace them.” That, he said, is part of the identity of his parish. Somehow, enough of the members found a way to embrace change and transform it into a blessing instead of running away. Hargodan seems to think his congregation is entering another stage as he sees an influx of new people — and priests.


Diversity reassurance


Mary Bird, a member of the parish, said she’s happy Omwando is a good preacher, but the most important quality she wants in her pastor is the ability to deal effectively with the change and diversity in and around her church when he’s not in the pulpit or on the altar.

“I think our strength lies in our coming together despite and sometimes because of our great diversity,” Bird explained, “racial, socioeconomic, ethnic, political, gender, sexual orientation, abilities and disabilities and a wide range of educational backgrounds.”

She liked what she saw when she took her new pastor to a youth center, called the Peace Corner, in the Austin neighborhood as a way of introducing him to some of the diversity surrounding the church.

“I wanted Fr. George to meet some of the young people from Austin and to become familiar with the struggles of some of our neighbors there,” she said. “I think the staff and young people at the Peace Corner enjoyed meeting Fr. George and vice versa; he got right into an air hockey game with a young man.”

Bird’s concern fits with a characteristic of congregations that Foster and Brelsford found to be thriving in the midst of diversity and change. They wrote, “Members of these congregations increasingly expect to encounter the working of the Holy Spirit most poignantly at the intersections of their diversity. … [They have] a willingness to live into the ambiguity arising from the gaps among those differences.” (pp. 120-121)

Matt Quilty, secretary of the Parish Pastoral Council, said representatives from St. Catherine-St. Lucy were able to meet Omwando at a Parish Information Night sponsored by the Archdiocese, a kind of speed dating event in which representatives from parishes that are going to be without a priest and priests who are being moved can learn a little about each other.

“They had positive things to say after meeting him,” Quilty recalled. “This parish is one of the most diverse communities with which I have ever been involved, so I felt and still feel that Fr. George’s Kenyan heritage will become another element of our parish’s diversity.”

Period of adjustment

McClane Lomax and his family joined St. Catherine-St. Lucy in January. There’s always a certain awkwardness in a parish, he noted, whenever a congregation meets a new pastor.

“Knowing that there will be a certain level of discomfort up front, just because he has to get to know us,” Lomax said, “we will be understanding and help him. We understand that change is a part of life.”

Lomax, Quilty, Bird and their new pastor seem to be on the same page because Omwando, in his first homily, emphasized how important it is to get to know the people in his congregation personally. In that Sunday’s bulletin he wrote, “I am a very open person and willing to learn whenever an opportunity presents itself. There is so much to learn from each other.”

Dr. Juan Perez, who was born in Venezuela and is a member of the Parish Council, admitted he is still getting used to Fr. George’s accent. He explained that part of what makes welcoming the new pastor somewhat difficult is that the parish said goodbye to their previous pastor, Rev. Dan Whiteside, only a week before.

Andrea Legatzke has been a member of St. Catherine-St. Lucy since 1992, so she and her family got to know Fr. Dan well.

“Our previous pastor is a wonderful priest and friend,” she said. “He guided our parish through good times and difficulties with gentle, supportive love, so of course we will miss him.”

“We all miss Fr. Dan,” said Perez, “and had our parting/grieving process. However, we also realize that periodic change of pastors is not only a Catholic Church practice, but ultimately is healthy for everyone. Our priests get to start a new chapter of their lives, and the parish gets a new perspective/leadership style.”

The way both the members of St. Catherine-St. Lucy and their new pastor lean toward the future is also characteristic of the healthy congregations Foster and Brelsford studied: “[Their] apprehension about the future of their common life … is often exceeded by anticipation of some new and profoundly transforming experience from the future.” (p. 19)

Part of Omwando’s new leadership style is an emphasis on what the Catholic Church refers to as evangelization.

“People used to come to Mass, listen to the priest and go home,” he observes. “That’s not enough. I say that everyone is a preacher.” He also wants to encourage his people to become more familiar with the Bible by reading it at home.

Doris Brown and her husband Eddie were the first African-American members of the parish. They joined in 1968, a tumultuous year in U.S. history. She holds high expectations for her new pastor, listing six concerns which include his ability to connect the Gospels to the current challenges their church faces today and his eagerness to engage in dialogue with parishioners and residents of the Austin and Oak Park communities.

“Within all of the mentioned expectations for Fr. George, my husband and I welcome him, stand ready to support him and will continue to connect with my fellow parishioners to be examples of the love of God as we support and serve each other and the surrounding communities. We will make it work,” she said.

Bern Wheel, retired and a member of the parish for over 40 years, reflecting on the transition, said, “These are challenging times, and parish ministries should be in the midst or even forefront of where the needs are. With the coming of a new pastor, some doors close and others open. We look forward to working with Fr. George and to be of service to the community. As Bishop John Spong often says in his writings, ‘Be all you can be, live life to the fullest and love abundantly.’ That is our ministry. The world is our oyster. Go St. Catherine-St. Lucy! Find that pearl.”

Hakuna matata means “no problem” in Swahili. As they learn a few phrases in another language, the members of the church at the corner of Austin and Washington are committed to accepting and even celebrating the different accents they hear in and around their community of faith.


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