Don Giannetti blows out candles after a recent Mass at St. Edmund Catholic Church in Oak Park, where he is parish assistant. Below, he places the sacred vessels in a vault in the St. Edmund sacristy. A lifelong parishioner, he is also the church's historian. David Pierini/Staff Photographer Buy photo

When Don Giannetti was in high school at Quigley Seminary, he was amazed by a priest, Rev. George McKenna, who could call on his students by name from the very first day of class. The priest had memorized the seating charts for each class period, which totaled hundreds of names

When Giannetti moved on to the college seminary, he lasted only one semester. “Silence wasn’t my forte,” he recalls, laughing. But he applied Fr. McKenna’s approach throughout his long career as a high school counselor, and continues it in his current role as parish assistant at St. Edmund Catholic Church in Oak Park.

“I’m an extrovert; I get to know people,” he explained. “This is my home. If I see someone coming to the church over time, I’ll ask their name, especially those who are alone.”

A lifelong St. Edmund parishioner, Giannetti relishes the story of his first visit to the church. It was in February 1935. His mother was pregnant with him. “I leapt in my mother’s womb,” he said, laughing again.

‘Made in America’

Though baptized at Our Lady of Pompeii in Chicago’s Little Italy, Giannetti grew up in Oak Park. His parents, Gino and Argene, were Italian immigrants from a small town in Tuscany. Gino maintained rental properties and Argene raised their two sons. Don is the youngest. “I was made in America,” he said. “My brother Frank was made in Italy.”

The family’s home base was the area around Randolph and Marion. He has fond memories of a childhood spent visiting the mom-and-pop stores on Marion Street and the larger establishments on Lake Street.

“Marion Street had drug stores, a butcher, a bakery, a candy store and the Lamar Theater,” he recalled. We had branches of all the State Street stores on Lake Street — Marshall Field’s, the Fair, Wieboldt’s.”

His mother worried about him crossing the train tracks, which at that time ran at street level along South Boulevard. She warned him against going to Lake Street. Giannetti remembers disregarding his mother’s wishes and then running into her at one of the Lake Street dime stores.

His father was well known in the village.

“My dad was a go-to guy. Everyone knew Gino. He’d find you a parking space, he’d find you an apartment, and he’d find someone to clean your house. He was a fixture in Oak Park. He was always helping people,” Giannetti remembered.

At St. Edmund Parish School, he stood out as an Italian among the many Irish-Catholic children. His black hair was easy for the priests and nuns to spot. After eighth grade graduation in 1949, he attended Quigley Preparatory Seminary on Chicago’s Near North Side. Though he wanted to be a priest, early on there were signs that it was not the right path for him.

“I became an introvert,” he said, “and I became obsessed with spiritual perfection.”

Living at home during high school provided a welcome respite from the regime of seminary life. But when he moved on to St. Mary of the Lake, the major seminary for priests in training, he lived on campus in Mundelein. There the silence was enforced much of the day and night. Anyone who knows Giannetti knows he loves to talk.

“The quietness and the isolation of the major seminary got to me,” he acknowledged. The continued emphasis on spiritual perfection aggravated his obsessive tendencies. He could not thrive in that environment, so he came home to Oak Park.

A calling answered

After earning a bachelor’s degree at Loyola University and serving a two-year stint in Germany with the Army, Giannetti embarked on a long career in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), where he was known to students as “Mr. G.” After teaching for three years at Austin High School, he joined the Papal Volunteers, a kind of Catholic Peace Corps. When he returned, CPS assigned him to Taft High School on the Northwest Side. Initially he split time as a Spanish teacher and counselor but moved to full-time counseling from 1966 to 1993.

Remembering Fr. McKenna, Giannetti made a point of learning students’ names and encouraged them to view their school as a community where people got to know one another. He was also the faculty advisor for the Student Council, and was involved in student activities, such as service projects and dances.

He recalled the 1969 junior prom, which had a Romeo and Juliet theme. The students wanted flowers to decorate the gym, and they talked Giannetti into helping them get free ones from local funeral homes and cemeteries. The students ended up with some floral arrangements in the shape of pillows and hearts, so with “Mr. G.’s” help, they created a “wake” for Romeo and Juliet. Subsequent classes of Taft students continued the “used flower” tradition to decorate school dances.

He still hears from former students. One woman told him she majored in Spanish in college because she had so much fun in his class. Another woman became a high school counselor, following his example.

After retiring from CPS at age 58, Giannetti began his second career as a parish assistant at St. Edmund. Always active in parish life, he was asked by then-pastor Rev. Joe Ruiz to come on board as a staff member. Accepting a nominal salary, he became an all-around helper wherever needed. He assists with business management, handles funerals, and sets up for Mass in church each day.

He is also the parish historian — or as he sometimes calls it, the “parish hysterian” — a role that served him well as chair of the parish’s Restoration Committee. Along with other dedicated parishioners, Giannetti shepherded the sometimes contentious process of restoring and renovating the church interior. One of his greatest joys is leading tours of the church and its treasures, which include the large and beautiful stained glass windows. Tours can be arranged by calling the St. Edmund Parish Office at 708-848-4417.

Kathy Halfpenny, director of music at the parish, has worked with Giannetti for many years.

“Don is amazing,” she said. “He’s a great guy and so knowledgeable about our church and its history. He’s kind of our ‘go-to’ guy when we need something done. He knows where everything is and where to order all our supplies. He is the most unassuming and humble guy I know, never puts himself first, and is truly interested in each person he encounters.”

As a teacher and counselor, Giannetti believed his occupation was his vocation. That’s still the case.

“I use every talent I’ve ever had to do my job at St. Edmund,” he said. “I really believe in stewardship. It’s payback time.”

In recognition of his devotion to the parish, the pastor, Rev. John McGivern, nominated Giannetti for an Archdiocesan “Christi fideles” award, given to lay persons for their outstanding service to the church. He accepted the award at Holy Name Cathedral this past November. Accompanying him to the award ceremony was his 98-year-old mother.

Giannetti never married. His father died many years ago and Frank lives out of state, so Don is the primary caretaker for Argene. However, he now has help from Lina, a woman he hired following Argene’s recent recovery from a broken hip. Faced with the prospect of placing his mother in a nursing facility, he resolved to keep her in their home and the decision has paid off.

“The light is back in her eyes,” he says. Mother and son still speak Italian to one another.

“I spoke Italian before I spoke English,” he explained. He’s been to Italy 14 times. And every year, he sets up an elaborate “presepio” nativity scene under his Christmas tree, with figures he has collected from Italy and America. Though it takes him six days to get it all in place, the tradition delights Don’s family and friends.

“It’s really peaceful,” he said.

Giannetti and his mother enjoy eating at local Italian restaurants, which have multiplied in Oak Park in recent years. He remembers when the family had to drive to Little Italy, Melrose Park or Elmwood Park in search of decent Italian wine, food and other groceries.

Though known for his energetic style and busy schedule at St. Edmund, Giannetti has learned to focus inward on his spirituality by participating in the parish’s Centering Prayer group.

“It has changed me,” he said. “My mind is always going, but now I live more in the moment.”

At 78, he tries to make each moment matter by staying connected to the people and places he loves. And he still has the lively, mischievous eyes of a schoolboy, which shine as he talks about his family and his community.

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