After reading about the murder of Sergio Quiano — and the testimonials by Matt Baron, Bill and Lynne Higgins, and others in Wednesday Journal — I wondered, “How did I miss this guy?” After all, he was frequently sighted walking the streets of Oak Park, the same streets I’ve been walking for the past quarter century. I’m familiar with all the “regulars” as I call them, solitary figures whose lives I often wonder, but too rarely inquire about. I chastised myself for not meeting this kind, gentle soul — as most described him — who would start conversations with people and lift their spirits.

Then last week we ran his photo. Turns out, I not only knew him, he was my next-door neighbor for a couple of years in the early 2000s. Literally. The door to my apartment was next to his. Yet we never really interacted. At that point in my life, I was pretty withdrawn. Being a sensitive soul, maybe he “read” that and let me be.

In the ensuing years, I saw him from time to time, but no connection was made, so I never experienced what an interesting person he was. Made me wonder if I give a “this door closed” message when I’m out and about. Am I too much the spectator and not enough the engager?

I assume he was still living in that tiny studio apartment on the 1000 block of North Boulevard when he welcomed in some deeply damaged human being and paid the ultimate price. We may never know more than that.

To make up for my missed opportunity, I attended his Mass, last Saturday morning, at St. Edmund Church, which holds funerals for the indigent and unknown, an admirable part of their overall ministry. 

Sergio may not have had family here in the U.S., but he wasn’t indigent, nor was he alone in the world. This was his parish for the past three decades. And his St. Ed family turned out on this occasion, some 50 strong, not only to acknowledge, but also to celebrate his life.

“We remember how you loved us to your death,” they sang. And, more poignantly, in the responsorial, “The Lord is my life and my salvation. Of whom should I be afraid?”

Who indeed?

He walked humbly with his God, said Rev. John McGivern in his from-the-heart homily. Sergio’s footprint on this world could hardly be seen, McGivern noted, “but we recall the ways he touched our hearts. He didn’t have much, but what he had, he gave away, helping us understand bounty and abundance in a different way. That was the gift he gave us. 

“God wants us to leave a mark, a gentle imprint,” he added. “Sergio showed us how. These are the really important lessons that can last a lifetime. In the face of the cruel way he was taken from us, perhaps that is the redemption.”

McGivern pulled back at one point, wary of rhetorical overreach. “I want my words to match his beautiful, simple life.” 

St. Ed’s is a lovely church with large stained-glass windows, dazzling in the early-spring sunlight. It features a low ceiling, unlike the high vaults of most Gothic-style churches, so the faithful are surrounded by images of saints. 

Behind the altar are three windows, one for the savior’s birth, one for his death, and one for his resurrection.

“I will break their hearts of stone,” the congregation sang, “give them hearts of love alone. I will speak my word to them. Who shall I send?

“Here I am, Lord. … I will hold your people in my heart.”

After communion, several attendees approached the pulpit to share memories. One young man, shortly after he arrived in Oak Park in 2001 from Florida, met Sergio and before he knew it, found himself having dinner with him in Chinatown. 

Sergio’s “landlady,” LaVerne Collins of GLA Property Management, said that, along with his rent check, he would send a letter of gratitude each month, naming names and promising prayers, for helpful services rendered. 

“He was never selfish, always humble,” she said. “He didn’t just walk the streets of Oak Park. He also walked in the presence of his Lord.”

Brian Slowiak, a retired Oak Park cop, said he knew Sergio from his days at Baker’s Square restaurant. Slowiak said his daughter, a fussy eater, loved a particular soup on the menu, so Sergio would put aside several containers of it in the freezer for him to take home to her.

“A man never stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child,” Slowiak said. “He was a good man and a good friend. Serge, I’m going to miss you — and so is my daughter.”

A woman in a wheelchair talked about kindnesses Sergio extended.

A basket of bananas was placed on a table near the pulpit and everyone was encouraged to take one in remembrance of Sergio distributing them to customers in local restaurants in his effort to promote healthy eating. Nearby, a photo poster showed him at different stages of his life.

I never really knew Sergio Quiano, but the people his life touched made sure he was known. Midway through the funeral, a frail man in the pew in front of us tried to kneel before the kneeler was turned down and couldn’t get up, so Matt Baron and I helped raise him to a sitting position. His wife thanked us, then confided, “Sergio was his best friend.”

Parishioners and non-parishioners alike drew close Saturday morning to reenact an ancient ritual, one that defies death, defies even murder — that says violence may steal a life, but it cannot steal a life’s meaning. 

It is the covenant of community: We promise to be a witness to each other’s life because everyone’s life has value. Maybe that’s why we were able to leave the church that morning and move on with our respective lives feeling less diminished. 

Because, at our best, we hold one another in our hearts.

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