One of the most popular religious figures in Omaha is Rev. Tom Fangman, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. He oversees a parish that includes the church, an elementary school, and community outreach services offered through the Heart Ministry Center. These and other activities serve the poorest of the poor in poverty stricken North Omaha. A few years ago the historic church underwent a major restoration and in this article for Omaha Magazine I quote the pastor describing just what a transformation this makeover entailed in a neighborhood and community in need of whatever positive change that can come their way. This blog contains other articles I’ve done related to Sacred Heart, Fr. Fangman, and the Heart Ministry Center.
by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Omaha Magazine
In today’s parlance, everything “pops” now at historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church as the result of a 2009 restoration that Rev. Tom Fangman, pastor of the northeast Omaha parish, likes to call “an extreme church makeover.”
The $3.3 million project made long overdue improvements to the 108-year-old church at 22nd and Binney. Designated an Omaha landmark, the church is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The parish was founded in 1890 at a nearby location. The land for the present church was donated by Omaha business magnate and philanthropist Herman Kountze. The stone, late Gothic Revival style edifice with a 124-foot spire was erected there in 1902.
This long history has been much on the mind of Fangman. The Omaha native has served Sacred Heart for 12 years. As steward of the church, he feels responsible to the rich legacy it represents and for which he is keepsaker.
But a poor parish like his that serves an underprivileged neighborhood has few resources. What little it does have goes to Sacred Heart School and the Heart Ministry Center. Supporting the needs of at-risk youths and adults takes precedence. That reality resulted in letting things slide at the church. Two years ago though Fangman decided repairs could no longer be put off.
“We didn’t do it out of luxury, we did it out of necessity,” he said. “Almost everything was in such dire condition that it needed to be redone or made new. Our stained glass windows had been declared dangerous by three companies because the lead was so old it was cracking and bubbling. The windows were falling apart.
There were cracks across the ceiling, and there were times when I’d be saying Mass and paint chips would fall down.
“We didn’t know how much longer the boiler was going to work.”
The first thing he did was assemble a project team led by: architecture firm RDG; general contractor Boyd Construction; Brother William Woeger with the Omaha Archdiocese; and Sacred Heart members Mike Moylan, a real estate developer, and Stephanie Basham, an interior designer.
Specialists from around the nation were brought in along with local experts, including Lambrecht Glass Studio, which restored Sacred Heart’s exquisite stained glass windows, and McGill Brothers Inc., which did cleaning and tuckpointing.
Rather than do a piecemeal fix over years, the consensus was to tackle the whole job at once. Fangman announced the capital campaign in 2008 and within a year all pledges were secured. “There’s no way our parish ever could afford anything like this,” he said. “We reached out and I spent a lot of that year going out and talking to people.” He made the case and folks responded.
“It’s close to a miracle.”
For Fangman, caring for the building meant respecting the history of the parish and preserving this place of worship for future generations.
“This is an important church in Omaha. It’s pretty sacred to lots and lots of families,” he said. “I just felt like we owed it to the people that started this parish 120 years ago. They built something and gave us something beautiful and lasting, and we have been the recipients of that. I just felt like we owed it to the people that gave this to us over a century ago and we owe it the people that will come next.
“It’s bigger than just what we’re doing today.”
Besides, he said, “Sacred Heart deserved a facelift.”
Years of crud were meticulously cleaned away. Grime, grit, soot. Decades worth cast a dark veil over the exterior, obscuring the pink limestone that, finally revealed again, resembles the subtle pink marble facing of the Joslyn Art Museum.
“The new vividness and brightness is amazing,” said Fangman. “I do feel like I am in the old Sacred Heart, but everything feels so new and preserved. It was very important to the whole team we maintained the integrity of the building.”
Even longtime friends tell him they can “hardly believe it’s the same structure.” “It’s exciting to see the pride that our parishioners have in it and in its beauty,” he added. “I still get choked up when I walk in there.” He said the project seemed to encourage neighbors to do fix-ups to their properties.
Teams of craftspeople took over Sacred Heart during the intensive six-month project. Floor to ceiling scaffolding was put up. Crews worked day and night. To accommodate it all on such a short schedule the church was temporarily closed. Sanctuary items were removed. Services relocated to the school gymnasium across the street. Fangman said area churches were “gracious” in accommodating weddings and funerals.
The project’s comprehensive scope encompassed: replacement of the roof, the gutter, the floors and the heating system; laying a new foundation; installing the church’s first air conditioning system; building a baptismal font; restoring the chapel as well as all the church’s extensive stained glass windows, murals and woodwork, including the pews and confessionals.
Watching it all unfold with curiosity and appreciation was Fangman. “We were under the wire so much, but everybody came through. We had people who were looking out for us.” And maybe a touch of divine intervention. He said a team of workers from New York City came in on their own one weekend, for free, to paint a chapel backdrop not in the budget. He said a craftsman who worked on the baptismal font described having a spiritual experience that prompted him to relocate his wife and daughter here from Florida. The family now attends Sacred Heart. The daughter is to baptized at the very font her father helped fashion.
It’s another example to Fangman of how “there’s so many God-things with this project.”
He said the revitalized church is a visible, tangible sign of Sacred Heart’s good works. He hopes more people come there to worship and to support its social justice mission. He prays it also stands as a symbol of revitalization for a community with great needs and sends a signal that Sacred Heart is there to stay.
“We’ve been here and were going to continue to be here.”
Fangman never knew a makeover project could be so impactful.
“When I started, it wasn’t clear to me what it would mean and how beautiful it would all turn out. It turned out better than I ever imagined.”
On Nov. 23 Archbishop George Lucas presided at the restored church’s dedication and the altar’s consecration.
The restoration project had turned up time capsules from previous events. Just as his predecessors did Fr. Tom composed a letter describing the latest milestone and placed it in a capsule for a future pastor to discover.
One more link in an unbroken chain of faith.
- St. Patrick’s Cathedral Set To Undergo $177 Million Restoration (newyork.cbslocal.com)
- Studio salvages stained-glass church windows (rep-am.com)
- Omaha Corpus Christi Procession Draws Hundreds (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
I am a cradle Catholic but until Sunday, June 10 I had never observed or participated in a procession. I intentionally immersed myself as a reporter in the Omaha Corpus Christi Procession that weekend for the purpose of not only getting a story, which follows, but of furthering my own spiritual journey. I was not disappointed on either count. There’s something ancient and ancestral and magesterial about a religious procession that taps deep currents in many people, including me as I found out. I am glad to have experienced it and I intend to do so again. I have always responded to the high theater of sacred services and I believe I am more open today than before to feel the spirituality of these experiences. Hopefully this story, soon to appear in El Perico, does a fair job of capturing the event. My blog doesn’t feature many stories related to religion and spirituality but there are some, including a feature on the sponsor and organizer of the Omaha Corpus Christi Procession, St. Peter Catholic Church. You’ll also find a features on Sacred Heart Catholic Church and its pastor, Rev. Tom Fangman. Check out the story I did on some followers of the Latin Mass at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Omaha. I recently posted an upcoming cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the Omaha-based Tri-Faith Initiative, a collaboration between the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, Temple Israel, and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture that is well on its way to building a campus with a church, a synagogue, and a mosque. There are also features to be found here of various religious figures, including Rev. Don Doll and the late Fr. John Markoe, and extensive profiles of some of Omaha’s leading African-American ministers.
Omaha Corpus Christi Procession Draws Hundreds
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in El Perico
Seven hundred Christian faithful followed a 1.4 mile procession route on June 10 in honor of the Feast of Corpus Christi.
The pageantry-filled Catholic procession celebrating the body of Christ began at Our Lady of Lourdes Church on South 32nd Ave. and ended at St. Peter Church on 27th and Leavenworth, Each worship space was filled to overflowing.
Corpus Christi processions are a centuries-old tradition but until recently Omaha hadn’t seen one in years. When Rev. Damien Cook arrived as St. Peter’s pastor in 2004 he found a growing immigrant Hispanic membership hungry for processions and devotionals and he organized the first march in 2006. It’s been held annually since and more parishes have followed suit.
“We try to make it more and more festive each year. It’s just beautiful,” says Cook.
“This is a big day for our Catholic church,” says Teresa Ribera.
The ceremonial ritual takes months of planning and scores of volunteers. It’s part of St. Peter’s restoring the sacred mission.
For most, the procession’s a testament of faith.
“This is a public expression of our love for Jesus,” says Don Carney. “There’s something splendid about a public expression. I get a great peaceful feeling when I do this. The neighbors seem to like it too.”
Jean Fisher says, “It’s very uplifting to have so many people here, It just kind of jumpstarts your faith and really confirms you in what you believe.”
Solemn services kicked things off at OLL and culminated at St. Peter, their majestic sanctuaries well-suited to the occasion. Plenty of reverent activity happened in between, as did a melange of the sacred and secular that resembled Easter, Fourth of July and Day of the Dead.
In this intercultural convergence of Old World meets New a very public and colorful declaration of faith unfolded in the streets.
There were priests in golden vestments, deacons and seminarians in black and cossacks, nuns in brown habits, children in white First Communion-attire and Knights of Columbus honor guardsmen wearing red sashes. The centerpiece was a golden vessel, called the monstrance, holding a consecrated host. Priests, including Cook, took turns holding it aloft under a fringed canopy borne by escorts.
The faithful, including many families, dressed in everything from Sunday best to picnic wear. Parents pushed strollers and pulled wagons. Only stray sprinkles, not forecasted storms, dampened the breezy, overcast day, though the threat kept numbers down, says Cook.
Inside, for the exposition, elaborate praise and worship services featured organ and choir music.
Servers carried flags, banners, incense burners, chalices, crucifixes and altar bells. Outside, the sound of jangling bells mixed with recorded choirs reciting hymns, psalms and chants in English, Spanish and Latin. Piped-in music and prayers, relayed by speakers in a pickup truck, cued the crowd to respond.
Girls carrying baskets filled with rose petals and confetti strew their contents along the path to symbolize heavenly showers of grace.
En route from OLL to St. Peter the multitudes stopped for benedictions at makeshift altars in Hanscom Park and the Gerald R. Ford Birthsite and Gardens. Adoration of the eucharist found people kneeling in the grass and intoning verses as priests hoisted the monstrance for all to see.
As the procession made its way down Woolworth Ave. and Park Ave. the incongruity of the ethereal and the earthy struck home. The area’s been plagued by run down, high crime rental properties. A sign of hope amid the blight is restored apartment buildings, whose clean facades and landscaped yards pop. In what community activists are trying to return to a walking neighborhood a procession helped lead the revival.
Steve, an area apartment dweller, looked out at the passing caravan from his stoop and said, “I think it’s very inspiring to be honest with you. It’s something you don’t see every day and it’s something I think a lot more people need to see. It’s a gathering when there’s not a lot of people to be gathered anymore, you know.”
Procession veteran Jim Keating says, “We process through the streets as a way to give witness to Omaha that God loves the whole city.” Ramon Davila echoed others in saying he participates “to be a witness that Jesus is alive.” Some call it “walking with Jesus.”
By the time the slow moving pageant reached St. Peter’s at 4 p.m. the crackle, pop, sizzle and whistle of fireworks joined the singing, chants and peeling church bells.
A huge banner of the risen Christ hung from the church’s balcony. Streamers and flower garlands decorated the exterior.
A gawking area resident said, “It’s awesome, I’ve never seen it before.” Two women watching with wonder etched on their faces said the “impressive” sight was worth the drive from Council Bluffs.
The event began at 2:30 but many gathered at OLL before 2. The grounds, parking lots and streets served as staging areas for the religious and lay contingents participating. Members of the sponsoring parishes were joined by believers from other local churches and apostolates.
Among the early arrivals was St. Peter member Julie Steadman. For her, “the reverence” of the event and its communal spirit are what draw her.
“Just to have everybody come as a community together and follow the blessed sacrament and pray and offer the devotions is a very powerful, very spiritual experience,” she says. “A wonderful calmness and reverence comes over the whole ceremony and procession that says something important is going on here .”
Steven Kiernan, a visiting seminarian from Philadelphia, has seen his share of processions and he described this one as “beautifully executed,” adding, “So many people coming out for something that long is especially unique.”
- A procession to bless the neighborhood (omaha.com)
- The Feast of Corpus Christi Around The World (foragingsquirrel.com)
- Pope Benedict talks about Corpus Christi and blood donation at Sunday Angelus… (radiovaticana.org)
- Omaha Tri-Faith Pioneers Seeing the Fruits of Their Interfaith Collaborative Take Shape (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Manifest Beauty, Christian Bro. William Woeger Devotes His Life to Church as Creative-Cultural Center
Omaha’s cultural scene is stronger thanks to Christian Brother William Woeger. He heads the Archdiocese of Omaha‘s Office for Divine Worship but is best known as founder and director of the Cathedral Arts Project based at St. Cecilia Cathedral. The project sponsors many performing and fine arts presentations throughout the year, including a flower festival that draws tens of thousands over a single weekend. He oversaw a major restoration project at the magnificent cathedral a few years ago. Adjacent to the cathedral is an impressive visitors-cultural center that was developed under his leadership. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) apepared while the restoration was still underway. Something I discovered about Woeger in doing the story is that in addition to being a highly respected liturgy expert and arts administrator, he is also a nationally renowned icon artist.
Triptych designed and painted by Bro. William Woeger
Manifest Beauty, Christian Bro. William Woeger Devotes His Life to Church as Creative-Cultural Center
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
If not traveling to confer on a church renovation or to install one of his commissioned art works, national liturgical design consultant and icon painter Brother William Woeger can be found working the phone from his tidy office in the Archdiocese of Omaha chancery. From there, the fastidious Woeger juggles a busy schedule as head of the Office for Divine Worship and as executive director and founder of the popular Cathedral Arts Project. For good measure, the 54-year-old visionary — one of the early driving forces behind Omaha’s compassionate response to the AIDS epidemic — is director of liturgy at St. Cecilia Cathedral, whose $3 million restoration he is shepherding toward completion.
Gaze Upon My Soul
When the demands of his career and vocation get to be too much for the admittedly “driven” Woeger, a 36-year veteran of the Christian Brothers teaching order founded in 1864 by French cleric John Baptist de la Salle, he retreats to the solace of his painting. In keeping with tradition, Woeger’s iconic figures (mostly of Christ) are bathed in an aura of gold light suggestive of the Holy Spirit. His acrylic paint-on-wood works adorn churches in Omaha and around the nation. He recently completed and shipped the last in a set of 15 icons for a new church he helped design in Maryland. Word-of-mouth alone keeps him immersed in new projects. “I don’t advertise. I don’t submit drawings and designs. I don’t do committees,’ he said. Working from a basement studio, he enters a nearly transcendental meditative state amid the solitude and the golden reflected gaze of the icon he is rendering.
“When I am in the act of painting it actually creates a space in my life when I’m not tied into anything else. Aside from the sound of the furnace kicking-on, it’s a very contemplative experience,” he said. “And it’s very interactive in the sense that you begin manipulating the materials and then, at a certain moment — and sometimes it’s quite identifiable — the dynamics flip around and suddenly It’s doing it’s thing to you rather than you doing something to it, and it kind of finishes itself. That most often has to do with the face and the eyes — when the image starts looking back at you — which is at the heart of icons as a focus for prayer.
“The whole notion is very non-Western. The icon becomes a window, if you will, through which you contemplate the divine. Even if the image is not one of Christ but rather one of the saints, the whole metaphor with the gold hue in the background is that the source of the light is not the person — it’s beyond the person — and that is God being mediated through the figure in the painting, which is very incarnation-oriented.”
Bro. William Woeger
Upon This Rock
Born and raised in a south St. Louis German-Catholic family, Woeger felt an affinity for the arts and a calling to religious life as a youth and has combined these passions ever since. He entered the Christian Brothers at 18 and pronounced his perpetual vows at 25. While studying art, theology and philosophy in the ‘60s he developed a social conscience. He began a formal teaching career in 1967 when assigned to Omaha’s Rummel High (now Roncalli), whose art department he established. He later taught at the College of St. Mary. In 1981 he joined the archdiocesan staff, where his focus evolves “depending on what I see around me.”
Through his archdiocesan post he coordinates area liturgical celebrations. As a freelance liturgical designer he integrates music, art, ritual and architecture in churches nationwide. Striving to make each place of worship a “sermon without words,” he goes about “shaping the building around the liturgical action,” adding, “I see what I do as educational. I help clients take liturgical principles and use those as a stepping off point to create a house for the church and the community in which to worship and praise God.” Since each parish has its own distinct personality, he must balance unique cultural characteristics (ethnic, socioeconomic, charismatic, conservative, etc.) with Roman Catholic doctrine and tradition. “There can be a tension there, but it can be a creative thing,” he said.
His services range from all-encompassing design schemes to specific features. “Sometimes I’m involved from the very beginning all the way to the end, including designing the furniture, working with the architect, being a go-between with artists doing windows or sculptures and holding workshops with local liturgical ministers. It’s a helluva package. Other times, I just come in and help with the programming. End of story. Or, other times, I just design furniture or do an icon. It’s much easier to do a brand new building than it is a restoration because it’s no-holds-barred, at least conceptually. Sometimes I work on buildings that have a historic reference where we borrow the architecture vocabulary from another period. St. Vincent DePaul Church in Omaha is like that. It’s a contemporary building but definitely has a Gothic reference.”
Whatever the assignment, he tries making each church a metaphorical emblem of the Catholic faith and its people. “The definition of a symbol is something that points to a reality beyond itself, and church architecture has tremendous potential to do that,” he said. He feels much of modern church design “fails” in this regard by opting for flimsy rather than solid values. “I’m not knocking modern architecture in comparison with classical it-looks-like-a-church architecture. I’m talking about the whole American phenomenon of suburban architecture — the here-today-gone tomorrow strip-mall transitory approach to things as opposed to an approach that establishes a sense of place and an air of permanence. Especially if you buy into the idea church buildings are places where key moments in peoples’ lives are celebrated or sanctified, than the building-as-place becomes a touchstone for their memory and, so, the walls speak.”
Imbuing a church with indelible substance requires rigorous attention to detail. It starts with a philosophy. He said, “It’s about believing in things getting better as they get older. It’s about using quality materials, which isn’t necessarily the most expensive, but ones which the community feels invested in as ‘The best we have to put forward.’ It’s about the materials and design being appropriate. It’s about integrity and all these things bearing the mark of the maker and not appearing to be mass-produced but rather created for sacred purposes. And, in the final analysis, the building should be capable of bearing the weight of mystery. The weight of mystery is what gets you in touch with the presence of God and gives you the sense this is holy space. Using strip mall approaches doesn’t cut it. It can’t carry the profundity. This is God-stuff we’re talking about. It’s pretty heavy, and so there’s no room for the trite, the silly, the mundane, the pedestrian, the pop.”
St. Cecilia Cathedral
Makeovers and New Directions
This same philosophy has underpinned the restoration of Omaha landmark St. Cecilia Cathedral, the Thomas Rogers Kimball-designed Spanish renaissance revival building begun in 1905 and completed in 1958. Except that, after Kimball’s death in 1934, the building was never quite finished and the famed Omaha architect’s plans never fully carried-out. Much of the Spanish flavor Kimball intended was ignored or altered. According to Woeger, Kimball’s design drew on the buoyant monastery palace complex of Spanish ruler Philip II. To recapture that model, Woeger selected Evergreene Painting Studios Inc. of New York, to execute the restoration, and Omaha architectural firm Bahr Vermeer Haecker to oversee the project.
Recent interior work done to the Cathedral, including extensive surface cleaning, the use of bold Iberian stencil patterns in the ceiling and nave, the addition of several large murals and various lighting enhancements, has appreciably brightened the building to provide a warmer, more vibrant, more visceral space in which one’s eyes invariably look up to the heavens. The idea was to create a vital ambience for public worship and celebration in which “the whole assembly is praying with one mind, one heart, one voice.” Woeger adds, “We had an opportunity to bring a much more exuberant Spanish renaissance style feeling to the interior finishes. Now, you have the sense the building is bigger and higher. It definitely evokes wonder and awe, and that architecture’s supposed to do that. Now, you can just watch people look up when they walk in. They didn’t use to do that because you really couldn’t quite take it all in it was so dark.”
Making the Cathedral an inspirational community gathering place is something Woeger had in mind when starting Cathedral Arts Project, an autonomous presenting organization sponsoring concerts, art exhibits and an annual flower show. His other impulse was putting St. Cecilia’s squarely in-line with the historic mission of cathedrals as a center of the humanities. “All of the spiritual reality that building stands for is an appropriate context for that which is spiritual about the arts,” he said. “It broadens the scope of the people who enter the life of the Cathedral. And, historically, cathedrals were the center of learning, the center of the arts, the center of humanity, the center of theology and spirituality.”
Cathedral Flower Festival
Woeger, who began the archdiocese’s AIDS pastoral care program and formed a support group for patients and loved ones, helped fulfill Cathedral’s mission as an inclusive haven by opening its doors to the AIDS community for interfaith healing services. He is proud of the “welcoming environment” created there and of the work the archdiocese did with community and health organizations through the Nebraska AIDS Project and the AIDS Interfaith Network. Today, he continues assisting AIDS awareness efforts and maintains close ties with survivors.
Cathederal Flower Festival
For Woeger, an “off-the-charts control person” who lost his father at age 9, the AIDS crisis presented a special challenge. “I spent a lot of time with people while they were dying and early on it was sort of making me crazy. I had to learn I couldn’t do anything about this. That the best thing I could do was simply be there for them.”
With the death-sentence urgency of the AIDS crisis largely passed and the Cathedral restoration drawing to a close, Woeger is looking for new challenges. “I’m the kind of person who reinvents himself about every six to eight years. I have to have some new stimuli in order to keep my creative juices flowing. It doesn’t have to be a radical change, but some kind of shift so that things sort of come apart and come back together again in a new configuration.”
Not surprisingly, his renewed focus is on upcoming projects at the Cathedral. First, life-sized statues (of saints) carved in Italy will be installed on exterior niches perched above the main entrance and a side entrance. The niches have sat empty the entire life of the Cathedral. Next, an ambitious organ restoration is on tap. And, once funds are secured, work will begin on a visitors/cultural center that will tell the story of the Cathedral and the legacy of Kimball in a museum to be housed in the former Cathedral High School building. Through such efforts he hopes the Cathedral remains a beacon for generations to come.
- Omaha Address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega Sounds Hopeful Message that Repression in Cuba is Lifting (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Change is Gonna Come, the GBT Academy in Omaha Undergoes Revival in the Wake of Fire (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Luigi’s Legacy, The Late Omaha Jazz Artist Luigi Waites Fondly Remembered (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Nancy Kirk: Arts Maven, Author, Communicator, Entrepreneur, Interfaith Champion (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
If a potential client of mine had not referred me to a revival going on at a once proud Catholic church in Omaha that had fallen on hard times but is now undergoing a revitalization, I wouldn’t have known about it. This despite the fact I often drove past this church. The story I wrote about the transformation going on at St. Peter Catholic Church in Omaha originally appeared in El Perico. I applaud what the pastor there, Rev. Damien Cook, and his staff and parishioners are doing to infuse new life into the church by going back to the future in a sense and restoring the sacred to celebrations that had been stripped of solemnity and pageantry in the post-Vatican II world. On this same blog you can find my story titled, “Devotees Hold Fast to the Latin Rite,” and other Catholic-themed stories, particularly two dealing with the recently closed St, Peter Claver Cristo Rey High School and several dealing with Sacred Heart Catholic Church, including one focusing on the church’s inclusive spirt and another on its Heart Ministry Center.
Omaha’s St. Peter Catholic Church Revival Based on Restoring the Sacred
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
Just east above a stretch of I-480 stands St. Peter Catholic Church at 27th and Leavenworth. Its classical Greco-Roman facade is unlike anything in that sketchy near downtown Omaha district. Amid ramshackle urban surroundings the stone edifice is a solid, substantial front door for a poor, working class area made up of transients, bars, liquor stores and social service agencies as well as light industrial businesses, eateries, artist studios, apartments and homes.
When St. Peter’s pastor Rev. Damien Cook arrived in 2004 the church teetered on its last legs.
“It was a dying parish,” he says flatly.
He says before the Interstate came in the parish thrived but when homes were razed for the road-overpass construction, parishioners scattered to the far winds, leaving a psychological scar and physical barrier that isolated the parish.
From the pulpit Fr. Cook saw few pews filled in a sanctuary seating 800. The membership rolls counted only a small if dedicated cadre. With the school long closed and most old-line parishioners long gone, things looked bleak.
Seven years later, however, St Peter is enjoying a revival– “the numbers have vastly gone up” — that has its roots in demographics and faith. As the parish celebrates its 125th anniversary this spring and makes plans for an extensive interior church restoration there’s a resurgence afoot that belies the forlorn neighborhood.
“It’s a big year for us,” Cook says.
Always a mixed ethnic district, the Hispanic population was growing when Cook came, but has spiked since then. Many more began attending after St. Anne‘s closed. Now the church is predominantly Hispanic, though there’s a sizable non-Hispanic base as well.
Several Spanish Masses are offered each week. Quinceanera ceremonies occur there. A Spanish school of evangelization holds retreats in the old school building.
Where the congregation was decidedly aged before, it now over-brims with families, many with young children. Catechism classes serve more than 300 youths.
Perhaps most impressive, Cook says, is that the majority coming to St. Peter today don’t live within the parish boundaries but drive-in from all across the metro, making it a true “commuter parish.”
Fr. Damien Cook, left
Why are folks flocking there?
It seems Cook has struck a chord in the effort to, he says, “restore the sacred at the church.” It trends with a national movement aimed at returning to a more traditional liturgy that expresses the awe, majesty, splendor and reverence of communal worship. He says many people tell him they were missing what St. Peter provides.
At St. Peter restoring the sacred means:
• integrating Latin into elements of every Mass, both English and Spanish
• performing traditional sacred music and chant
• using incense
• worshipers receiving communion at the altar rail
• multiple clergy and altar boys participating
Additionally, St. Peter offers daily confession and chanted vespers. Each spring it conducts a festive Corpus Christi procession that follows a 1.4 mile route. As a canopy covered vessel containing the Eucharist is carried, children strew the path with flower petals, music plays and prayers are recited aloud. It all culminates in fireworks, song, food and thanksgiving outside the church.
Cook says parishioners embrace these rites and share their enthusiasm with others, which in turn helps St. Peter grow attendance and membership.
“I just feel really blessed,” he says. “There’s always been faith here, and I inherited that from the priests who went before me. Even if the congregation was smaller the people here were really receptive to the whole evangelization process — of going out and telling their friends, ‘You should come down to St. Peter’s for Mass. Just try it once.’ And once people do they get kind of hooked.
“So the people themselves are the greatest gift to me. They really want to know more about the faith, they really do want the sacred and are excited about restoring the sacred.”
He says his congregation’s thirst for solemnity and spiritual nourishment is part of a universal yearning.
“If you look at every culture and religion in the world there’s a desire for the transcendent, for the sacred,” he says.
Challenges remain. Cook wants St. Peter to better link its English and Spanish-speaking parishioners.
“I don’t sense any hostility between the two different cultures. We come together on various parish projects, but it’s still been very difficult. I’m still trying to learn the magic, the grace, the appropriate way to unite the two, because I don’t want there to be two different parishes. We’re one family of God. But the language difference is a reality. It’s just natural people feel more accustomed among their own.
“I sense unity here. but if we could only find the bridge for the Spanish and English-speaking segments to create that one parish.”
He also wants St. Peter to minister more to its distressed neighbors.
“We have everything from prostitutes at night on the corner to really inebriated people to aggressive panhandlers to shootings near us. We’re proud to be here as an anchor to the community. We’re privileged to serve the poor. We really do need to be out doing more evangelization because we have a whole neighborhood of people, Catholic and non-Catholic, to be invited.”
He hopes redevelopment happens for “the sake of more security, safety and opportunity” for residents. He firmly believes the area’s rich with potential, saying,
“It just needs people to realize that.”
- Saving sacred sounds (life.nationalpost.com)
- US Catholics win rare victories on church closures (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- On The Latin Mass (acatholicdad.wordpress.com)
Sometimes a writer can shed light on a little understood facet of society or humanity, and through the prism of a story perhaps bring some new clarity and insight to the subject. That’s the task I set for myself with this story about a community of contemplative nuns who after a very long presence in my hometown of Omaha left for another city. Few people had even heard of much less knew anything about the Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Their neighbors could only imagine what went on behind their semi-cloistered compound. In truth, the sisters for some time now have led rather community-oriented if not public lives thanks to relaxed restrictions. When I heard they were leaving the campus they occupied not far where I lived and once attended church and school, I decided to explore for myself who these women were, how they lived, and what they did. In doing the piece I met an extraordinary woman, Sr, Cecelia Porter, whose formidable spirit and gentle soul impressed me, and if I did my job right will impress you, too. The story originally appeared in the New Horizons and I am glad to share its bittersweet tale here.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
With the departure of the Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd in November, Omaha lost an exceptional group of older women dedicated to a regimen of prayerful meditation, hard labor and good will. Due to advanced age, ill health and depleted ranks, this once large Catholic community of nuns has moved to the Good Shepherd provincial colony in St. Paul, Minn. While the sisters are gone, the legacy of their amazing grace endures.
The Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd (CGS) is an international congregation founded in 19th century France by St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier. The contemplatives, a branch of the Good Shepherd order serving marginalized women and children, maintained a presence in Omaha much of the past century. Originally called Sister Magdalens and, later, Sisters of the Cross, their first home here was on South 40th Street. They moved in 1969 to the former Poor Clare Sisters convent at 29th and Hamilton. When the huge old building became untenable a new convent was erected at 3321 Fontenelle Blvd.. Occupied in 1989, the new site was home to the contemplatives until last November. It is now for sale.
Consistent with the good shepherd mission, the sisters pray for the poor, the sick, the dispossessed or anyone else needing spiritual intercession. They accept prayer requests by phone and mail. All who call on them find refuge in their gentle house of hearts. From the quiet of their tree-shaded Omaha sanctuary, complete with chapel and dining hall, the sisters provided solace and support to countless petitioners. It is a mission they continue today from their bucolic St. Paul retreat.
Despite being an enclosed community, the sisters lead lives fully engaged with, not removed from, the world. Indeed, since Vatican II eased restrictions on religious orders in the 1960s, the sisters have enjoyed greater freedom. No longer a classically cloistered community bound by strict monastic codes of silence and isolation, the sisters have used the more relaxed rules to extend their grace to ever more souls. That has meant getting involved in the lives of persons pleading for help, including “adopting” families in distress and distributing food to the hungry.
Sister Barbara Beasley, RGS, an apostolic Good Shepherd leader in St. Paul, said, “If the contemplatives are really doing their job, which is all about spirituality, then they are connected with everything that’s going on. And that’s exactly the truth about these women. The proof of their contemplative life is that they are not turned inwards on themselves. They are the least turned-in people you can imagine. Their interests are outward. Before news of a crisis hits the paper they already know it because somebody has called up asking them to pray about it. They’re truly centered people. They know what they’re about. They know their calling is to pray for ministries, to pray for needs, to pray for everything. They are alert and responsive to what’s happening.” She said while there is no plan to do so, a small group of contemplatives could one day again be assigned here.
The oldest and longest professed member of the former Omaha community, 89-year-old Sister Cecelia Porter, CGS, finds people from all walks of life confiding in them. “They tell us many things. They talk on the phone for hours, especially people living alone. You’d be surprised who it is too. You can be rich and still be lonely. Sometimes it’s hard to listen. We have one sister, Edith (Hesser), who listens and listens and listens to every kind of problem under the sun and everyone just loves her for that,” she said. “One talent God has given me is to pray with others, and to pray with them in a way that they feel they are included in the making of the prayer. If I know your problems I can pray for you so deeply. I can pray almost out of your own hope. People tell me they feel encouraged and helped by that.”
A measure of the impact the sisters made here was the stream of friends and patrons stopping by the convent to say farewell and thanks in the days prior to the move. Denise Maryanski of Papillion spoke for many in describing the sisters’ amazing grace. “Nothing I do in my life, even raising four children, would be as hard as the work they’ve done and the dedication they’ve shown in their life,” she said. “These women are totally pure in spirit. It is perfection. They are as close to being saints on earth as anyone we have met. They just don’t seem to have ugly days. They deal with whatever they’re handed and they deal with it with this joyful spirit and heart. When you’re with them, you just smile. You can’t help it. Even in their darkest hours, dealing with life-threatening illnesses, the joy is still there. They accept the challenges God gives them. You never hear them say, ‘Why me?’ When life looks really ugly to me I think, ‘What would Sister Clare (Filipowicz) do? What would Sister Edith do?’ They’ve enriched our life and been an inspiration.”
As divorced Catholics-turned-Episcopalians, Denise Maryanski and her husband Tony cherish the unconditional love extended them and trace the success of their home construction business to the prayers granted them. “You don’t have to show your Catholic badge at the door. They’re not at all judgmental,” she said. “We know they’ve taken care of us too. Stressful things have happened in our family and in our business over the last two years and all we had to do was pick up the phone and say we were having some issue in our lives and they were right there praying for us. We attribute all our blessings to them.”
There is no limit to what the sisters pray for. “We consider ourselves responsible for the entire world, prayerwise, and we are very thoughtful to that,” Sister Porter said. “That’s one thing about contemplation — it widens the mind so much. We make our prayer fruitful by having an intention, a motive and a thought in mind. It can be a disaster, a tragedy or an accident or it can be people looking for better jobs or better marriages or better health. All of it is a matter for prayer. Whether we know the people or not, we put some spiritual power in their lives that wouldn’t otherwise be there. You never know for sure what your prayer does, but people do call and say, ‘Thanks, it happened.’”
Even with the world as their focus, there are special prayer causes. For example, Sister Porter prays for governmental leaders. And, as a group, they pray for their fellow religious. Sister Eileen Schiltz, RGS, an Omaha counselor who often attended Sunday mass with the contemplatives, said, “At mass they always remember all of our Good Shepherd sisters and ministers all over the world.”
For years, Rev. Lee Lubbers, SJ, of Creighton University, took turns with other Jesuits saying mass at the convent and has relied on the sisters’ mediation for various Jesuit-related endeavors. “It was important for me to count on their prayers for the non-profit educational satellite network (SCOLA) I started in 1981. I kind of count them as the founders of that whole operation, which has become a big network worldwide. I keep them praying for every development. I count on their support constantly,” he said. Typical of the sisters’ caring, he added, was their desire to visit SCOLA and minister to its staff, which they did every year. For him and others the sisters represented a comforting presence where “the important things in the universe were in touch at least, someplace, all the time.”
Rev. Lee Lubbers
In her work counseling abused women and children, Sister Schiltz often calls and asks the contemplatives to pray for her clients and senses a genuine interest in their plight. “I have never been let down. They always ask how the woman or child they’re praying for is doing.” She said the sisters have even taken under their wing children whose parents are imprisoned or deceased — sharing mass and meals with them. She said the sisters have not only provided a prayer-line, but a lifeline to those in need. “I wish I could find a donor for an 800 number so people could call them up in St. Paul and still have their prayers answered in Omaha.”
In a culture like ours, where tangible results are held sacred, something as ephemeral as prayer may seem like wishful fancy to a cynic. For Sister Porter, it is an article of faith. “You can’t see it. You can’t prove anything. The only thing you can live by is faith. But the things we can’t see are so real. Look at your radio or TV. Their reception is based on signals and waves. You can’t see those things, but do you doubt they exist? Or oxygen. You can’t see it, but by golly if you didn’t have it you sure would miss it. Just like those things, you’ve got to have faith your prayers will be heard. I believe with all my heart it can and does happen.”
In a loud, hectic world muddled with distractions, finding the time and space for quiet reflection can be a challenge. It is all a matter of intent and focus. Likewise, being contemplative is more than taking a vow or mouthing words. It means embodying one’s faith and spirit through expressions, thoughts and deeds. “Your entire life has to have a contemplative stance in order to produce any real contemplative fruit, because your mind does not snap like that from one thing to another, usually,” Sister Porter explained, snapping her fingers for emphasis. “You can wear the habit and say all kinds of prayers and do all this stuff and not change your character one bit. To me, it’s more of a thing of opinions and dispositions and actions and priorities. You have to have the depth to know you don’t live here just to wear a habit. It’s how deep you think. How deep you live.”
Sister Schiltz feels these women remind us what our spiritual life can be. “I think they’re a symbol. We need those symbols of contemplative life more than ever now because we’re so rushed and hurried. A lot of people long for that because the world is so chaotic. The contemplatives show it can be done. But it’s hard to live. It’s a gift that God calls you to. Some choose to answer it and some don’t. Maybe we can’t do it ourselves, but it’s something we can strive for in our own way.”
Ultimately, a contemplative life is a calling. Sister Porter heeded the call as a young woman. “I didn’t resist it. I was looking forward to more of the deep mystery of spiritual life.” But the story of how she came to follow her calling, like the stories of her fellow nuns, is probably not what you would expect. Born Thelma Porter in 1910 Portland, she grew up in Seattle. Her family, she said, practiced no particular faith and were in fact hostile to Catholicism. Her mother died when she was young and her stern father raised her and her two brothers alone. Despite her father’s opposition, she had Catholic schoolgirl friends and came under the influence of local Good Shepherd nuns, whose flowing white habits made them appear “angels.”
At 16, she left home to fend for herself. She only completed a couple years of high school before going to work. By 19, she decided to become a Catholic. Even though she admits she had a rather naive idea of the commitment she was making, she decided to not only take up the forbidden faith but become a nun as well. When she told her father, he disowned her. In her youthful arrogance, she defiantly turned away from him too. They never saw each other again. She also became alienated from her brothers and extended family. The separation hurt.
“As years went by I knew I hadn’t done the right thing. I could have handled it differently. It caused me much suffering and much bitterness. I felt it was my own fault. I was pretty unhappy about that part of my life.”
It was only as she matured she came to terms with what happened. By then, however, her father was dead, the bad feelings between them left unresolved. Amidst the sweeping changes of Vatican II, when many religious reexamined their vows and dropped out, Sister Porter too had an awakening that helped her overcome the doubt and acrimony and rededicate herself to her vocation.
“At that time I rethought my whole life and I came to the conclusion this life has got to be a better one if I live it right because I feel drawn to it. It must be what I’m meant to do.I dropped all the bitterness I had about my family. I realized you can’t undo what you’ve done when you’re young, no matter how much you regret it. The Lord sent me so much satisfaction with my life as soon as I let that go.”
She flourished amid the new freedom Vatican II and modern feminism ushered in. “I just really sort of blossomed in so many ways. I made a lot of new friends. I began to paint. I began to do things and go places. I got elected to the order’s leadership council and went to Europe. I met Good Shepherd sisters aiding women all over the world. It gave me an experience of belonging to the entire world. It also made me realize so many women are not treated equally and are just used in so many ways.”
She believes the ensuing large exodus from religious life was not all bad, but instead a necessary, if painful, purge. “The truth is it needed to be done. There were lots of people in religion because mama wanted a priest and papa wanted a nun. If you kept the routine, that’s all that was required, really. It wasn’t a deep spiritual thing like it should have been.” She speaks from personal experience, having come to religious life with starry-eyed ideals that were soon dispelled. “I didn’t know how to be a Catholic much less how to be a nun. The reason I became a nun was because I thought, erroneously, living a contemplative life would be a religious equivalent to a studious life. That I would write and read and meditate and be untouchable by other things. It was a rather romantic, mystical notion. I never realized we had to work, we had to eat, we had to pay bills. I was the bookkeeper the last 30 years, so I’m very conscious there’s more to life than prayer.”
Besides her faith, music has been her refuge. A trained pianist and organist, she accompanied the sisters’ singing of the psalms since entering the order in 1936. She spent the first 30-some years of religious life in Denver and after the convent there closed in 1969 she moved to Omaha, where she remained active right up until the community’s departure. Her vocation has been both rewarding and trying. As she can attest, a contemplative cannot be an idler. It is a life of rigorous devotion and discipline. Little time is wasted. Scant thought given to personal needs. Orders must be obeyed. Sacrifices made. Slackers need not apply. An unbending routine of required daily prayers and assigned chores fill the hours. The routine used to be even tougher. Rising well before dawn, sisters followed a taxing prayer and work schedule. Until just a few weeks before their move, the Omaha sisters supported themselves working as seamstresses for clothing and fabric manufacturers and making altar breads for churches.
“Because we’re considered a relaxed community now, our day starts at 6 a.m. But when we were younger we got up at 4:30. In the old days the thinking went if you had any spare time you were not doing something worthwhile. You were supposed to be doing some kind of labor at all times. You were expected to just keep going, even if you were sick, until you couldn’t go another step. The harder you were on yourself, the better. That was the way religious life was. And, boy, it was hard,” Sister Porter said. “But after Vatican II we began to live more like the world lives. We didn’t have to work quite so hard. Our life was divided between work and prayer and leisure, but leisure was the thing that always suffered. Personally, as far this new thinking is concerned, I’m right with it. Why treat your body like that? And the fact I’m here at my age, and in good health, tells me it works.”
She feels past hardships likely contributed to the health crisis that beset several members of her community last fall. With the weakest unable to work (some were transferred months earlier to the St. Paul infirmary), the aging nuns, their ranks already depleted by illness or death, lacked the necessary vigor and numbers to maintain the Omaha facility. It was the final straw that broke the convent’s back.
“Four of them could hardly walk they were so old and tired. They were to the end of their strength. They simply couldn’t go on anymore. It’s just my opinion, but their life was probably too hard when they were younger. We were going to hang on here another two years, but things fell apart so fast we had to act.”
Leaving Omaha has been a strain on the sisters, all of whom are in their 70s and 80s and own deep-rooted ties to the area. Of their relocation, Sister Porter said, “You have no idea of the trauma it really was. I’m only now beginning to be quite accepting of what’s happened. I just need to forget it. I think I will. I always know I’ll have a lot of friends there who love me.” And there is the camaraderie among her sisters of the cloth. “The loyalty among us is something you can’t believe.”
The people they served so faithfully through the years remain close to their hearts. She said she and her fellow sisters appreciate the outpouring of support Omahans showed through donations of time, talent and treasure, whether landscaping the convent’s grounds or supplying the religious enclave with food or helping maintain financial records. More often than not, she said, these Good Samaritans became dear friends. She firmly believes such relationships marked the Holy Spirit in action.
“God has blessed us in so many ways with so many friends. Everything we ever needed seemed to show up before too long. Food and books and just about everything you can think of. In that way we got to know so many people. All of those people came to us by God sending them,” she said. “Somehow, our friendships with others seem to be founded more on deeper things in life. It often begins with us praying for them, and somehow the bonds just develop into something very personal.”
John Hoich was introduced to the sisters 11 years when, as owner of his own landscape and lawn sprinkler business, he gave them a bid on a sprinkler system. Hoich, a single lapsed Catholic at the time, soon found his life transformed.
“When the sisters got done with me I told them I’d knock the sprinkler system down to cost if they prayed for me. I installed the system at cost and, boy, did they ever keep their end of the bargain. They pretty much adopted me at that point and I just fell in love with them. I started bringing trees out and planting them. I donated money. Every time I’d come they’d sit me down and feed me. They constantly ministered to me too. They prayed for me. They prayed I’d get married to a Catholic woman and have a family, and three years ago I married Denise and two years ago we had healthy twin boys. I really believe Denise came into my life and my business grew due because of them. They’re powerful, powerful ladies.”
The sisters got to know Hoich’s wife and boys and even attended a pig roast he held on an acreage he owns. Along the way, Hoich, orphaned at a young age and raised in foster homes, gained a renewed appreciation for his faith and for the goodness of others. “They reminded me to keep my priorities straight. To keep God first, family second and business third,” he said, “They taught me the spirit of giving and caring. They walk and talk their belief, yet they’re down to earth.”
Friends like Hoich say the sisters may be gone but will not be forgotten. Letters and phone calls have already been exchanged. Visits have been made or are being planned. “We’ll keep in touch. This chain will not be broken. It is that much an integral part of our lives. They are our extended family,” Denise Maryanski said.
As for Sister Porter, she’ll be turning 90 soon but far prefers embracing the here and now to wallowing in the past. “Time doesn’t hang heavy on my hands and I don’t look back. I’ve had so much in front of me all my life I’ve never had a minute when I didn’t have something to do and there’s still a lot of things I want to do.” In February she goes to Atlanta for meetings of her order. In July she’s taking a month’s sabbatical in her birthplace of Portland. She is content with where her chosen path has taken her. “I made sacrifices for this life. I could have had a better education. I could have married and had a family. But I think I’ve done something extra special. My life has been worth something.”
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My heritage is half Polish-American and half Italian-American. My late mother was Gemma Pietramale, and as you can guess from the name hers is the Italian side of my family. She and her many siblings and friends from the old neighborhood, which still goes by Little Italy today, attended the annual Santa Lucia Festival. By the time my brothers and I came along, we grew up on the other side of town and the festival never held much appeal to us, although my mom still went some years, if not to the festival itself, then attending the special Mass and procession that officially kicked off the event. That’s not to say I didn’t celebrate certain aspects of my Italian cultural heritage, for I did, particularly indulging its food, which I’ve always loved eating and cooking. There were Italian grocers and bakeries I frequented and other Italian festivals I attended, but most of my Italian-American immersion came via interacting with my large extended family.
I finally attended a Santa Lucia Mass with my and its pageantry inspired me to do the following story on the festival. The piece originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, a paper that is no longer around.
Santa Lucia Festival, Omaha Style
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly
As Omaha continues plowing under the old to make room for the new, the city leaves behind fewer and fewer remnants of its once distinct ethnic neighborhoods and traditions. Among the oldest surviving ethnic celebrations still observed here is the annual Santa Lucia Festival, a peasant-style street pageant honoring St. Lucy, a saint invoked for her healing powers. This year the tradition-laden festival unfolds June 22-25 in the heart of Omaha’s former Italian colony at 6th and Pierce Streets.
While the festival proceeds in an area that is no longer an Italian district per se, it attracts many former residents of Italian ancestry and stirs in them deep currents. “We grew up in the atmosphere of the festival, and it’s a tradition that’s in our blood. It’s a part of us. It’s a part of our life. It’s like a reunion. You gather with relatives and friends and follow through on what your ancestors from Sicily brought over,” said trumpet player Dominic Digiacomo, leader of the Santa Lucia Band.
The 77-year-old festival is a direct link to the Sicilian emigrants who settled in Omaha around the turn-of-the-century, when they established an enclave in the hilly area just south of downtown that became known as Little Italy. The Salerno family of Carlentini, Sicily is credited with making Omaha a destination for hundreds and eventually thousands of immigrants from that district of the Italian island. The Salernos acted as padrones or patrons to the new arrivals. Within the span of a generation the Italian American colony here was a large, predominately Catholic working class stronghold (many of the men toiled for the railroads) whose cultural heritage was centered around church, home, school and the large array of Italian-run businesses that catered to people’s every need. One tradition missing from the old country, however, was the festival honoring Carlentini’s patron saint, Lucia, a young visionary martyred for her beliefs in Syracuse, Sicily in 320 A.D. when a Roman soldier stabbed her to death. The festival, which continues in Sicily to this day, is a gala occasion highlighted by a decorative procession with an ornate float carrying a statue of the beloved saint. Traditionally, believers in the saint line the streets to make donations of money, jewelry, flowers and articles of clothing in hopes of obtaining her intercession and indulgence.
Feeling the time was ripe for Omaha’s Italian Americans to stage a Santa Lucia fest of their own, Carlentini native Grazia Buonafede Caniglia led a drive to start one in the early 1920s. The matriarch of the Caniglia family that went on to establish some of Omaha’s best loved restaurants, including Mr. C’s and the Venice Inn, Caniglia went door to door soliciting funds for putting on the event here and she ultimately enlisted the support of business leaders. A committed was formed and the festival launched. Since its 1925 start, the festival has come to represent the local Italian-American community’s most visible and enduring heritage celebration.
The festival, which has changed little since its beginning, features a carnival with rides and games, booths stocked with Italian foods (from sausage and peppers to meatballs to biscotti), a band playing traditional Italian music and a solemn Sunday mass at St. Frances Cabrini Church (which has been the site of the festival mass since the church was known as St. Philomena’s). A color guard comprised of uniformed and saber-carrying men from the Santa Lucia Society, each dressed in matching coat, cape, white gloves, bow tie and plumed hat, stands at attention beside the statue during portions of the service, which features the singing of the Santa Lucia song. The color guard accompanies the statue outside, where it is placed on the decorative float. The mass, which attracts an overflow crowd to the tiny church at 13th and William, is the festival centerpiece along with the procession and the crowning of the festival queen that follows it.
For old timers like Frank Marino, the mass and the procession are deeply affecting moments that hearken back to early memories of the festival and all it represents. “When I was a kid I can remember that it was probably the biggest event of the whole year,” he said. “Even though those were tough times, our folks would get my sisters and I new clothes and new shoes. We always dressed real fancy because we met all our friends and relatives down there. This was the big thing. And it was always the religious aspect that was stressed. We always went to the church to the mass. That was the great thing — going to mass and seeing all the people there dressed up and listening to the preaching. Then, when the statue came out of the church, you almost cried because it was such a beautiful sight.”
The statue, patterned after a Santa Lucia icon in Carlentini, was fashioned in Sicily not long before the inaugural 1925 Omaha festival. The float, bedecked with angel figures from Italy, was constructed in Omaha. Where the float used to be pulled by hand, it has in recent decades been rigged to a rolling jeep frame.
Just like in Carlentini, devoted onlookers press in close to offer up money or personal items to the icon. Attendants accept the donations, pinning the money to ribbons and fabrics adorning the float, draping the jewelry about the statue and placing larger items below it. The Santa Lucia song is sung once more before the march through the neighborhood commences.
Nowadays, the post-mass procession is the only march of the four-day fest. In years past, a series of parades were held during the course of what was a seven or nine-day festival. And whereas today the march is a mere few blocks long, it used to wend through the narrow streets of Little Italy along a route covering some three or four square miles. “It started at 6th and Pierce and we would go up and around Little Italy, all the way down to 4th Street and then come all the way up to 12th and Center. It was quite a jaunt. We’d start at 4 o’clock and we’d get back about 7 or 8 o’clock. We were dead tired after we got back. We used to call it the Italian Death March,” said Marino, a past Santa Lucia Festival committee president.
According to Marino, the festival has been pared down over the years in response to the changing makeup of the area. What used to be an almost exclusively Italian section tied together by a common belief and background is now a mishmash of nationalities, histories and interests. “It seemed like in every other house there was an Italian family living along the route, and they would come out and greet us and talk to us and donate money to the cause and ask for the Santa Lucia song to be played in front of their house,” he said. “Many times, in one block alone, we’d stop five or six times for that song to be played. The Italian people all understood the festival. Then, in later years, we’d go almost a whole block without anybody coming out to greet us. The new people didn’t understand the whole deal.”
Italian-Americans, like other ethnic groups, joined the great rush to suburbia in the 1960s and ‘70s — fleeing the old neighborhood in droves for the promised perks of ranch-style upward mobility. Historic Little Italy is home now to only a smattering of second and third generation Italian-American residents, merchants and institutions.
In the early 1980s the festival, faced with declining attendance, pulled up stakes from the old neighborhood and moved to the area around the then-new Central Park Mall. It proved to be the first in a series of moves for the festival, which gained bigger crowds but lost some of its authentic charm and historic surroundings in the process. After downtown construction impinged on the mall site, the event found its way to the Deer Park Boulevard area adjacent to the Henry Doorly Zoo and Rosenblatt Stadium. When parking problems surfaced there, the festival found a new if somewhat sterile home on the south side of Ak-Sar-Ben, where it remained until last year. With the south side Ak-Sar-Ben property’s future in doubt and old timers nostalgic for a return to the festival’s original turf, the 2000 event came back home after an absence of nearly two decades. Santa Lucia Festival Committee president Frank Distefano said, “We tried having it in different parts of the city…but it’s just not the same without having it in the neighborhood.” Except for two rain outs, the festival’s return to what some consider almost sacred ground was a hit. “All the people were talking about how great it was to be back in the old neighborhood and the festival’s original roots,” Marino said. For him, there is no doubt the event is back where it belongs. “Oh, yes, absolutely. That’s still Little Italy in my heart.”
Dominic Digiacomo feels the festival should never have left in the first place. “This is where it should have been,” he said from the kitchen of the Santa Lucia Hall at 7th and Pierce after a festival committee meeting there. “I really wasn’t for it when we moved. We were just kind of feeling our way around. We all wanted to be back here in the old neighborhood and now that we’re back we’re happy about it.”
The religious meaning, ethnic pride and historic ties bound up in the long-running festival became an issue recently when a few detractors sought to prevent its taking place in the mixed residential-commercial district that has traditionally been its home base. Having failed to stop the festival from proceeding there, opponents then tried blocking the sale of beer at the fest, but lost out when organizers and supporters appeared before a City Council hearing to emphasize what an integral part of the Italian-American legacy in Omaha the event is and how vital concession sales are to its success. By a 5-1 vote, the Council granted the beer license. To backers like Frank Marino, the public flap over whether the festival is still a good fit given the area’s altered cultural landscape only helps bring into focus what a vital link it is to Omaha’s Italian-American past and what a revered tradition it continues being for descendants of the event’s originators.
“That’s the whole thing — the tradition behind it all,” said the white-aproned Marino from behind the refrigerated meat locker of his A. Marino Grocery store on South 13th Street. The cozy neighborhood market was started by his late father Andrew Marino in 1920. “And that’s what we keep going — the tradition. That’s what were all after. We don’t want to lose our tradition. It’s the highlight of our year, really. I want to continue it. My children want to continue it.”
Or, as former festival master of ceremonies Joe Carlentine put it, “It’s just a thing we were brought up with and believe in and that’s been part of our life all of our lives. It’s a family thing. It’s a tradition that brings back memories of old times.” Just as Carlentine said of Marino’s throwback store — “It never changes; it always stays the same; it’s part of the old times here” — the festival is one constant in this fast-changing era and one relic from the past preserved in all its glory.
For Yano Falcone, who like the others has been attending the festival for nearly its entire duration, it offers a connection to a time, a place, a people and a sentiment that is otherwise gone. “This is the way we were raised and this is our way of coming back to our home and to our roots. We’re trying to do the festival in the same manner as when our mothers and fathers around. We’re trying to keep the tradition flowing through.”
The event triggers such feelings of pride and reverence among the faithful that anyone describing it as a mere carnival should be prepared for a fight. As Joe Pattavina, who has been at virtually every festival since the early 1930s, explained, “To us, it’s a festival — it’s not a carnival. The festival is what we celebrate. We believe in the saint. We believe in our Catholic heritage. If we didn’t believe in it, I don’t think we’d be here all these years.”
Santa Lucia Festival president Frank Distefano, who is considerably younger than most of his fellow committee members, said, “Most of our members are in their 70s and as a younger member I feel a responsibility and a sense of pride and, actually, urgency to keep this tradition alive.” How far the festival continues into the new century will depend on how well it does financially. Things are tight right now due in large part to last year’s rain outs, which cost the festival $8,500 in projected revenue. “We had to go to the bank and borrow some money to put on this year’s festival,” Distefano said. “But we’re going to get it done. We’re going to spend close to $43,000 this year. That’s why we’re praying for good weather so we can generate enough money from the carnival and the sale of food and beer to cover our costs and to raise money for the charities we contribute to.” The festival donates proceeds to the Lions Club as well as various church and civic groups.
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