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)
You wouldn’t necessarily think of Omaha, Neb. as a place for an interfaith collaborative involving the three Abrahamic faith groups but that’s exactly what it is thanks to the Tri-Faith Initiative, a non-profit moving ever closer to its plan for a church, a synagogue, and a mosque on a single campus. Like most Midwest cities Omaha’s a decidedly Christian stronghold with quite small Jewish and Muslim populations. It’s also a place where diversity hasn’t always been celebrated or embraced. Yet the Tri-Faith is an impossible to ignore reality here that’s making waves near and far. My story below, which is to appear in a future edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com), tries to get at how it is this partnership has been able to reach this point and find itself poised to realize something that perhaps has never been done before, anywhere. I’m proud it’s happening where I live. My blog contains a profile I did of Tri-Faith executive director Nancy Kirk, who like all the principals in this endeavor is a highly accomplished person of diverse interests. What unites them all is a sincere desire to do the right thing by moving past dialogue to action where interfaith relations are concerned. You’ll also find on this blog a story I did a few years ago on something called Project Interfaith and its director, Beth Katz, and a very long piece on the interfaith relationship forged by two famous figures, Rev. Edward Flangan, the founder of Boys Town, and his close friend and supporter, Henry Monsky. A smattering of other religious themed stories I’ve done are also on the blog.
©by Leo Adam Biga
To appear in a future edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha’s not always embraced diversity but the local Tri-Faith Initiative may be a history-making model of interfaith cooperation. It’s proceeding with an audacious plan to locate a church, a synagogue, a mosque and an ecumenical center on a combined 35-acre campus.
Organizers say they’ve not found an equivalent gathering of the three Abrahamic faith groups – Christianity, Judaism, Islam – in a single dedicated setting. Not surprisingly, the project’s drawing much attention from media and scholarly attention. Observers are struck by how this partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, Temple Israel and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture has gone from concept to dawning reality in only six years.
The initiative echoes local community engagement efforts from the past – Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties – and present – Ak-Sar-Ben, Omaha Community Foundation, Building Bright Futures, Empowerment Network – that coalesce various partners to tackle social-cultural needs.
The Reader met with four “pioneers” behind the Tri-Faith experiment for their take on how the initiative has managed sustaining itself. They say one reason why this alliance has gotten so far so fast is that mere dialogue was never the end goal. Rather, it was a means to realize a brick-and-mortar sanctuary for promoting ongoing interfaith relationships.
“There are many wonderful dialogues going on across the country and around the world, and I’ve been involved in some of those, where people come together for great meetings to talk about interfaith issues,” says Nebraska Episcopal Diocese Canon for Tri-Faith Ministries Timothy Anderson, who will lead the unnamed Episcopal church slated for the campus. “But then you go back to your hotel, pack your bag, get on a plane and fly home. The uniqueness of this is that we are home. The next day we wake up and my neighbor to the right is still Jewish and my neighbor to the left is still Muslim and I have to learn each day how to live in my faith to love my neighbor as myself.”
“I think Muslims are in a way in America the Jews of the past,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel. “I think there is a tendency from time to time to select a new scapegoat. Jews are extremely aware of the ‘game’ that was played with their lives. We paid a price for being a scapegoat for many, many years.
“There is a level of understanding on the part of the Jew when the game is being played with other minority groups. Until the Obama presidency there were many opportunities for Americans to denigrate or to view Muslims as The Other, the stranger, the one that is not welcome, similar in a way to how Jews were treated.”
Azriel says progress between peoples of different faiths or cultures can only occur “when you’re able to step away from where you are and go to uncomfortable places.” Getting past surface niceties to deep interpersonal connections, he says, is what’s made the Jewish-Muslim relationship work in Omaha. Years before the Tri-Faith, he notes, Temple reached out to invite the Muslim community to celebrate Thanksgiving at the synagogue. Muslims have reciprocated by inviting the Jewish community to their celebrations.
“It’s mainly about relationships. If you don’t visit each other’s home, if you’re not in relationship with people, the dialogue becomes completely nebulous and artificial after awhile,” says Azriel.
It’s why, for him, meaningful interfaith exchanges must go beyond talk and tolerance to practice collaborative good works, such as creating a neighborhood where three faith groups co-exist in harmony.
He acknowledges some Temple members resist the partnership. The other groups report similar reluctance or skepticism. It’s meant less than 100 percent buy-in. But that’s where Azriel says leadership can make a difference.
“I really think a clergy that doesn’t challenge his congregation, doesn’t comfort those that are challenged, but also doesn’t disturb those that are comfortable should not lead a congregation. Sometimes you need to be stubborn and continue with the dreaming. So we continue walking on the bridge, even though at times it doesn’t look completely solid and safe. So what? There is a price to pay for daring and a price to pay for stagnation.
“You don’t just wait for something to happen but you mobilize all the resources together to accomplish this. That’s what’s so unique about this combination. All of us know dreams can only be achieved after hard work.”
Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, Islamic Institute president and co-founder and chair of the Department of Medicine at Creighton University, says the relationships hinge on mutual respect and trust. “That’s where it starts.”
In late 2011 the partners backed their words with financial stakes by announcing the purchase of adjoining parcels of land at the site of the former Ironwood Country Club, on the southeast corner of 132nd and Pacific, now part of the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development. The Tri-Faith vision took another major step to fruition when Temple, which completed its $25 million building campaign, broke ground April 15 on its new synagogue. It’s expected to open in August 2013. The other two partners are in the planning and fund-raising stages of their own buildings. A $2.5 million anonymous matching gift kick-started the Islamic Institute’s fund drive.
A fourth structure, the Tri-Faith Center, will be a shared, nondenominational facility for educational-cultural events and activities. It’s also in the planning stage.
The level of support shown for this faith-based collaborative defies the tensions and conflicts that keep different religious traditions apart.
Rendering of the new Temple Israel synagogue
The feel good story of the project’s formation is already becoming lore.
As the oldest and largest synagogue in town, Temple long ago outgrew its present facility. Whereas the reform Jewish congregation traces its history back to 1872 and serves 750-plus families, the Islamic Institute formed only in 2006 and counts but a fraction of Temple’s members. Still, the Institute needs a permanent home of its own to accommodate a growing Muslim population. Each cast its gaze out west, where most members live.
Temple already had the experience of a Christian neighbor in First United Methodist Church to the north and of a shared parking lot with the Omaha Community Playhouse to the east. The Jewish and Islamic communities already enjoyed a rapport strengthened when, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Azriel led Temple members in a cordon around the local mosque as a show of solidarity. He and his Tri-Faith bretheren describe it as “a pivotal moment” that “forged” the relationship.
Temple’s search for a new home took a collaborative turn when member and Tri-Faith board chair Bob Freeman broached the possibility of building with a faith partner. Not only would there be cost savings from a joint site selection and shared amenities, but opportunities to do interfaith programming.
Azriel says the congregation has “a history of being on the cutting edge of justice work,” which is a theme in his own career. He initiated a Black/Jewish dialogue series at Temple and his justice work has earned him various honors. He insists he’s hardly alone in tackling social issues. “The leadership of this congregation has been deeply involved in the daily life of this town. So many of our people are on the cutting edge of philanthropy, sit on nonprofit boards and are basically the bloodline of what this city is all about.”
It wasn’t long before Azriel and Mohiuddin spoke about partnering. After consulting with their boards they decided to pursue an interfaith project with a Christian participant. After the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha rejected the idea the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska was approached. It just happened to be considering a new church in West O on land held in reserve. Then-bishop Joe Burnett asked Anderson to explore joining the two other faith groups in a joint venture. Anderson met Freeman over a game of golf to discuss the possibilities.
Ironwood proved a symbolic spot for the Tri-Faith. It was founded as Jewish-only Highland Country Club in 1924 in response to Jews being barred from other clubs. Owing to Omaha’s declining Jewish population and a desire to be inclusive, Highland eventually opened to all who could afford it. Tri-Faith partners now refer to Hell Creek, which runs through the property, as Heaven’s Bridge.
All of it plays well in the press. But as the founders take great pains explaining, none of it would have happened without the deliberate efforts of people committed to putting aside differences to make tangible an interfaith community built from the ground up.
Azriel says, “Here is something we are doing intentionally. This is not haphazard. this is not by coincidence. We decided those three communities have to be together and then you bring them to a neighborhood to create it. So there’s a deep intentionality that emerges as a result of the comfort level of the relationships. You can’t get there by coincidence.”
At the end of the day, says Freeman, it’s not platitudes or mission statements or white papers that drive the Tri-Faith.
“As is often the case in collaborative projects it’s the people that make it work and we’ve had a group of amazing people committed to working on this. They’ve sustained that enthusiasm and commitment over five-six years. When I look at the people who have been around the table every one of them is very successful in their own walk of life. These are people who when they take something on they don’t fail, they lead it to a successful conclusion.”
Freeman, who’s worked on several Omaha collaboratives, says the Tri-Faith has been “an unequivocally positive experience.” An attorney by trade, he’s quick to point out that “we’ve had interactions that have been less than perfect but that’s life.”
“But life is about overcoming challenges and obstacles and recognizing different perspectives and being accommodating and continuing to move forward when you’re doing the right thing,” he says, “and we’ve had an uncommon aggregation of really strong, successful, goal-oriented people who’ve just willed this thing forward and been really good at problem solving.”
The Tri-Faith posed many potentially intractable, deal-breaker issues but Freeman says great care was taken to mitigate and mediate these.
“We did some things early on that probably helped contribute to success. We immediately talked about some of the harder issues and had a consensus on how we would address them, so we were able to take them off the table.”
Azriel concedes that when there’s an international flashpoint in Jewish-Muslim relations, fears, insecurities and resentments surface.
“Of course this comes up always as part of the discussion, issues of trust, of loyalty, of what-if scenarios. So you have definitely some of the Israeli-Arab conflict penetrating the conversation and people asking questions or suggesting that maybe its not the right way.
“You talk a lot, you try to respond, you try to bring the person who is asking to a level of comfort but the most important part is to invite them to a meeting with Muslims and Episcopalians.”
It’s in breaking bread and participating in celebrations with each other, he and his colleagues say, that people of divergent backgrounds and beliefs find their common humanity. That’s why the Tri-Faith sponsors events that bring people of different faiths together.
The Tri-Faith made its first big public splash in 2009 with the communal Dinner in Abraham’s Tent. An annual picnic is held. More events have followed, including workshops, panels, a children’s camp and high school programs.
“We were able to establish positive momentum and credibility through programs and projects we pulled off very successfully,” Freeman says.
Events outside its control become teachable moments. For example, the organization used the 2008 Gaza conflict to present a unified voice. Mohiuddin says, “We were able to come together and wrote a joint editorial in the World-Herald which expressed the concerns we had without blaming anybody. I thought it was a remarkable accomplishment.”
“I think that was a crucial point in our relationships, that we could move through that and stay together and be of one voice against violence on any side,” says Anderson.
Freeman says the Tri-Faith was able to draft a statement because the partners had set a precedent for addressing the elephants in the room.
“If you’re going to put three houses of worship together in a neighborhood setting there’s some things about that that can be threatening to one another and we immediately got into that. We talked about how we’re not trying to influence each other in our intramural religious efforts.”
In other words, no prosleltyzing. A memorandum of understanding laid it all out.
“An understanding was reached not to go after each other’s congregations to recruit members,” Freeman says. “We recognized the need to be separate, the need to be autonomous. There has to be autonomy. If any of the three want to do something internally in their congregation, in their building, on their land they have to be able to do that and neither of the other two should have any say at all in what that is. Certainly there can be a sensitivity to the impact that might have on your neighbors but nobody should tell anybody else how to govern or operate within their congregational religious life.
“One of the byproducts of that was we don’t want anybody’s faith to be watered down. We’re not trying to make Judaism more Christian, we’re not trying to make Islam more Jewish. So the separateness has to make us independent and even stronger in our own faiths and we’ve seen how that can effectively work.”
Mohiuddin’s experience bears out Freeman’s words. “The most important thing we’re doing is expressing the beliefs we have and as a result we understand our own faith better than we did before because we have to explain it to people and that actually makes your faith stronger, it doesn’t weaken it,” Mohiuddin says.
“I think we’ve become better Christians, Jews, Muslims by entering into this and trying to live out what our faith really says it’s about, and it’s not about politics, it’s not about power,” says Anderson.
Freeman points to other things the Tri-Faith’s done to solidify itself.
“We incorporated and formed a 501c organization early on (2006) so we would have an identity. We were then able to do some fundraising and get some money in, which enabled us to hire professional help along the way and get good consulting input, so it wasn’t entirely a volunteer-sustained effort. I think a lot of us felt expanding beyond just a bunch volunteers who met for coffee lent it credibility.”
Two key professionals brought in were Nancy Kirk and Vic Gutman, Omahans with long experience in arts administration, communications and public event planning. Kirk came on as executive director in 2008 and Gutman as media relations director soon after.
Freeman believes the city deserves credit, too, as “a nurturing, incubator environment for multi-group, creative, collaborative initiatives and projects.” He adds, “I think there’s a willingness to try and work together in recognition that something can be greater than the sum of its parts. There are amazing public-private partnerships that develop here. These models exist all over town and result in people working together and trusting each other.”
“The high level of trust people were willing to have in the Tri-Faith Initiative early on,” he says, “is a byproduct of a community spirit that fosters these kinds of things.”
Mohiuddin, who came from his native India to complete his medical studies at Creighton University decades ago, says, “Omaha has been my home for over 40 years and I’ve gotten to know the city, its culture, its style, and it’s just very welcoming.”
Azriel, a native of Israel by way of Baltimore, says the Tri-Faith is comprised of partners “not only predisposed to welcoming The Other but whose religious faith told them this is the way. It will be very hard to create this same scenario in people who are faithless. I think the right moment came and the right people assembled around the table, and then life has never been the same.”
Mohiuddin says, “If you look at any of the wonderful things that happen in the world, you need a core, usually a spark, which acts as a nucleus around which everything turns. It just happens to be in Omaha, it just happens to be us.”
Like his fellow pioneers Mohiuddin says the Tri-Faith could have easily disbanded by now “if we had allowed ourselves to get discouraged by the dissenting voices, if we did not have the courage of our own convictions.” Indeed, he attributes its survival to “the conviction of the founding members to stay with it,” adding, “We had such a strong belief that what we were doing was necessary and that this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”
On a more practical level, says Freeman, the partners are motivated to see the project through because it means a new house of worship for each faith group, plus an interfaith center. It’s the prospect of bringing these “homes” to completion, strengthening all three faith communities in the process, that supersedes everything else.
The Tri-Faith pioneers welcome the attention the initiative is generating and hope their work provides a framework for more interfaith collaboratives. But Mohiuddin speaks for his colleagues when he says, “I can’t be distracted” from the work at hand.
The partners have come too far now to be sidetracked and lose sight of the prize. Not when the campus Mohiuddin calls “our dream land” is so close at hand.
Faith without action is dead and the Tri-Faith is nothing if not an action-oriented movement. One with a life all its own and a promised land to be filled.
- Omaha temple breaks ground on its tri-faith campus building (jta.org)
- Interfaith, 70 years on… (thejc.com)
- Brotherhood of Faith (drbones.typepad.com)
- Omaha Corpus Christi Procession Draws Hundreds (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
From the Archives: Minister Makes No Concessions to Retirement, Plans Busy Travel, Filmmaking Schedule
I have had the opportunity to meet and interview many men and women of God and most of them exhibit a humility, gratitude, and generosity that I can best understand and articulate as grace. They cultivate the attitudes and take the actions of mercy and love that all of us are called to do, no matter what our faith tradition or even if we do not claim a faith that has a name or creed. The best ministers are open-minded and compassionate and committed to what they believe and do. They’re also unafraid to ask questions and to rattle the status quo now and then, even to challenge their own beliefs from time to time. The retired Rev. Richard Linde is such a man. I wrote this profile of him more than 20 years ago and in one way or another this piece has always stuck with me, not because of my writing, which is pedestrian at best, but because of the man and his unconditional embrace of life. I liked the fact. too, he was both a minister and a filmmaker and while his work making travel films didn’t have anything to do with the church or religion or spirituality per se it was still another expression of his love for humanity and the wonders of creation.
I was also impressed by Linde having studied at Princeton and Harvard, where he earned a business degree of all things, and having earned a doctorate as well. Again, like any good minister, he has always been a searcher and seeker in pursuit of knowledge.
NOTE: In preparing to post this I discovered that Rev. Linde now lives in Colorado and that he has authored a couple books: The Christ of Every Road, a fitting title for a man who has traversed so many paths: and Chaplain Richard Linde, We Also Fought, the chronicle of his own experience as a young navy chaplain during World War II counseling sailors readying for the planned invasion of Japan, casualties from the Pacific Theater, and submariners returned from torpedoing Japanese ships. I have no doubt that he followed his plans after leaving Countryside to make the film about the United Church of Christ and to do more traveling. I also have no doubt he’s still as active and engaged as his physical abilities allow and that he’ll remain a seeker in some way, shape, or form until his final breath.
From the Archives: Minister Makes No Concessions to Retirement, Plans Busy Travel, Filmmaking Schedule
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Metro Update
Retirement is a state of mind.
Take the Rev. Richard Linde for example. Although the 60-something Protestant minister is fast approaching his August 1 retirement date the veteran globe-trotter isn’t planning to slow down much. Sitting idle just isn’t his style.
Besides, Linde has better things to do, like chasing rainbows and memories half-way around the world.
Soon after stepping down from his 17-year post as senior minister at Countryside Community Church in west Omaha Linde will slip into his worn, but comfortable shoes as a traveling man and go off to meet old and new horizons.
Much of the United Church of Christ minister’s life has been a search to balance his fiercely independent and inquisitive nature with organized religion. His many travels mirror his quest to somehow square knowledge with faith. His guide, he said, has been God. “A lot of my life has been serving God as I feel God directs me, not as the church directs me to go.”
While long ago coming to peace with himself, he’s still a restless spirit and has many miles to go before retreating from life. “I’ve never been a person who hangs around the house and I don’t think I ever will be. I don’t want to be. I don’t want to play shuffleboard in Forida either,” he said. “I have some other things I want to do. I’m probably going to work nine months out of the year and my wife and I still like to travel.”
Linde concedes he may cut back his work schedule to 40 or 50 hours a week during “retirement.”
He will combine work and travel when he begins filming a documentary September 1 for the national United Church of Christ, a project that may take two years.
It may surprise some of Linde’s acquaintances that for 25 of his 45 years in the ministry he made travel films as both a hobby and second profession. Indulging his love for travel, he photographed the diverse cultures of the Middle East, Czechoslovakia, Jamaica, Iceland, Luxembourg, Monaco and other parts of the world. He lectured widely with his films and sold several to television.
While Linde hasn’t made a film for more than 10 years the United Church Board of Homeland Ministries knows they have a filmmaker in the fold. With his newly commissioned film they want him to retrace the church’s early Congregational roots in Europe and migration to America. The denomination is the result of a 1961 merger between the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Linde will document the historic route taken by church followers, including Pilgrims, by shooting overseas and in the States.
“We’re talking about staying in England, then in Switzerland, and coming to New England and Pennsylvania and later going across the Plains with the great migration to the West. And I’m hoping to end up in Hawaii because the Congregational story there is interesting. Author James Michener, in his story of Hawaii, downplays the part of the missionaries. I think his emphasis is wrong,” said Linde, who wishes to set the record straight as he sees it.
Hawaii has special meaning for Linde, who was stationed at Pearl Harbor while a Navy chaplian in the Second World War. At age 20 he was one of the youngest chaplains in the Pacific. Anxious to be part of the war effort before it ended, he left seminary college to enlist in the chaplain corps and was assigned to Pearl’s submarine base in 1945.
“The Royal Hawaiian Hotel was the rest and recuperation annex for the sub base and I became the chaplain of the hotel, holding my services in the Bamboo Room,” he said, laughing at the incongruity of it all. “It was neat duty. I had a lot of interesting counseling there. The officers and (enlisted) men were very, very tense. A lot of fighting would go on among themselves. There was blood and teeth through the Royal Hawaiian from sailors fighting.”
On a lighter note, he said big band leader Ray Anthony and his orchestra often gigged there. “Some of his instrumentalists would play for my service the next morning. They would be so tired from playing most of the night that I’d tell them, ‘Oh, c’mon guys, play a little faster,’ and they’s just go, ‘plunk, plunk, plunk,’ he recalled with glee.
Linde also traveled all over the Pacific on the sub fleet flagship tender, the USS Holland (AS-3), where he saw firsthand how superstitious sailors coped with fear. “The submariners were very individualistic. On most subs they had a Buddha (effigy) and before they would fire a torpedo they would rub the stomach of the Buddha for good luck. But the guys, surprisingly, were quite religious. At that time there was only one chaplain for every 1,000 sailors – there was a lot of counseling.”
Although Linde never saw combat he said he was scared plenty of times.
The veteran returned to Hawaii with wife Randi three years ago. It was the first time he’d been back since the war. And at his wife’s urging they stayed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel he’d been “bragging about all these years.” To his dismay the place had changed and the Bamboo Room was only a distant memory. He realized how much time had passed when, after regaling the desk clerk with his stories, the young man said, ‘I wasn’t even thought of then.”
Linde, who never preached in the base chapel because he was too “young and junior an officer,” found he’d gained stature with time. “When I went back I asked to go onto the base and they asked me to preach. All the ranking officers of the fleet were there lined up in front me,” he said proudly.
It’s doubtful whether Linde’s hoped-for return to another exotic port of call from his Pacific past – Shanghai, China – will prove as inviting given ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China. “I want to go back to Shanghai, live there a month or so and do some writing about the way it was then and the way it is now.” Then was 1946, when Linde was the only chaplain for 15,000 U.S. Navy personnel in Shanghai, which even then was a large cosmopolitan city and sea port.
“I loved Shanghai. The Bund (its waterfront), the Palace Hotel, the famous clubs. Like so many of the major cities in China it was built by western nations. I was on the edge of the Bund, where the ships were in the Whangpoo River. They would tie up there and the sailors would come ashore.
“I had my services in the Majestic Theater, which was very large, the size of the Orpheum (Theater in Omaha) I suppose. I would get written up in some Shanghain papers for things I would say. You see, there were some very conflicting things going on there,” he said, alluding to the city’s weird melding of sophistication and feudalism. “For example, they had just started to invoke the old Chinese custom of, when there is theft, cutting off the thief’s right hand, and thievery went way, way down.”
Crime, including a thriving black market, was rampant. So were anti-American feelings. Adding fury to the maelstrom were growing tensions between the country’s Nationalist and Communist factions.
“I remember one time I pulled up to the Park Hotel, where I lived, and ran up and ran right back down. In the little time I was up there all three of the locks of my jeep were stolen. I never did know whether they were thumbing their noses at the U.S. Navy or they just didn’t have time to steal the jeep. I was part of practically the last group to get out before the Communists took over.”
USS Holland (AS-3)
After his discharge Linde finished his theological training, which began at Princeton, by getting his degree from Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey. He also worked as youth director at a Los Angeles church for a time.
Still unsure of the ministry as his life’s work, he applied to the Harvard Business School. “The amazing thing was that I got accepted. That was a great surprise to me and I thought it was too good to pass up. I used my GI Bill to go there.” His Harvard years marked a turning point in his personal and professional life and a crucible of faith.
“The people that went there worked so hard, and I knew I’d be just like the rest of them if I went into business. I wouldn’t have any time then for religion. I decided my real emphasis, my real interest in life was religous faith. I decided to go with the church rather than do religious work as a sideline, which I had been thinking of.”
He did earn an MBA degree. But more importantly it ws while his back East that he met his wife of 40 years now. She was a Wellesley girl.
“I met her the night she had signed a contract to teach school in Turkey. She was leaving in two months and when she left she was wearing my (engagement) ring. We had a furious correspondence writing to each other every day. After about 10 months we met in Geneva, Switzerland. I came from Boston and she came from Izmir, Turkey. We were married in the Cathedral of Saint Peter, where John Calvin, the famous Medieval reformer, preached.”
Linde and his wife led a tour group to Geneva four or five years ago. When informed of the cathedral’s significance to the couple some group members had the sextant open the closed chapel where the Lindes took their vows. “We stood at the altar where we had been married and all the women had tears and the flashbulbs popped.”
He has been leading tours for many years, including recent excursions to England and Holland. He’ll lead a Scandinavian trip this summer.
Summers have long been Linde’s time to travel. Taking advantage of the month off he had each summer he used his vacations to “moonlight” as a filmmaker. He began tinkering with movie cameras in the 1950s while preaching in his native Ohio. It wasn’t long before he turned his 16 millimeter Bolex on the international sights he visited each summer.
The self-taught filmmaker became serious about his hobby when he discovered his low-budget productions were not only engaging but marketable. He sold eight of his films to national syndicated television networks.
“I guess I have a good eye for what a good picture is and what good action is,” he said. “I was showing one of my films in New York City to the Jamaican Trade Board and their officials said, ‘That’s the best film that’s ever been made on Jamaica. If you ever want to go again and update Jamaica you see us.’ So one summer I didn’t have anything else to do and they gave Randi and me plane tickets, reservations at the best hotels and a car.”
He said sponsors, such as national trade boards or airlines, usually paid his and Randi’s ways overseas. While he sometimes used local cinematographers on location he mostly handled the camera himself. He also scripted the movies after compiling and editing the footage. “It usually takes me two summers to make a film.”
Linde retained an agent to book himself and his film on the national lecture- travel film circuit. There were enough engagements that he had written into his ministirial contracts permission to travel on the road as needed. He spoke and presented the travelogues at universities and art centers nationwide. In 25 years he missed only one engagement – due to a raging snowstorm.
“I never ended up with any profit. The money went right back into the next film. It was something fun for me to do.”
A lecture stop 20 years ago introduced him to Omaha. “Impresario Dick Walter brought me here to lecture at Joslyn Art Museum for one of his travel film series. That’s when I first saw this beautiful city and became interested in living here. Before Dick Walter brought me out here I was like other people who thought this was someplace you fly over on your way to someplace else.”
After taking the Countryside Community Church position in 1973 Linde continued making films and lecturing for a time. He quit filming because new, more expensive technology overtook his grassroots methods. He sounds a little wistful talking about those halcyon days when he and his films were featured attractions. Perhaps that’s why he jumped at the chance to lead this United Church in Christ faith community. He thrived on all the travel then (and still does) because it relieved stress. “From a health standpoint I think it was really the making of my job. I could go an airplane and fly to Denver or Miami or Los Angeles. I’ve been blessed with a lot of energy in my life, so I can fly someplace, give a lecture and come back on the red-eye express and still be at my office the next morning. I was able for years and years to do that. And I considered it fun. I liked the plane ride, the people applauding and the whole thing. For me, it was a lot more interesting than puttering around the house.”
He also credits his wife for helping smooth his comings and goings. “Fortunately I have a wife who understands the necessity of my being away from home a great deal. Usually I am at home for dinner but if I’m not some evening it’s not a crisis.”
Although he said his film career really didn’t “have much to do with the church, that’s one reason I’ve liked what I’ve been doing because I’ve been involved in a lot interesting, different things.” His openness to new, eclectic experiences is consistent with the liberal underpinnings of his church.
“One reason I’m in the United Church of Christ is that there’s an enormous freedom. We call it autonomy. You really don’t have a hiearchy over you telling you what to do. It’s mostly a relationship between the people here at Countryside and the staff. That’s very important to me because I didn’t want to be a churchman as much as I wanted to serve people. Counseling has been important to people over the years and I decided just before I came here to go back to school and get a doctorate in counseling (from Butler Univrsity) so I could be a professional rather than just a gifted amatuer.”
He said his search for knowledge has helped resolve personal crises of faith. “I’ve gone through two maybe three periods of intense questioning of everything I believed, and I think I’ve come out with a much stronger faith each time.”
Early on he chafed at his fundamentalist upbringing. “Pretty much what I grew up on was, ‘Well, you have to take it on faith. Just believe.’ I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to know why. That’s partly why I went to get a doctorate – I wanted to know why.”
Despite straying from the fundamentalist teachings he was reared on in Ohio Linde said his early years “did give me a strong impetus toward religious faith.” He added, “My mother particuarly was very religious. She read Bible stories to me.” Even as a child Linde challenged prevailing wisdom: “I always thought I knew more than the Sunday school teachers, which I probably did.”
When as a young man he told his mother of his plans to enter the ministry, he said, “she was disappointed,” adding, “She wanted me to be a good Christian boy but she wasn’t quite sure about my going into the ministry. I was surprised by that but I went anyhow.”
“I’ve really wrestled with my faith and I’ve come out with answers that, to me, are satisfactory. But they’re not the answers I had when I was a little boy in Sunday school.”
Linde feels many of Countryside’s 2,000 members are, like himself, questioners who demand answers. Others, he said, are from conservative backgrounds. He welcomes them all. Whie\le describing his church as liberal, he adds, “It doesn’t mean we don’t beleieve in anything. It means we will accept people of many different variations of faith. We don’t stuff people into one little box and say, ‘This is what you have to believe.’ This is one reason why people join Countryside. In our denomination we’re one of the largest and fastest growing churches in the U.S.”
To appeal to what he calles “a very young congregation on the sunny side of 40,” Linde has adapted his preaching style.
“I was brought up in the era when you weren’t supposed to use any personal references or illustrations and preaching was pretty stuffy. Years ago I rebelled against that. Using Jesus as a model I’ve used more illustrations and stories, trying to show what life is like and what it can be like and sometimes what it isn’t like. The fact is I’ve tried to preach like I make movies – a series of sequences and images, without trying to explain what it means.”
In general, he said “churches are learning what people really need. There is an ethical, a values and a religious hunger. Whether you want to admit it or not, there is something deep down inside of each person that does want values. People will come to a place where you don’t try to pound it into them but where it’s openly discussed.”
He said people are just as receptive to men of the cloth today as in years past. He feels his role is as vital as ever and perhaps more so not only because times are hard but because he views his vocation differently than before.
“My own perception has changed. When I first started out I was embarassed to be a minister. I’m not anymore. I think what I’m doing is very important. The reason, for instance, I’ve been in the church doing counseling is that I think what the church, what religious faith has to offer is more important than what a secular counselor has. Just adding the element of faith to psychological knowledge is a plus.”
A new building on Countryside’s campus will help the church further address people’s needs. He said the Family Life Center, set for an Easter completion, will offer “counseling, therapy and enrichment” to families.
Overall, Linde said the church’s mission is “essentially to improve the quality of life in our community and city and world.” An example of its world outreach is Countryside aiding 18 children and their families in Amaititlan, Guatemala, where the Lindes visited recently. “My wife and I want to go back to Guatemala and go to language school. During our winter it’s their springtime and just beautiful down there.”
After all the trails he and his wife have followed, it’s not surpising then that the couple’s three grown sons have heeded their parents’ wanderlust ways and tranplanted themselves about the globe. One lives in Vail, Colo., another in New York City and the third in Taiwan.
Linde is not the type to dwell on his own many traveled roads because he’s always on the verge of some new journey. He confided, “I haven’t talked about myself this long in a long time.” But with his Countryside career about to draw to a close he thought the time right to reflect.
“We have an outstanding church here and I hope it will continue. I followed a good minister here (the Rev. Bob Alward) and we’ve continued to grow, the church has prospered in the 17 years I’ve been here, and I just hope the fella who follows me can continue what’s been done. Having the church prosper is very important to me.”
- Military Chaplains Speak Out Against Military Same-Sex Marriage Ban (lezgetreal.com)
There are people who talk about doing things and people who do things. Nancy Kirk is the latter. That’s not to say she finishes everything she starts. Like those unfinished manuscripts of hers she’d like to get to one day. But lots of us can say that. She’s also a model of reinvention – of following one path in life and then finding a new direction and then another to feed her ever-searching sensibility. In truth, all of her paths have followed a similar humanistic and cultural track. She began her career in the arts, then went entrepreneurial in the antique quilt and fabrics world, and more recently has taken up interfaith work as executive director of an initiative whose ultimate aim is to bring together a synagouge, a church, and a mosque on the same campus in Omaha, Neb. The following profile I wrote about this intriguing woman will be the November cover story in the New Horizons. Read it here first.
Nancy Kirk: Arts Maven, Author, Communicator, Entrepreneur, Interfaith Champion
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in the New Horizons
Long before becoming executive director of the Tri-Faith Initiative, the Omaha collaborative that finds Jews, Christians and Muslims building a shared worship campus, Nancy (Timmins) Kirk made a name for herself in the quilting world. Only not as a quilter, she’s quick to point out, but rather as a designer and aficionado.
It’s only natural to assume she’s a quiltmaker since she and her late husband owned The Kirk Collection, an antique fabrics supply, restoration and appraisal business that gained an international reputation and clientele. Nancy still carries on aspects of the business by conducting workshops, making presentations and producing DVDs and CDs on antique quilt restoration.
“I still love the teaching and the writing and the speaking,” she said. But the grind of multi-day conferences takes more of a toll these days on Kirk, who has survived a heart attack and open heart surgery.
Much like her work with the nonprofit Tri-Faith, whose groundbreaking plan for a synagogue, church and mosque on adjoining property is drawing worldwide interest, Kirk came to quilting an inveterate seeker always curious to know more. She’s learned enough to speak with not only passion but authority about quilting as art, craft and healing process and quilts as potent, touchstone objects of utility, aesthetics and humanity.
“Quilting serves many different purposes,” she said. “For some people it’s a craft activity, a stress reliever. Studies have shown the activity of quilting changes the brain’s alpha waves. For other people it’s an art medium, a very expressive way for a designer to work. For others it becomes very therapeutic.”
Quilts evoke intimate feelings tied to memories, rituals and relationships.
“For the viewer or the recipient, quilts exist for people at an emotional level that is really very primitive,” she said. “People respond with a part of their brain that usually has no language. Quilts represent people’s deep emotional connections with home, with comfort, with safety, with love. You see people wrapping up in quilts or touching quilts and being reminded of parents and grandparents and places they used to live. And you start hearing these wonderful stories.”
The way Kirk sees it, every quilt has a story to tell.
“All you have to do is plant yourself near a quilt, particularly an older quilt, at a quilt show and by the end of the day you’ll hear dozens of stories from people because they’re so evocative, especially in this part of the country, where people grew up with quilts. They’re very powerful objects.”
Before The Kirk Collection became a mail order source of antique fabrics for quilters the business made its name as a supplier to Hollywood film and television studio designers and costumers in need of period materials. Nancy and Bill Kirk provided fabrics that ended up in costumes of such major motion pictures as Titanic, Forest Gump and Wyatt Earp and network shows like Brooklyn Bridge and Homefront.
The couple ran the business out of their Bemis Park home before opening a store at 45th and Military Ave. Their customer roster extended to Europe and Asia.
Before she got into quilting, Kirk worked in the arts, where her aesthetic sensibilities were honed to give her a deep appreciation for not only the fine and performing arts but antiques, including textiles and fabrics.
The daughter of university professor parents who divorced when she and her sister were young, Kirk grew up in her native New York City and a variety of other locales.
She absorbed a classic liberal arts education at Antioch (Ohio) college, where she studied social sciences and journalism. She’s put her writing skill set to good use over the years as an arts administrator and public relations professional. Her unplanned fascination with arts management was fired when she spent two years with an Antioch theater project in Baltimore, MD.
“At this funny little free theater we brought in very experimental theater and dance companies from all over the world — The Medicine Show, Pilobolus. It was the out of town try-out place for experimental theater and dance. I became absolutely in love with experimental theater and dance and I was exposed to some of the best in the world. We were always at odds with the state and local arts councils because we were doing and promoting this work that was very outside the mainstream.”
By the time she earned her master’s in arts management from the University of Illinois and moved to Omaha to work a paid internship with the Nebraska Arts Council, she found herself in the midst of a cutting edge arts movement here. She arrived only a week after the devastating 1975 tornado and neither its widespread damage nor the paralyzing blizzard of ’75 that followed that winter could scare her away. Neither did the relative uproar over the Bicentennial I-80 sculpture project, edgy stagework by the Omaha Magic Theatre and the counterculture head shops, avant garde films and art happenings in the then-fledgling Old Market.
Indeed, she was won over by how open-minded Nebraskans were to new ideas.
“In all the time I worked for the state arts council and then 11 more years for the local arts council there was no one who said we shouldn’t have art.”
She recalled an I-80 sculptures forum in some backwater Neb. town where “an old man in coveralls got up and said, ‘I sure don’t understand this stuff, but I want to make sure my grandchildren have a chance to see it,’ and that was the attitude pretty much for anything.” One of her roles with the state arts council was traveling to rural hamlets and educating the local populace about the touring programs coming their way.
She said resistance or suspicion to unfamiliar art disappeared when she framed the needs of artists “in terms that (rural) audiences could understand from their own perspective,” adding, “That was a big part of my job.” Like the time she went to a small town in advance of a touring opera program. She laid to rest concerns singers were divas for requiring humidifiers in their rooms by explaining that the artists needed the devices to keep their throat and voice supple in the same way farm tractors or threshers need routine maintenance to run right. Once she put things in practical terms, she said, humidifiers were readily volunteered.
“I came to have a real appreciation of what arts councils were doing in terms of opening up the doors to the arts in a lot of communities where there had really been nothing outside the high school play. A lot of them shied away from cutting edge kind of work.”
The arts councils that sprung up in the ’60s and ’70s, she said, “were bringing the arts out of the urban areas and into the rest of the country.” For example, she said the Omaha Community Playhouse formed the Nebraska Theatre Caravan “and took theater into towns that had never had professional theater and Opera Omaha organized small touring evenings of opera.”
Visual artists, dancers, authors, poets and others began criss-crossing the state to present before general audiences or to do residencies in schools. Her focus on bringing the arts to underserved populations extended to a visual art program in the state penitentiary, where even death row inmates were provided art supplies for their self-expression. Her work introduced her to the man who became her husband, Bill Kirk, who was a theater actor-director and kindred spirit.
She authored an award-winning book, Lobbying for the Arts, used all over the country.
An advantage Omaha owns when it comes to supporting the arts and other things, she said, is that it’s still small and accommodating enough to provide ready “access to power,” unlike other cities she’s lived where access is limited to few. “Here, all you had to do was pick up the phone and ask for an audience with Willis Strauss or Peter Kiewit or Leo Daly or John Bookout. You could be heard. They might not agree with you, they might not end up supporting your cause, but you could make your case. I think it’s very much the same attitude that created Ak-Sar-Ben. It’s this place of kind of infinite possibility and egalitarianism.”
Nancy Kirk discussing quilt restoration
She said Omaha’s can-do spirit is what sold her on this place and has kept her put.
“This is the kind of city I wanted to live in. I think this same spirit of civic work still exists now. It’s an attitude that makes the most extraordinary things possible.”
“Tri-Faith is another example of it,” she said of the initiative whose partners are Temple Israel, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, “Not only was there no significant opposition to it, there was a kind of, Well, I don’t quite understand it, but what can we do to help? attitude. When it came to raise money for the land four foundations stepped up.”
The intended Tri-Faith campus is on the grounds of the former Highland Country Club, which Jews formed decades ago when denied admittance to goy clubs. The campus plan is part of the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development in southwest Omaha that’s presently undergoing site preparation work. Plans call for three worship centers — one for each participating faith group — and a shared interfaith education center Kirk refers to as “the meeting place.”
Support for the project, which launched in 2006, has come together quickly from large though as yet undisclosed donors.
“Basically the donations have been made because it’s good for the city,” said Kirk. “They see this vision that this makes Omaha a better place to live for everybody.”
Tri-Faith was conceived in response to a seemingly mundane dilemma.
“The genesis is parking lots. This is a project about parking lots — very seriously,” Kirk said.
Temple Israel synagogue has long been in need of a new site, having outgrown its current building and plot just east of 72nd and Cass. With its congregation largely residing now in suburbia, a move west only made sense. When synagogue leaders began contemplating what they’d like in a new site, said Kirk, they were “very intentional about finding good neighbors” like the ones they have today in the Omaha Community Playhouse and First United Methodist Church.
She said when Temple heard that the Institute was planning to build a new mosque in west Omaha synagogue member Bob Freeman, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel and others contacted AISC president and co-founder Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, “to discuss looking for land together to share parking lots.”
Consistent with hospitality being “such a central concept to all the Abrahamic faith traditions,” she said, representatives from each group came bearing mounds of food for the meeting. That first confab led to more. She said, “When they eventually began talking matters of faith rather than concrete it occurred to them they had two of the three major Abrahamic traditions represented.” As a potential Christian partner the parties approached the Catholic archdiocese of Omaha, whose then-archbishop, Rev. Elden Curtiss, declined. They next made overtures to the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, whose then-leader, Rev. Joe Burnett, accepted.
In 2006 Tri-Faith was incorporated as a 501c3 and since then the organization has presented several interfaith events to promote understanding, all while working toward a common goal of a shared campus. The endeavor has made headlines around the world at a time when religious and cultural differences continue to be serious dividing points. Building bridges is an appealing idea as the globe grows ever flatter and more interconnected thanks to online social networking and to grassroots movements like those of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.
“It turns out the parking lots are such a metaphor for what’s going on in the world because the fact is we all have to share this earth. — it’s how do we live together,” said Kirk.
Her Tri-Faith involvement began in 2008, when it might be said her decades-long quest for spiritual fulfillment reached a new plane. In some ways, she acknowledges, she’s a most unlikely director of an interfaith project because for the first 35 years of her life she struggled with matters of faith. Then again, her uneasy journey steeled her for leading an initiative about celebrating differences.
“My father was a fallen-away Catholic, my mother was a fallen-away Unitarian, so I was brought up with no particular religion, in a household that wavered somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. But both parents allowed us to be exposed to some variety of religions. There was no objection if we went to church with friends.”
On some level, Kirk’s faith odyssey echoed that of her divining rod maternal grandmother, Sophia Lyon Fahs, who was ordained a Unitarian minister at 80 and wrote dozens of religious education books. Her last book, The Church Across the Street, was a comparative religions study. The liberal, progressive themes of inclusion and tolerance her grandmother advocated are in line with those of Kirk and the Tri-Faith Initiative.
Kirk comes from a long line of matriarchal figures and accomplished professionals. Her great-grandmother wrote books about her Presbyterian missionary work in China.
So it wasn’t as if Kirk didn’t have ready examples of faith to follow. In fact, she said, “I envied people who had great faith but I didn’t understand the experience and didn’t expect to ever have it. I was never anti-religious, I just was not religious.”
Then, in the midst of building her arts career, what she least expected happened.
“I was one of those bolt of lightening people. Literally in the course of a 24-hour period I came to a very deep belief in the existence of God. I was at home and all of a sudden I felt this incredible sense of certainty. It was so different than the kind of rational approach I’d always had to life. That’s when I started searching and doing a lot of reading. I didn’t talk to anyone about it really for a very long time.”
Before becoming a couple Nancy and Bill Kirk were friends. On a long road trip for an arts program she told him about her spiritual awakening and “how confusing it all felt” because it didn’t necessarily jive with what organized religion prescribed.
“And he said something very helpful — that the personal experience you feel is faith and all the stuff you hear in church and in the bible and other sources is belief, and belief is what happens in your head and faith is what happens in your heart …and that both are OK. The part that is faith is intended to be a questioning process throughout your life. Your responsibility as a human being is to continue to explore and try to understand and to go through periods of disbelief.”
“The deeper you explore that abyss that you’re always afraid you’ll fall into and never come out of,” she said, “the more you discover there are those dark nights of the soul when you feel faith has deserted you. But usually it’s the belief that’s deserted you, and the faith part can lead you back away from the edge of the precipice. And then you rebuild the belief.”
After being stricken with the spirit, Kirk tried on a number of faiths but it was only four years ago she “came to the Episcopal Church.” She’s a member of St. Andrew’s. She was finally swayed to the denomination, which she’d flirted with before, after seeing the church’s presiding bishop in the U.S., Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori on CBS. “I said, ‘I would follow that woman anywhere,’ so when it came to look for a new church I looked for an Episcopal church.”
Coming from where she did to where she is today, Kirk said, has informed and shaped the spiritual life she enjoys today and her work with Tri-Faith.
“So this rather eclectic religious background of growing up outside any one particular faith tradition and not necessarily having a particular belief in any of them for the larger part of my life in some ways really helped prepare me for what I’m doing now. Because I came to the habit of questioning, researching, listening hard and trying to understand other people’s faith journeys as part of my own.”
The discernment she does by opening herself to other beliefs enriches her life and her faith. “I find it fascinating and each of those encounters helps me refine my own faith and without any denial of my own tradition as I have adopted it now.”
Kirk felt drawn to engage in the Tri-Faith experiment after taking an inventory of her life a few years ago and deciding to embark on a new path she felt called to follow.
“When I turned 60 (she’s 64 today ) I made a 44-year life plan. I’ve always made long range plans. Women in my family thankfully tend to be long-lived. My grandmother died at 103. My mother died at 94. Both were active until the end. So it seemed like 104 was a good age to shoot for. I had become really fascinated with the changing role of religion in a pluralistic society. The Kirk Collection was kind of winding down, I’d closed our retail store. I didn’t want to cut another piece of fabric ever again in my life. After about 25 years in the quilt world I was ready for a change. My husband had died. It was time to reinvent myself again.”
She didn’t tell anyone (at first) about her new life plan. Then, she said, she “finally got up the nerve” to tell her business coach and much to her relief “he didn’t laugh.” “Once I said it out loud it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do — some kind of ministry.’ Lay or ordained, it didn’t matter, but this is the subject area I wanted to be in.”
She felt compelled to give back.
“Sixty is a great place to start because chances are you’ve done pretty much what you intended to do professionally and getting your kids raised up. It’s not really like a bucket list but there’s still a chance to contribute meaningfully to the world. We want to make sure by the end of our life we know our life had meaning and this is a great age at which to be doing it. We don’t have a lot of the distractions we had before of raising kids and building career. Sixty to 100 there’s a chance to do things that really change the world and getting it done is more important than getting credit.”
The philosophy reminds her of her college’s motto: “Be ashamed to die until you’ve won some victory for humanity.”
Fatefully, a group of Tri-Faith board members made a presentation at St. Andrew one Sunday. Until then, she’d not even heard of the venture but she was immediately and powerfully attracted to its vision of three faiths partnering together.
“This is what I’m supposed to be doing,” is what she said she thought to herself. It wasn’t long before she offered her services to help spread Tri-Faith’s message and dream. When she learned the group was seeking an executive director she made a proposal and was hired. She saw the mission as a perfect fit for many reasons, not the least of which is her considerable PR experience and expertise.
In a world full of noise and mixed messages, she said she aims to keep Tri-Faith on point with its mission of “celebrating the diversity of our religious traditions.” “It’s beyond tolerance and acceptance and respect, it’s really about building relationships among people and celebrating those differences,” she said.
“As one of our board members, Rev. Ernesto Medina said, ‘The reason we know it’s working is we know the names of each others children,’ and that’s what it’s all about. It’s building those relationships.”
A Tri-Faith Initiative event
She said in this increasingly global space we inhabit “I think the world is having to live into a new definition of who is our neighbor. I think we’re called on to be really aware of our neighbors and getting to know them.”
Through events like Abraham’s Tent and the Tri-Faith Picnic, she said Jewish, Christian and Islamic rites are celebrated and people learn what to say or do during worship services and ceremonies. As distinct as each tradition is, Tri-Faith reminds participants “there’s so much the faiths share — we all greet each other with peace, we’re all talking about and praying to the same God.”
She said learning how to offer peace in each faith tradition can be a profound thing, whether saying “peace be with you” or “shabbat shalom” or “as-salamu alaykum.” “Just those few simple words,” she said, “and all of a sudden you feel very comfortable. It’s those little things that take the strangeness out of it.”
Then there is the exploration Tri-Faith inspires.
“A great thing that happens with the Tri-Faith is that as you engage in interfaith work and discussions you feel compelled to learn more about your own faith. You begin to explore your own tradition. You either question or affirm or study why you believe what you do and universally you end up more attached and committed to your own faith.”
She’s impressed by how the Tri-Faith board, composed of both lay and religious, doesn’t stray from its mission.
“I’ve worked with many nonprofit boards over the years and this is truly unlike any other board I have ever worked with. They expect that everything is possible, they have committed themselves to one another to make things possible. There are really no internal politics, there’s no jockeying for position. There’s a spirit that infuses their discussions that they’re really there to do God’s work and that it’s going to happen. There’s such a certainty it’s going to happen. There’s a spirit of peace in the room that is extraordinary.”
She said internal politics don’t surface though she concedes “politics sometimes intrudes from the outside.”
She said the fallout of 9/11 played a part in Tri-Faith’s formation “in the sense that we’re all in this together and we’re the ones that have to find a solution to this, and focusing on the division is not the way.”
It’s not the first time the city’s faith groups have banded together. She said several joined forces to help feed and house Chief Standing Bear’s supporters during the great Indian leader’s Fort Omaha trial. Many were active in the civil rights struggle. A number formed Together Inc. after the ‘75 tornado. More recently, faith groups have united in calling for an end to urban violence. But the Tri-Faith Initiative is something else again. She said Rev. Medina, pastor of St. Martha’s Church in Papillion, may have best summed up the miracle of the initiative with, “This was beyond the imagination of many people but not beyond the imagination of God.”
It hasn’t all been perfect.
“There have been bumps in the road,” Kirk acknowledged, “and people who’ve gotten their noses out of joint over this or that, but for the most part even those who were a little suspicious at first have often ended up as the biggest cheerleaders.”
She’s proud of many things she’s done in her life, from her work in the arts to her entrepreneurial success to her raising two adopted children, but she’s pretty certain Tri-Faith will be her most impactful legacy, at least in terms of sheer magnitude.
She can’t imagine making a greater contribution than bringing people together.
“I think the most meaningful part of the work is when I see people come to the table and sit with people of other faiths with excitement and anticipation instead of fear. If we’ve done our job and created a safe place, a place of trust where people feel they can be authentically themselves and authentically interested in the other, that is a real place of grace.”
If heredity’s any guide, then Kirk has miles to go before she sleeps. Reflecting upon her life, her diverse pursuits have “felt to me as a continuum,” she said, adding, “They all enrich people’s lives in important ways and all involve starting something new, whether new types of arts programs, a new small business or a one-of-a-kind religious development. I like being in on the start of things…”
- John Sorensen’s Decades-Long Magnificent Obsession with the Abbott Sisters Bears Fruit in a Slew of New Works, Including ‘The Quilted Conscience’ Documentary at Film Streams (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Soon Come: Neville Murray’s Passion for the Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its Role in Rebirthing North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Why Quilts Matter (uofllibraries.wordpress.com)
- Sharing Some Quilt Blogs (devotedtoquilting.wordpress.com)
- Antique Quilt Pieces from Fort at #4 (quilterinmotion.wordpress.com)
- A Stitch in Time Builds A World Class Quilt Collection and Center-Museum (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Tri-Faith Pioneers Seeing the Fruits of Their Interfaith Collaborative Take Shape (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
This is one of many stories I have filed over the years related to the Loves Jazz & Arts Center in Omaha and various programs and exhibitions there. The subject of this story from a few years ago for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes and an exhibiiton of his work then showing at the LJAC. I am not an art reviewer, and thus the pieces I do from time to time about painters and sculptors and photographers are written more from a profile perspective than anything else. The center has presented many excellent exhibitions over the years that I have had the chance to see and cover, and in some cases I’ve interviewed the featured artists. Hoyes included. On this same blog you’ll find more LJAC art stories, including one on Frederick Brown and another on collector/explorer Kam-Ching Leung. You’ll also find stories about the center’s namesake, the late jazz musician Preston Love.
Sanctified Joy, ©Bernard Stanley Hoyes
Artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes Explores the Lamentations and Celebrations of Jamaican Revival Worship
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Spiritual rapture is captured in artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes’s Revival Series. The exhibition Lamentations & Celebrations on display now through March 10 at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center features oil paintings, lithographs and etchings from the series, in which the Los Angeles-based artist explores the Revival worship services of his native Jamaica. He spent a week in Omaha doing school residencies.
Hoyes uses lustrous colors, seductive swirls and overwrought figures to evoke the “spirit at that moment of crescendo.” A cathartic moment when light, sound, music, rhythm and emotion reach a fever pitch of illumination or exaltation, said Hoyes, standing amid his iridescent work on the walls at the LJAC. When he began the series 25 years ago he chose a clean color palette and lyrical line pattern for his dynamic series. “In order for me to attain spirit and spirituality in my pictures,” he said, “my colors had to be pure. I went about by using colors without really muddling or mixing or tapering them. It’s like a sequence of motion and I’m capturing the motion at different points, but at the peak of each sequence.”
His images of incantation, reverie and ritual take place in outdoor, night time gatherings brightened by the glow of candle light and supernatural incandescence, where worshipers commune with their higher power in scenes at once solemn, joyful and eerie. There’s a power to the writhing figures caught in the spirit’s sway. The congregants worship en mass, buoyed by the communal beat of The Call.
He said, “The intention is to show where we gather our strength in all the trials and tribulations we have to endure. The strength comes from the commonality of our spiritual seeking. That’s one of the reasons I group the figures together and put them kind of like solid. They feel like one. You need all these bodies together to evoke the strength of what it takes to have a spiritual community.”
Flow with the Rhythm, ©Bernard Stanley Hoyes
His own experience of Revivalism, an amalgam of Afro-Caribbean-Christian traditions, goes back to his Jamaican youth. His great aunt was a priestess and elder whose backyard was the site for many services. He witnessed the songs, chants, dances, drums, processions, channeling of spirits, ecstatic revelations. The sacred, the mystical, the strange. It frightened and fascinated him. It was inevitable his art would explore these altered states and this mediation of ethereal and terrestrial.
Long after he left the island for America, he returned to Jamaica to observe with the eyes of a mature artist the Poccomanian and Zion strains of Revivalism. In rediscovering his roots, he found an intuitive grasp of it all. “I started to realize I had an innate sensibility about these ceremonies. I knew them,” he said. “It’s like knowing Mass. You know the consecutive ceremonies and where they go. You know the hymns. You can recognize what that special ritual and special consecration is all about without being told. As I started investigating it I saw there were some things being lost over the years. Certain sentiments in the religion. The way there was pressure to get a formal church building, where before worship was conducted in holy sites throughout the countryside or in certain blessed yards.”
He noted, too, the introduction of technology, by means of electrical amplification, to what were all acoustic rites. The changes, he said, gave him an urgency to document a rapidly disappearing heritage.
Bernard Stanley Hoyes
Hoyes views his art as an expression of the spirit and the spirit of art. As a veteran of inner city life in Kingston and L.A., he knows the soul killing poverty and crime people of color face. He creates work for nontraditional spaces as offerings of peace and unity amid troubled tribes and times, like his murals and his installations of altars and tables in riot-ravaged neighborhoods.
“We have to move beyond those manic rages,” he said through “spiritual cleansing. We can then start anew, afresh. That’s why I think we’ve seen the pervasive Born Again rituals-religions in America. People see the need for that cleansing. We have to look for the rituals where we find them. Until we do that we become captive to the oppressive nature of urban violence and all the other manic depressive things that go on in our community.”
Moonlight Spiritual S/N, ©Bernard Stanley Hoyes
Art, he said, can be part of “the healing process. It has to be about something that’s pervasive, that everybody can link their spirit to.” His Revival Series, informed by Jamaican and African American rites, is a resplendent multi-faith expression of praise and worship, call and response testifying. “It covers the whole gamut of Western Christianity with the African influence in it,” he said. Ever since his series struck a chord” a few years ago, his work has been collected by celebs like Oprah Winfrey, bringing thousands of dollars for originals and hundreds for prints. Why? “I think for the first time people with spiritual longing and spiritual connection see that part in it. They see the passion and the emotion of worship that is in the DNA of anybody that’s been to a Pentecostal or Baptist service.”
It’s about getting caught up in and overcome by the spirit. It’s what moved him when he began the series in a flourish of productivity. The spirit dictated “the style and motif and energy…the drive. One painting would beget the other — suggest the idea for the next,” he said, until he’d done 40 paintings in five weeks. “While I’m painting it becomes unconscious. It’s a classic inspired-work. That’s what it is.” He’s quit the series, but has always returned to it, finding the “inexhaustible” subject lends itself to “variations on a theme ” It numbers 500 to 600 works now. He means to retire the series with this exhibit, but suspects he’ll be drawn back to it again.
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (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.
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- 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)