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)
If a potential client of mine had not referred me to a revival going on at a once proud Catholic church in Omaha that had fallen on hard times but is now undergoing a revitalization, I wouldn’t have known about it. This despite the fact I often drove past this church. The story I wrote about the transformation going on at St. Peter Catholic Church in Omaha originally appeared in El Perico. I applaud what the pastor there, Rev. Damien Cook, and his staff and parishioners are doing to infuse new life into the church by going back to the future in a sense and restoring the sacred to celebrations that had been stripped of solemnity and pageantry in the post-Vatican II world. On this same blog you can find my story titled, “Devotees Hold Fast to the Latin Rite,” and other Catholic-themed stories, particularly two dealing with the recently closed St, Peter Claver Cristo Rey High School and several dealing with Sacred Heart Catholic Church, including one focusing on the church’s inclusive spirt and another on its Heart Ministry Center.
Omaha’s St. Peter Catholic Church Revival Based on Restoring the Sacred
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
Just east above a stretch of I-480 stands St. Peter Catholic Church at 27th and Leavenworth. Its classical Greco-Roman facade is unlike anything in that sketchy near downtown Omaha district. Amid ramshackle urban surroundings the stone edifice is a solid, substantial front door for a poor, working class area made up of transients, bars, liquor stores and social service agencies as well as light industrial businesses, eateries, artist studios, apartments and homes.
When St. Peter’s pastor Rev. Damien Cook arrived in 2004 the church teetered on its last legs.
“It was a dying parish,” he says flatly.
He says before the Interstate came in the parish thrived but when homes were razed for the road-overpass construction, parishioners scattered to the far winds, leaving a psychological scar and physical barrier that isolated the parish.
From the pulpit Fr. Cook saw few pews filled in a sanctuary seating 800. The membership rolls counted only a small if dedicated cadre. With the school long closed and most old-line parishioners long gone, things looked bleak.
Seven years later, however, St Peter is enjoying a revival– “the numbers have vastly gone up” — that has its roots in demographics and faith. As the parish celebrates its 125th anniversary this spring and makes plans for an extensive interior church restoration there’s a resurgence afoot that belies the forlorn neighborhood.
“It’s a big year for us,” Cook says.
Always a mixed ethnic district, the Hispanic population was growing when Cook came, but has spiked since then. Many more began attending after St. Anne‘s closed. Now the church is predominantly Hispanic, though there’s a sizable non-Hispanic base as well.
Several Spanish Masses are offered each week. Quinceanera ceremonies occur there. A Spanish school of evangelization holds retreats in the old school building.
Where the congregation was decidedly aged before, it now over-brims with families, many with young children. Catechism classes serve more than 300 youths.
Perhaps most impressive, Cook says, is that the majority coming to St. Peter today don’t live within the parish boundaries but drive-in from all across the metro, making it a true “commuter parish.”
Fr. Damien Cook, left
Why are folks flocking there?
It seems Cook has struck a chord in the effort to, he says, “restore the sacred at the church.” It trends with a national movement aimed at returning to a more traditional liturgy that expresses the awe, majesty, splendor and reverence of communal worship. He says many people tell him they were missing what St. Peter provides.
At St. Peter restoring the sacred means:
• integrating Latin into elements of every Mass, both English and Spanish
• performing traditional sacred music and chant
• using incense
• worshipers receiving communion at the altar rail
• multiple clergy and altar boys participating
Additionally, St. Peter offers daily confession and chanted vespers. Each spring it conducts a festive Corpus Christi procession that follows a 1.4 mile route. As a canopy covered vessel containing the Eucharist is carried, children strew the path with flower petals, music plays and prayers are recited aloud. It all culminates in fireworks, song, food and thanksgiving outside the church.
Cook says parishioners embrace these rites and share their enthusiasm with others, which in turn helps St. Peter grow attendance and membership.
“I just feel really blessed,” he says. “There’s always been faith here, and I inherited that from the priests who went before me. Even if the congregation was smaller the people here were really receptive to the whole evangelization process — of going out and telling their friends, ‘You should come down to St. Peter’s for Mass. Just try it once.’ And once people do they get kind of hooked.
“So the people themselves are the greatest gift to me. They really want to know more about the faith, they really do want the sacred and are excited about restoring the sacred.”
He says his congregation’s thirst for solemnity and spiritual nourishment is part of a universal yearning.
“If you look at every culture and religion in the world there’s a desire for the transcendent, for the sacred,” he says.
Challenges remain. Cook wants St. Peter to better link its English and Spanish-speaking parishioners.
“I don’t sense any hostility between the two different cultures. We come together on various parish projects, but it’s still been very difficult. I’m still trying to learn the magic, the grace, the appropriate way to unite the two, because I don’t want there to be two different parishes. We’re one family of God. But the language difference is a reality. It’s just natural people feel more accustomed among their own.
“I sense unity here. but if we could only find the bridge for the Spanish and English-speaking segments to create that one parish.”
He also wants St. Peter to minister more to its distressed neighbors.
“We have everything from prostitutes at night on the corner to really inebriated people to aggressive panhandlers to shootings near us. We’re proud to be here as an anchor to the community. We’re privileged to serve the poor. We really do need to be out doing more evangelization because we have a whole neighborhood of people, Catholic and non-Catholic, to be invited.”
He hopes redevelopment happens for “the sake of more security, safety and opportunity” for residents. He firmly believes the area’s rich with potential, saying,
“It just needs people to realize that.”
- Saving sacred sounds (life.nationalpost.com)
- US Catholics win rare victories on church closures (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- On The Latin Mass (acatholicdad.wordpress.com)