St. Alphonsus Church Welcomes New Pastor With Many Challenges

By Meredith Heagney | Friday, October 12, 2012

Fr. O’Connell catches up with a parishioner after mass. Credit: Meredith Heagney

The last time the Rev. Michael O’Connell started a new pastor job, he had one building to worry about: the church itself.

This time, in his new gig at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church at Wellington and Southport Aves., he finds himself inheriting a full block of historic, massive brick buildings, including a rebounding elementary school and a down-but-not-out theater.

All the properties play a role in the parish’s continued growth, as the 130-year-old congregation works to keep up with a neighborhood that has changed dramatically in the last century, from predominantly German to Hispanic to a haven for young, affluent singles and families.

O’Connell, 55, is no stranger to transformation, having taken his last church, Our Lady of the Woods Parish in Orland Park, from a single-property parish of 1,600 families to a 2,600-family church with a parish center, gym and rectory.

This time, his challenges won’t involve building but growing. The constituencies that make up St. Alphonsus – those young families, German descendants and Spanish speakers – all require his attention. Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts needs his support to continue its promising turnaround after nearly closing a decade ago. And the new management of the Athenaeum Theatre needs a cheerleader to help its revival. The block also includes a food pantry and a women’s shelter, but O’Connell’s involvement there will be limited, as they are run by nonprofits separate from the church, which owns the buildings.

O’Connell’s goal is to keep the young people in the neighborhood as they grow older and raise their children through the teenage years. To encourage this, he plans to add youth and marriage programs and even floats the possibility of a new Catholic high school in the area, in partnership with other local parishes.

But first, his job is to get to know his flock. As in Orland Park, he’s got 2,600 families in the parish.

“I just found people here to be so gracious and so good and so welcoming,” he said.

O’Connell, who grew up on the Northwest Side and in Des Plaines, felt called to the priesthood his senior year of high school, when his mother encouraged him to go to daily Mass during Lent. She had hoped the habit would guide him through a rough time that included quitting the swim team and breaking up with his girlfriend, but the effect was much greater.

“It was almost as if I was hearing the Scriptures for the very first time,” O’Connell said.

He went to seminary at Niles College of Loyola University (now St. Joseph College Seminary) and the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein. He was ordained in 1983, and became an associate priest in charge of youth programs at St. Michael Parish in Orland Park. There he met a young man named Bill Rancic, who went on to reality TV fame on The Apprentice and Giuliana and Bill, his Style Network show with his TV host wife Giuliana. O’Connell appeared on the show three times, but he personally prefers Law and Order and CSI reruns to reality TV.

After St. Michael, O’Connell spent four years at the Church of St. Mary in Lake Forest and then moved to Rome to pursue his doctorate in the theory of evangelization at the urging of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who had spoken with him about working for the archdiocese. However, when O’Connell returned, Bernardin had died; instead, he went to Our Lady of the Woods.

“I would’ve stayed there forever,” he said. “I’ve watched these kids grow up.”

The parishioners at St. Alphonsus felt a similar loyalty toward their last pastor, the Rev. James Hurlbert, who will be chaplain of an orphanage in Guatemala starting next year. Hurlbert led the renovation of the church’s stunning German Gothic interior, where ornate pillars and stained glass windows rise northward into the arches and domes of the royal blue and gold ceiling. The parishioners in their 20s and 30s especially liked him, and he’d even meet them out for a drink, said Nicole Fusz, 30, speaking at the church’s annual Oktoberfest on Sept. 29.

Young people and their young children are hard to miss at St. Alphonsus. The Sunday 10:30 a.m. Mass is a parade of strollers and baby slings, accompanied by a soundtrack of toddler chatter. Singles are prominent too; the church even offers periodic speed-dating.

Then there are the “lifers,” who continue to worship there even if they move out of the neighborhood, said Jackie Price, 70, who married her husband Lawrey 50 years ago in St. Alphonsus.

On a recent Sunday, Price stood talking with O’Connell before he celebrated the church’s weekly Spanish language Mass. They discussed his dog, a 2-year-old pit bull-labrador mix named Maddie. (The St. Alphonsus maintenance crew built her a white-shingled doghouse topped with a steeple in the rectory yard.)

Price said O’Connell was “very warm, a good listener, and it’s like he’s taking everything in as opposed to somebody who might be coming in with a broom and just sweeping.”

Megan Stanton-Anderson, principal of Alphonsus Academy, thinks O’Connell will help her school continue to grow after coming dangerously close to closing about 12 years ago, when enrollment dropped to 120 and the school’s reputation was poor.

The school has improved as the property values in the neighborhood increased. In 2001, the school took on its focus on the arts as a learning tool, and in 2006, Stanton-Anderson arrived and implemented her own reforms in curriculum and teaching methods. Now, the school has 433 children, and “our kids are getting into the best high schools in the city,” she said.

Stanton-Anderson’s goal is to have 50 students in each grade level (right now, the eighth grade is the smallest, with just seven students, and the second grade is the largest with 55). She thinks O’Connell can help, and said he’s already started to have regular dinners with school and parish families to hear their ideas.

“I think he is going to be a big attraction for families to see how welcoming he is…how he has a vision for people staying here and raising their children,” she said. She imagines people will say, “I really like Father Mike. I want to be part of the community.”

Athanaeum Theatre Marketing Director Jeff DeLong in the main theater. Athanaeum has four theaters and offices for a dozen arts groups. Credit: Meredith Heagney

The new management at the Athenaeum Theatre is betting on O’Connell as well. The 101-year-old theater has struggled financially in recent years, and the 66,000-square-foot building is in serious need of repair. Jerry Kennedy, former parish business manager, is part of a team of business and theater veterans taking over the Athenaeum from its current management, SCT Productions. Right now, the theater can’t afford to pay any rent to the church, but under the terms of the old lease, it should be paying about $9,000 a month, Kennedy said.

Kennedy estimates the theater needs $7 million of work in renovations, including a new roof, new windows, rewiring and new toilets. That money will have to come through fundraising and grants, he said. So far, Kennedy is heartened by what he’s seen of O’Connell, who has taken to bringing visitors through the Athenaeum to show off its main theater, which impresses with its ornate molding and hand-stenciled walls. He’s also told the theater board that he will help promote the venue as a potential archdiocesan arts center.

“He is just so excited to be here, and I’m particularly excited he’s so excited about the theater,” Kennedy said.

As Marketing Director Jeff DeLong puts it, “The church is saving souls. We’re entertaining them.”

Either way, the community is hoping O’Connell will keep them coming in the doors.

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