What is a parish? Woven lives

The baby crawled along the carpet in open area in the back of church. She was dressed in a celebration of white and red horizontal stripes, and she was happy.

She was delighted at her new-found ability to get from here to there. She smiled and giggled.

A few steps away was Ann who was dying.

It was the 10 a.m. Sunday mass at our parish, St. Gertrude, on the far north side of Chicago. It was a special mass to honor Ann, the longtime religious education director who, six months earlier, had been struck down with a vicious cancer.

After the gospel reading, dozens of children throughout the church walked, ran and skipped up the aisles to the altar and went through a side door into the rectory for Kid’s Word. That’s a weekly age-appropriate lesson in faith that the children receive on their own while their parents and older siblings take in the homily. It was instituted years ago by Ann.

ann o'connor - 2But, on this Sunday, Ann wasn’t yet in church.

Merry shadows on the carpet

And she wasn’t there when our pastor preached about all the great work she had done while on the parish staff.

Part of that work was the creation of a mobile under the spotlight that shines down from the ceiling onto the baptismal font and the carpeted area in the back of church. Over the years, various versions of the mobile have appeared in that space, usually made out of cards or paper figures fashioned, at Ann’s direction, by the children of, say, the Holy Communion class or the Confirmation class.

Often, the mobile and its parts would swing and rotate under the spotlight, creating the playful movement of merry shadows on the carpet. Children would gravitate to that spot to add their own joyful dances.

It had become a special spot, the pastor said, a kind of sacred portal between the people of St. Gertrude and those who have gone before us.

Every mass

This was a special mass. But, of course, every mass is special.

Go into St. Gertrude on any Sunday at 10 a.m., and you’ll find some little kids crawling on the carpet or dancing under the mobile or fidgeting in the pews.

We all knew on that Sunday that Ann was gravely ill. But, on any given Sunday, there’s likely to be someone, maybe several people, grappling with serious disease and even consciously aware of the nearness of death.

At one of the weekend masses, you’re likely to see the white-haired woman whom my daughter calls, with awe and deep respect, “the angel.” That’s because she cares so well, so gently, so whole-heartedly for her developmentally disabled adult son and her ailing husband.

Not feel alone

On any Sunday, people will come to church angry, or desolate, or bewildered. Maybe they’ll hear a kind word from someone to ease their pain. Maybe they’ll receive a smile at the kiss of peace.

Perhaps it’s enough that they are able to be with the community, with their community. To not feel alone.

On September 11, 2001, the people of St. Gertrude gathered together in the evening to pray. Later, few could recall the prayers said or songs sung at the service. They remembered the feeling of sharing their sadness and fears together. I suspect every parish across the nation came together in the same way on that day.

Look around the church at a weekend mass, and you’ll see people who are active in the parish life. That couple there, they ran the last fund-raising campaign. The woman by herself near the front heads the adult education committee. Several men and women in the choir help every year to put on the parish play.

people combo.smaller

All around the church, too, are quieter members of the St. Gertrude faith family. They don’t head any organizations and don’t volunteer much, if at all. Yet, they are just as essential to the fabric of the community.

Blessed with diversity

St. Gertrude is blessed to be in the most diverse neighborhood in Chicago, and the people in the pews reflect that. There are many shades of color — from the deepest dark brown to the whiter-than-white paleness of my daughter, showing her Irish heritage.

There are many economic levels represented, too. Blue-collar workers and unemployed clerks. Company presidents and social workers. Lawyers, cops and waiters.

Single people ¬— some young and just starting out, some elderly — are in the pews. And couples of all sorts. And families — those headed by single parents, by gay partners, by the traditional husband and wife.

Any parish is like this. Maybe not in the great diversity, but, certainly, any parish is a mix of people at various stages of their lives and in wide variety of emotional states. Like any family.

Woven lives

Every mass is special because it brings together some portion of the parish to pray together and share together their faith.

Each parish member is special, too. Each is a tile in the mosaic that makes up the community. Each is a thread in the woven lives of the faith family.

Each — in his or her strivings to infuse life with meaning through loving others — is an angel.

The baby crawling along the carpet was special. So was Ann.

A final benediction

On that Sunday, weak and struggling with pain, she got to church midway through the service. As the mass neared its end, she took a seat on a high chair next to the baptismal font. Above her was the latest version of the mobile that was her creation.

Our pastor walked down the main aisle to be with her and give her a final benediction. She was surrounded and supported by friends and family. Her colleagues from the parish staff clustered around. The rest of the congregation filled the back of church or took part from their pews.

Handed a microphone, Ann spoke in a thin, constrained voice about how important the St. Gertrude faith community had been in her life and the life of her family.

Our pastor told her how important she had been to the people of St. Gertrude.

Then, he raised his arms, and her colleagues on the staff raised their arms, and her family and friends, and the rest of the people in the church.

And we blessed Ann.

Ten days later, Peter, our pastoral associate, sent out an email with the subject heading “May the angels lead her into paradise….”

Ann was gone.

The crawling baby

ann o'connor - 1But, of course, she wasn’t gone. She had woven her life so deeply into the fabric of the St. Gertrude faith family that she would never cease to be a part of the community.

That’s the nature of a parish. The bond of sharing our faith together transcends differences in income, political outlook, sexual orientation and cultural background. It transcends death.

We are linked together with all the people who have ever joined to worship and pray at St. Gertrude. And with all the people who, over the past two millenniums, have sought to live the message of Jesus. And with all people in history who have opted for love instead of fear.

The baby crawling on the carpet and delighting in the practice of her new skill had no awareness of the sorrowful drama being enacted a few feet from her. All she knew was that, in that sacred space, she was in a community that was warm and caring.

She’ll never meet Ann. But, as she weaves her faith and her life into the St. Gertrude faith family, she will.

Patrick T. Reardon


  • Pat Conway Posted April 26, 2013 5:33 pm

    Thank you Patrick for sharing this. I was blesssed to be standing next to Ann as we were annointed at a Wednesday night prayer service – it was just prior to my own surgery for breast cancer. While fighting her own fierce battle – she continued to reach out to mme with compassion and concern. She meant so much to so many of us. Her death is a tremendous loss for our community.

    • Patrick T. Reardon Posted April 26, 2013 5:37 pm

      Absolutely. She will be sorely missed. Yet, she’ll live on in our hearts and memories, as your memory shows.

  • Andrea Raila Posted April 26, 2013 9:17 pm

    Thanks Patrick what a beautiful story….Ann O’Connor touched so many lives. She was an author, church lector, a spiritual shepherd for Sunday school kids and WOW teens , artist, wife, mother, devout, and deeply faith filled … a rare and true a catholic priestess whose sacred performances will always be imbedded into our memories and hearts.

    • Patrick T. Reardon Posted April 26, 2013 9:21 pm

      Yeah, a true Catholic priestess.

  • Nancy Bujnowski Posted April 27, 2013 9:58 am

    God, Pat, that was beautiful! You use your gift and craft so well! For the good of the community, its uplifting, its edification. Would that all of us will follow you and Ann, using our gifts so the Spirit will flourish in this sad world.

  • Heidi Schlumpf Posted April 27, 2013 10:33 am

    Pat, I appreciate you being able to see the life that conquers death, as I am still just sad and mad that she is gone. I can’t imagine how hard this is for her children, especially the youngest. Thanks for writing this to give me a new perspective.

  • Margie Skelly Posted April 27, 2013 8:33 pm

    Dear Pat,

    What a lovely testament this all is to Ann’s life and how it has impacted all of us. Our response to the loss of a woman as lovely as Ann tells us much about who she was. Last Wednesday night at the prayer service, I was standing next to Mary Grover, a woman who, like me, likes to sing. I think I heard the silence of our inability to sing. We would chime in every now and then as best we could, faltering voices and all. By the time the last song came, Be Not Afraid, I knew that I needed to sing it, and I sensed that Mary did as well. Our voices were a bit stronger by then. For my part, I was afraid, yes, but singing that song in a congregation where the grief was so palpable that I could have almost touched it made me realize that being in fear together is a bit easier to bear than being in fear alone. When I think about it, we were all God to each other that night, clearly crushed by the death of Ann. Yet, since we did not run away from the pain, since we did not pretend to feel differently than we did, we were the better for it in our offerings of comfort.

    • Patrick T. Reardon Posted April 28, 2013 11:23 am

      Thanks, Margie. Your comment reminds me of what you told me about the night the congregation gathered together on September 11. As you say, we can’t run away from the pain, but, in sharing it, we find some solace.

  • Delia Seeberg Posted April 28, 2013 11:10 am

    A beautiful tribute to a beautiful person. Thanks, Pat.

  • Javier Pineda Posted April 29, 2013 9:47 am

    Gracias Patricio. I was caught in the spell of your story and for a while I thought you were talking about some of the people I have known in my parish. May the Lord grant her peace.

    • Patrick T. Reardon Posted April 29, 2013 10:23 am

      Javier — I think that’s what I’m getting at. That a parish is a parish, each has its particular characteristics, but, at heart, each is the same sort of faith family. Glad you were caught by its spell. Pat

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