Travel west on Madison Street, car doors locked, windows rolled up, and you will pass through some of the roughest territory in Chicago. Here, although images of squalor are as predictable as the right side and the wrong side of city living--derelict buildings, gang-scarred parks, charred wood, splintered glass, trash piled high, chained guard dogs--the poor have names and faces. They gather outside corner taverns and storefront churches or peer out from behind barred windows onto a wasteland of fear and suffering.
Turn right onto Oakley and proceed north to Washington Boulevard. You will find yourself at Saint Malachy, one of the poorest of inner-city parishes. How poor is it? Well, Mother Teresa has visited there, and the Missionaries of Charity--her followers--operate a shelter for women and children in the Saint Malachy gym.
Here, in the heart of the wasteland, where the brightest sign is the McDonald's billboard and where sirens shatter night and day with urgency, the people of Saint Malachy are becoming the light of the neighborhood. Comprised mostly of residents from the Henry Horner Homes, this once-Irish, now-black parish has dared to assert that one can be poor with dignity; under the leadership of the Reverend Thomas J. O'Gorman, the parish demonstrates that those best able to help the poor are the poor themselves. They share food, doling out soup to those needier than themselves, and distribute used clothing and furniture. Simple as this principle may seem, it has sometimes meant that Saint Malachy has attacked injustices that extend beyond parish boundaries, and thus the parish is seldom far from controversy, or the daily news.
The catalyst at Saint Malachy is unquestionably the pastor, appointed a little over a year ago. A published poet and theologian with a penchant for horseback riding, Celtic culture, Vaughan Williams, sailing, and sojourns at Oxford University, O'Gorman is no stranger to the inner city, or, for that matter, to Saint Malachy. While on leave from the seminary from 1971 to 1973, he lived and worked at Saint Malachy during the pastorate of the Reverend Richard Ehrens. In those years, he attended a course in community organizing at Saul Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation and then participated in a community-service class offered by Catholic Charities. He also invested heavily in the west side, serving as director of the 12-parish Lawndale-Garfield cluster and developing black leadership across parish lines, even though he was not yet ordained.
The years from 1973 to '77 were full but conventional. O'Gorman served at Holy Name Cathedral and at Saint Thomas of Canterbury in Uptown, worked on his clinical pastoral internship at Wyler Children's Hospital and at the Wesley Pavilion, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and completed his formal training at Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein; however, he also found time to take a course in language and culture at the University of Lublin, Poland, and to visit Italy, England, and Ireland. In 1976-77 he served as deacon at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Schaumburg. He was ordained in 1977.
O'Gorman's first assignment as an ordained priest was a far cry from the west side. At Saint Barnabas Parish on the south side of the city, he lived and worked in Beverly Hills, a historic district noted for its English-style cottages and mansions, tall trees, and sweeping lawns. For all his Irish background and deep-rooted interest in Irish culture, O'Gorman never felt at home with the conservative expectations of this predominantly white-collar, heavily Irish community. He refused to play the role of "Father"; instead, he insisted on being himself, both in the way he interacted with his parishioners and in the way he dressed--in fact, the newspaper article that introduced O'Gorman to Beverly in 1977 was accompanied by a photograph in which he wore dark glasses, open-necked checked shirt, and sport jacket.
His nonconformity, his flair for the dramatic in liturgy, and his tendency to preach in poetry won him some loyal friends but also enemies, especially among the "leading" families in the parish. There were complaints to the rectory, even some ugly scenes, but O'Gorman continued to be himself; gradually, however, his enthusiasm was replaced by the knowledge that most of the people he wanted to serve would not allow him to, would in fact stifle his abilities and sap his energy.
Toward the end of his five-year term as associate, O'Gorman returned to Mundelein to complete his licentiate in sacred theology, an advanced degree. This provided welcome relief from a parish situation that had grown increasingly intolerable, for though he was still technically assigned to Saint Barnabas, he spent several days a week at the seminary. At the end of his term, during his farewell liturgy, Nancy McCready, friend and poet and member of the parish, summed up his years at Saint Barnabas as follows:
"It has been a bit of a roller coaster ride, Thomas, for Saint Barnabas and for you. There have been thrills and chills, terrors and near misses; there've been high highs and low lows. . . . We've had the rare privilege of a gifted young priest in our midst, a priest struggling with mystery, bumping up against it, sometimes in embrace, sometimes in a wrestling match. And we have witnessed the journey and watched with joy as you have become yourself: a man of love, a poet, an artist . . ."
From Saint Barnabas, O'Gorman went to New College, Oxford, to study Anglo-Irish literature; he had received a study grant from The Oxford-Cambridge Institute and felt the experience would offer a healthy transition between parish assignments. But the archdiocese had agreed on condition that he would then go to Saints Peter and Paul Parish in Bridgeport; knowing this would simply repeat, with slight variations, his earlier debacle at Saint Barnabas, O'Gorman committed what he termed "the ultimate pragmatic act": he accepted the assignment.
On his return from Oxford, O'Gorman soon found himself struggling with the parish staff and with his new position. While floundering at Saints Peter and Paul, however, he was offered a part-time teaching job in the religion department at Loyola Academy, Wilmette. Though it is unusual for diocesan priests to work outside their parishes, O'Gorman readily accepted the position, teaching scripture to a senior-level class. This association with Loyola Academy was to have long-term benefits: though O'Gorman is no longer teaching there, faculty and students give generously of their time and money to help support Saint Malachy.
After a year of an increasingly tense parish situation, O'Gorman requested to be reassigned to Saint Malachy, where the Reverend Steve Mangan was then pastor. On his return to the west side, he was greeted enthusiastically. One parishioner who had known him during his first stay remembered him as "a person of heart," someone who could "fix things and make them right." Many who had been children then had grown into adulthood; they recalled his reputation for being someone they could trust.
At first, O'Gorman continued to teach part-time at Loyola Academy and to set limits on his involvement in parish activities. Then he learned that Mangan had been reassigned, and he decided to apply for the vacant position. He realized how much he himself wanted to stay at Saint Malachy, how much it had become "home." Whether or not he would be awarded the pastorate was then uncertain. His fellow priests regarded him as a radical, and he suspected that members of the archdiocesan personnel board would look unfavorably on his poetry and his tan. But there was no one else crying out for the job; accordingly, O'Gorman was named parish administrator. This meant that he was pastor in all but name. In December 1985, when both O'Gorman and the personnel board were satisfied that Saint Malachy was where he belonged, he was officially designated pastor.
In his pastorate at Saint Malachy, O'Gorman has allowed others the freedom that has sometimes been denied to himself:
Who says there must be limits
to our achievements and
narrow thresholds to our dreams?
he asks in "Wonder."
Surely not those still possessed
by the madness of high-school summers
or the memory of riding barefoot
on the waves? . . .
I revel with those
who seek still to walk on water
as they drop their second ski.
The parish staff and the many volunteers at Saint Malachy enjoy the full benefit of this "why not?" attitude; accordingly, risks are taken and occasionally the impossible happens.
Confronted with the task of ministering to the poorest of the poor, O'Gorman is realist enough to know that he can do little to alter the day-to-day material circumstances of those who have nothing. Still, through the generosity of friends who have financed many of his ventures when orthodox channels have failed, he has been able to multiply loaves and fishes. One parishioner who has faithfully followed him from assignment to assignment made the following observation: "Anyone can take care of people on a pragmatic basis, but Tom goes beyond that. If he holds a parish dinner, he'll rent linen tablecloths and buy fresh flowers; if there's a special liturgy, he'll bring in a brass quartet. Last Christmas he had a 15-foot tree decorated in the yard and programmed the church bells to play carols so that the whole neighborhood could enjoy them."
Part of O'Gorman's genius lies in making people feel good about themselves, in making them feel they count for something. His "bread and roses" approach to parish work asserts the dignity of those who live from one welfare check to the next; it goes beyond doling out soup and distributing used clothing. Neighborhood people value O'Gorman's efforts, because of the care evident in all the details. "I don't know where they got that Father from," said Jessie, a resident of Washington Boulevard all her life, "but he sure has made a difference around here."
Conscious that "being trapped" involves much more than not having enough money, O'Gorman has indeed tried to bring a little of Wilmette to Washington Boulevard. At the same time, however, he is too much of a realist to anticipate that Washington Boulevard will ever be easy street.
With 95 percent of his parishioners on public aid, he was incensed by the now-infamous sign proclaiming "How to Go From Washington Boulevard to Easy Street--Play the Illinois State Lottery." "There is no easy street," said O'Gorman. "We need to be honest about life, about who we are and what we want to be; we need to learn to live with each other with justice. That's what we're trying to do in this neighborhood."
It was Josephine McCord, pastoral associate at Saint Malachy, who first noticed the sign. Angered by the suggestion that the lottery could provide an escape from ghetto life, she launched the effort to get the sign removed. When phone calls to the lottery board proved fruitless, the parish covered the offensive billboard with a "Boycott the Lottery" slogan--and proceeded to carry out that slogan as best they could. Only then was the pot of gold replaced by a wildlife preservation sign.
The matter might have ended then and there, but the rectory was inundated with phone calls supporting Saint Malachy's stand. Believing that the lottery was specifically and perniciously aimed at the poor, O'Gorman called on his 300 parish families to turn in their losing tickets; the grand total, over $25,000 worth, was a powerful indicator of the extent of neighborhood support for the lottery. In one corner of McCord's office stands a garbage bag stuffed with the evidence. Too heavy to be moved, it testifies to the desperation of those gambling for a better future.
"What they don't realize," said McCord, a grandmother whose ten children were all baptized at Saint Malachy, "is that if you're really poor, you can't collect. If someone wins $100 from a grocery store, there's probably no problem about collecting, but if you win $2,500, you either lose aid for ten months or you don't receive the windfall. Proper advertising would deter people from playing."
According to Holly Hedland, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Aid, all the winnings of welfare recipients are automatically deducted from their welfare checks. However, Rebecca Paul, Director of the Lottery, maintains that it is impossible to trace winnings under $600 because there are no records: it is simply up to the individual to report extra income to the IRS. Those who win $600 or more, however, receive a check from state comptroller Roland Burris; these are the winners who lose aid.
O'Gorman and McCord have organized picketing outside the State of Illinois building and have distributed fliers describing the impact of the lottery on those lacking discretionary income. Both have been interviewed by radio and TV stations, while newspapers across the country have run articles about the issue. Some have criticized the boycott as "sensational media grabbing"; there has been hate mail. However, there have also been countless phone calls and letters expressing support.
McCord is convinced that sales are down at local outlets, but the lottery agents themselves are unwilling to give figures. "They can take back their machines whenever they want to," said an agent whose liquor store is a block and a half from the church. "I prefer not to comment."
As if the lottery issue and religious responsibilities weren't enough to occupy them, the parish staff also see global issues as part of their "predicament." "Heroic deeds," writes O'Gorman in "Survival,"
Are seldom planned
And even less seldom chosen.
We unearth and stumble on them
Growing out of Love's conquest
Which prepares us always for
The unlikely and the inevitable.
No conscious bravery
Bolstered by bravado
But the surprise, simply, of
Surviving the predicament
In which we find ourselves.
Seldom a Sunday passes without the church bulletin offering information about some issue or another. Whether it's a fact sheet on U.S. policies in Central America or an explanation of Hands Across America, the bulletin keeps people informed. Out of this awareness has developed a very real concern for what is happening in the rest of the world.
Last year, the deteriorating situation in South Africa helped bring the people of Saint Malachy together. "Black people feel responsible for other blacks," said McCord. "We want progress for all. The poor still have a lot of compassion for those who are worse off." With the reality of apartheid flashing across TV screens and the front pages of newspapers, parishioners wanted to do something. Every Thursday, from noon to 1 PM, 25 to 30 parish representatives join in the picketing outside the South African consulate to draw attention to the injustice of apartheid; they have done so faithfully since October 1985. Even McCord's five-year-old granddaughter Nicole has protested; her small sign bearing the words, "Divest Now," stands near the bag of discarded lottery tickets in her grandmother's office.
During Lent 1986, to attract more attention to the plight of black South Africans, McCord asked the parish to support her in a 40-day "liquids only" fast. Individuals pledged a total of 490 days of fasting. This didn't make the newspapers, but as McCord pointed out, "it made the people feel good about being included--they've been excluded from everything else for so long. They can't give money to help others, but fasting is something they can do. Even a lady with high blood pressure wanted to do it for a day."
The 1986 visit of Father Basil Van Rensburg, pastor of a black area in Cape Town, also heightened parish awareness about South African segregationist policies. Van Rensburg stressed his conviction that the Reagan administration's policy of "constructive engagement" is responsible for the continuation of apartheid and urged the need for church leaders to support civil disobedience in South Africa.
Yet another nonlocal issue at Saint Malachy is the nuclear freeze movement. Under the leadership of John May, a graduate of Notre Dame, second-year student at the Stritch School of Medicine, and member of the Nobel Prize-winning organization Physicians for Social Responsibility, the parish approved a Free Zone Accord; this is a symbolic gesture that bans the manufacture, storage, transportation, and use of nuclear weapons within parish boundaries. Parishioners Ephraim Green and Demetrius Ford spearheaded the collection of more than 6,000 signatures supporting the accord. Many windows now display Nuclear Weapon Free Zone signs, and a number of area residents have attended meetings of the Nuclear Freeze Committee. While the City Council's decision to declare Chicago a "nuclear free zone" passed largely unnoticed, in this corner of the city it is hailed as a victory.
But if there is one area in which Saint Malachy has made a real impact, it is right in the heart of its own neighborhood. The lottery boycott may have catapulted the parish and parish activists to fame, but there is plenty going on that has not made the headlines. "Having something to do" is as basic a need as food and shelter. Accordingly, programs are designed not only to meet material needs but to provide the kind of involvement that gives purpose to life. Parishioners are encouraged to participate in these programs and, when possible, to administer them.
The Helping Hands Center at 1936 W. Washington, a neighborhood organization that originated with the parish, illustrates this policy. Sister Clarice Heltman OSU, a retired social worker in her middle seventies, was disturbed by the attitude that women on welfare do nothing but watch soap operas and have babies, and set out to prove its falsity. A regular worshiper at Saint Malachy, she knew O'Gorman would give her the freedom to take the necessary steps.
Since her retirement as director of developmental planning at YMCA College, Heltman had been searching for meaningful ways of responding to the scriptural image of leaving all and serving the poor. Her efforts culminated last year in the opening of the Helping Hands Center, a two-bedroom apartment on the third floor of one of the Henry Horner buildings. Surrounded by graffiti-covered walls, floors, and ceilings, reached by a dark elevator that stinks of urine, the Center is a sign that parish life extends beyond Sunday services and that the church is more than a place of worship.
Staffed by volunteers from the Henry Horner Homes, initially it offered Bible study classes for adults and children of all denominations. Now it offers GED classes, remedial reading, homework sessions, career counseling, and workshops on child care. It not only serves the residents of the 19 buildings that make up the Henry Horner complex, but also the homeless, who can drop in during the daytime. The shelter set up for women and children by the Missionaries of Charity in what was formerly Saint Malachy's gym apparently is open only from 5 PM to 7:30 AM (the sisters, who do not give interviews, couldn't confirm this); the rest of the day it serves as a soup kitchen. Until the Helping Hands Center opened, many of the women who frequented this shelter had to wait in bus shelters or McDonald's for it to open, or else ride the CTA to kill time.
Volunteers, like Cloteal Butler, Rose Anderson, Orastine Like, Barbara Ross, and Mamie Bone, all of whom are either on welfare or social security, also coordinate a food-sharing program and distribute clothing and furniture, especially to victims of fires. "The residents have the full ability to take care of these services on their own," emphasized Heltman. "They have the support of everyone around here." Apparently, even the gang leaders checked out Helping Hands when it first opened. They came out of curiosity and left with new clothes, fully approving the fact that the center is "for everyone."
The eight or nine "regulars" of Heltman's Helping Hands group see themselves as sharing a decidedly Christian common purpose and vision. Though they own little themselves, the women recently traveled to an Ursuline community in Louisville, Kentucky, to be invested as "Angela's Helpers"--members of a lay group pledged to serve the poorest of the poor. McCord, who accompanied them, was officially accepted as an associate member of the Ursulines. For all the women, the gracious treatment they received was overwhelming; Orastine Like described the experience as "an open-eyed dream."
For Heltman, the Helping Hands Center has proved what she has always believed: that when residents of public housing develop their intellects and become interested in life, "there's less babymaking." Still, other priorities need to be met. Heltman would like to see a hospital clinic established in one of the Henry Horner buildings. (At Sullivan House, the senior citizen project in which she lives, Rush Presbyterian Saint Luke's has established a clinic accessible to the residents.) Since the majority of Henry Horner residents lack transportation and seldom travel more than a few blocks from home, such a clinic would provide residents their only opportunity for regular medical care. She also hopes the CHA will hire a social worker for the complex.
Another church priority is to provide laundry facilities. The closing of the nearest laundromat has meant real hardship for area residents, who either have to haul their laundry a mile or more or wash everything by hand. For the elderly and for those with young children, these options are especially unsatisfactory. If he can get the funds, O'Gorman hopes to establish a parish cooperative laundromat to serve the entire neighborhood; financial backing, however, has not been forthcoming.
Outreach to gangs is another example of Saint Malachy's efforts in the neighborhood. Brother Bill Tomes, 1985 recipient of the Daniel A. Lord S.J. Award for his work with gangs, has lived at Saint Malachy for three years. Described by O'Gorman as "a prototype of the Celtic monk, who lives a remote, isolated life with a public adventurous dimension to it," Tomes is a man of many facets. On the one hand, he is an ascetic who combines the rigors of Ignatian spirituality with the simplicity of Saint Francis; on the other, as O'Gorman says, "he refuses to negotiate with violence and presents an absolutely outrageous confrontation to it."
"He's the only person I know who can walk between two gangs shooting at each other and stand there till they go away," said McCord. "Everyone knows him. Everyone."
An artist who spent several years in Paris living on the Left Bank, Tomes has a collection of pen-and-ink sketches exhibited at the Snite Gallery at the University of Notre Dame; his portraits of Notre Dame coaches are displayed in the Athletic and Convocation Center there. But in spite of his artistic accomplishments, an Evanston background, and postgraduate work in psychology, Tomes has chosen to give his life to the poor of the inner city. To quote O'Gorman again, he is like an "urban chaplain," traveling where he is needed, whether holding a dying tradesman on West Lake Street who had been shot because he was $16 richer than the person who killed him, or driving across town to offer comfort when two youths drowned during a summer picnic.
Tomes serves as arbitrator, counselor, and friend. He is there when things get rough; he is there to offer an alternative vision of what life can be. He has taken teenagers camping in Wisconsin, held barbecues for younger children, and recruited gang members for the tasks crying out to be done in the community. O'Gorman describes him in these words:
Parading on streets that melt
With the heat of new vengeance
Down alleys strewn with the refuse
Of broken glass and bodies
Of old grudge and settled score
Beyond the reason of civil living . . .
In a junk-shop costume
Fashioned from faded bleached-out dreams
A crazy-quilt robe of wonder
Shaking hands in quiet introduction
As midnight bullets start to fly . . . .
Several former gang leaders give Tomes credit for their having gone straight. Demetrius Ford and Ephraim Green now serve on the parish staff at Saint Malachy; two years ago, they were Black Gangster Disciples. For them gangs had been a way of life. Both have lost friends and relatives in shootings; both have spent time in jail. Like so many others, they became involved in gangs because there were no alternatives. "Everybody puts you down, so you feel tough if you get a name and the police are looking for you," said Ford. "You join a gang family and that gives you something to do."
Green, who was recently baptized a Catholic with Tomes serving as godfather, described living in the Henry Horner Homes as "living in a hole with no way of escape. Nobody knows you or sees you. You get kicked out of high school for cutting classes and there's no jobs waiting." O'Gorman's "Pink Lady" conjures up something of the desperateness of life Henry Horner-style--its bravado, deprivation, and careless disregard for the future:
She's the project bike
loaned out for quick trips
getaways in a ghetto cruiser
of questionable reputation
flying over cracked concrete
sailing shattered cement.
fixed and re-fixed,
maintenized for urban travel
slipping through the garbage
brandishing her name across the chain guard
boldly lettered on her metal
Neither Ford nor Green has escaped the Projects, but each has put his life in order and is helping others do the same. Under Tomes's influence, they have found positive ways of keeping busy. Their work at Saint Malachy ranges from maintenance during the winter to running a day-care program for neighborhood children during the summer; they raise funds, plan games, collect signatures for petitions, picket when occasion calls, and have even traveled to Washington as part of a peace demonstration. Together they form the leadership of Saint Malachy Community Task Force, an organization devoting itself to anything and everything. The local vice cop still has his suspicions and tracks them from hissquad car, but Ford and Green feel good about themselves.
"At first I used to wait on trouble," said Green. "Now I've got something else to do, I keep pinching myself to see if it's really me." At 24, Green is earning his GED at Malcolm X; Ford, 23, also plans on going back to school. They feel they have been luckier than most.
Bridgid Miller, principal of Saint Malachy Grade School, is convinced that education can offer alternatives. Operating with full enrollment, the school, in her words, "allows children of all denominations to compete in a world which too often prohibits their success; it provides a sound education, good discipline, and a pleasant atmosphere." The fact that enrollment is so high--325 children--indicates the importance struggling parents place on education; though tuition is somewhat lower than at other Catholic schools, it is still $605 for one child and $80 for each additional child in a family, a hefty sum for those on welfare. In the end, it is education, not prizewinning lottery tickets, that is going to offer options to the dead ends of the ghetto, said Miller. Although test scores are not at grade level, Miller pointed out that they are better than at local public schools. Moreover, according to her, it is public school products, who arrive at Saint Malachy School without ever aving learned to read and write, who pull the school's grade levels down; those children who start at Saint Malachy tend to do well because they receive a solid educational foundation.
But while there are success stories, there are also failures. Some students do well in high school and go on to college, but there are also those who drop out because of pregnancy, substance abuse, or gang involvement. Miller would like to begin a support group for Saint Malachy graduates to encourage them to get through high school. Additional funds would also allow her to launch after-school programs to supplement sports and the 4-H Club.
John May, the volunteer who helped to make Saint Malachy a nuclear weapon free zone, has also worked extensively with the youth of the neighborhood. Living part-time at Saint Malachy, he has made an impact on the most unlikely of street characters. Last summer he organized a variety of programs, ranging frothe first street carnival to weekly dances that attracted more than 300 young people every Friday night. Described by one police officer as the "biggest Disciple parties in Chicago," the dances occasioned no injuries or arrests; indeed, organizers maintain that they helped keep young adults out of trouble (the police did come in to frisk guests). The carnival supplied local children with a little wholesome excitement. There were free hot dogs, roasted corn, and popcorn; the city supplied a dunk tank, a moonwalk, and even police horses. O'Gorman said that May's "trust, acceptance, and encouragement invited kids to put down some of their defenses, especially the hard-core gang members."
Needless to say, the whole community has benefited from the youth outreach done through Saint Malachy parish. Captain Marcin, former head of the 13th District, said he has seen change in the area, much of which can be credited to Saint Malachy personnel. Residents from the Henry Horner Homes claim that there are fewer shootings these days. Rival gangs, such as the Vice Lords and P. Stones, now keep away from Black Disciple territory and so there are fewer incidents. According to Marcin, even the "smash and grab" crimes for which the area is notorious are "pretty well under control." And summer 1985 witnessed an unprecedented event: Black Disciples and Vice Lords marched together to protest the quality of stoves in CHA buildings after an accident killed a mother and her three children. Though Saint Malachy may not be directly responsible for these developments, it has unquestionably contributed to neighborhood stability.
Gang activity has not stopped, but it has declined. Gang members say that they have been trying to keep out of trouble, but they maintain that whether or not they "stay straight," the police are out to get them. (Several described incidents in which the local vice cop, "Charlie," took gang members into his squad car and deliberately dropped them off on rival territory to spark trouble. A spokesman for the 13th District denied that such problems currently exist, but said there had been similar incidents "years ago.")
Just as gang members voted to protect Tomes when he first arrived at Saint Malachy and to "get" anyone who harmed him, so they seem to have a hands-off policy toward parish property. Signs, flags, and banners escape graffiti, and goods stolen from visitors are miraculously returned; church attendance has swelled because it is now safe to worship. "It just shows what a little time and interest will do," said McCord. "If you just show you care, it's amazing what will happen. Last summer we had no gang problems at all. Instead, gang members ran a lemonade stand provided by a benefactor, and there were free drinks for everyone all summer long. There's a different side to a gang member if you give him something to do."
What has happened in the last two years or so is that Saint Malachy has delved more deeply into the heart of the neighborhood, into the heart of the world. No longer simply a cluster of church buildings, the parish has extended itself beyond its geographical boundaries. Extra hands have helped in this movement. Last summer there were 18 volunteers staying at the rectory. Whether from the University of Notre Dame, Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola Academy, The Catholic Theological Union, Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary, or the Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus, each brought special talents and gifts to share with the people of the west side. Simple things that others take for granted--picnics, for example, or outings to the beach--became a reality for children who would otherwise have had nothing.
The style of the parish has changed. "There are a lot more new people doing things differently," commented O'Gorman. "Not in terms of doctrine or dogma, but in terms of faith building and faith sharing the way the gospel talks about it; that is, exploring faith as the ability of the heart to go further than one can see." This jolt, this challenge, has also brought new possibilities. Some old-timers may feel uncomfortable about their responsibility for social-justice issues, but no one feels excluded. In fact, neighborhood people want to become a part of Saint Malachy. At last year's Easter Vigil, 22 adults were baptized, a large number for any church, but particularly for a small parish in the traditionally Baptist black community. "This demands high hospitality from everyone," acknowledged O'Gorman, "but we all know new people mean we have a future; new people mean the church is alive."
At times, the styles and rhythms developed at Saint Malachy have been confrontationist, particularly toward those institutions and city departments the staff believes should be challenged to greater justice. "We 'dialogue' with our aldermen, congressional leaders, and city leaders," explained O'Gorman. "We are demonstratively expressive in helping them understand how they can help us. What we do for ourselves, we do for all Chicagoans."
Saint Malachy's enterprising policies are also reflected in its relationships with other churches, particularly those of different denominations, on the west side. There was a time when area pastors were strangers to each other; since last October, they have begun to develop organizational structures for working with one another on shared issues and needs. Out of this movement have also come community celebrations like the ones for Martin Luther King Day and for Pentecost. "This is more than tea parties and prayer services," said O'Gorman. "This goes beyond cosmetics--it's grass-roots ecumenism at work."
One example of Saint Malachy's ecumenism is its soon-to-be sister parish in New Zealand--a nuclear-free Anglican community. Both churches will share what they do via letters, information packets, and videotaped scenes of parish life; both have agreed to keep each other in prayer. "Another small gesture," conceded O'Gorman, "but if our planet is to survive, we have to make our love stronger than the death noises of superpowers, self-interest groups, and false values."
Evidently others agree with this statement. More than 100 people, from ten different states, have requested placement on Saint Malachy's Sunday bulletin mailing list. The steady stream of visitors, like Father Basil Van Rensburg, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Genevieve Lions-Colboc, the French lady who wanted to "see the poor," adds constant excitement to parish life. Then there are those who bring food and clothing, participate in protest marches, or else give their time to parish programs. Finally, there is the growing number of worshipers who have left more affluent parishes to find what they are looking for during Sunday liturgies at Saint Malachy.
In Saint Malachy territory, "the unimaginable stirs. Before it, nothing will ever be the same." Property values in this corner of the west side may not have increased, but hearts have been warmed, imaginations stirred. Here, to quote O'Gorman in "Going Home":
. . . exiles discover beneath their feet
the path to home
underneath them all the time
the mystery hidden from the heart
and found only in its giving
activity which brings the stranger
cracking our preconceptions and
the childish size of our expectations
uncovering home not as place
but as the action of love
turning the empty lifeless desert
with heart stopping surprise
into the backyards and alleys
of our youth.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.