An Open Invitation: Rev. Tom Fangman Engages All Who Seek or Need at Sacred Heart Catholic Church
In an era when Catholic priests are too often in the news for the wrong reasons it’s a pleasure to write about one who is highly respected by the church and by the community. The following article for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) about Rev. Tom Fangman is not the first I’ve written about this priest or the parish he pastors, Sacred Heart, in a largely African-American neighborhood in Omaha, Neb. But while those earlier pieces, which can be found on this blog by the way, deal with the rip-roaring Sunday service he presides over, complete with a gospel choir and band, and the multi-million dollar restoration of the church, this latest story focuses on him and his calling as a priest. He’s a sweet, gentle man who has managed the difficult task of not only keeping his parish church, school, and social service center alive but thriving in a district beset by profound poverty and high crime and an area hit harder than most by the recession. His winning ways with people from all walks of life, whether CEOs or parents just struggling to get by, is what makes him so good at what he does.
An Open Invitation: Rev. Tom Fangman Engages All Who Seek or Need at Sacred Heart Catholic Church
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)
When Rev. Tom Fangman arrived as pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in 1998, the northeast Omaha parish was already known for its humanitarian embrace.
If anything, though, this hometown cleric with a gentle, jovial demeanor has broadened and deepened the caring community he guides there by forever reaching out to others. Gladly receiving all, he asks people to give, aware that service to others heeds our better angels.
“I’ve always been a people-person,” he said from the cozy living room of the rectory he resides in behind the church. “I find so much joy being around people. I’ve just been blessed with good people in my life. Before I came here Sacred Heart was known as a very welcoming community, a place where people of all different backgrounds could go and feel a part of, a place where they feel they belonged. I am most proud that we’ve carried on in that same spirit. I know it’s a community, I know it’s a community that cares. We’ve maintained that charism.
“We’ve also been a parish that has always had a strong conviction towards social justice and serving the needs of others and providing for the poor. We are that place and we are a place that I know for certain impacts the community. We’re helping lots of young people. I’m really proud of what what we’ve maintained in continuing to do for kids.”
On a frigid Saturday morning in November, there was Fr. Tom doling out donuts, muffins and thank-yous to delivery drivers picking up Thanksgiving gift pouches for the parish’s twice-annual holiday food distribution. A record 330-some families in need received a turkey, plus all the fixings, for Thanksgiving. The operation, which runs with friendly, relaxed precision out of the parish’s Heart Ministry Center (HMC), is repeated for Christmas.
For the weekend chiller, the affable padre stood outside, bundled from head to foot, meeting and greeting volunteers, an easy conviviality and respect between the priest and his flock. Typically, he downplays his part, instead praising the large team that makes this compassionate response a reality.
“Being the pastor here is just kind of like orchestrating,” he said. “It’s recognizing people’s goodness and gifts and inviting them to offer themselves. If people are offered an invitation, they’re going to go with it. The things that happen here are because there are lots of really good people. They’re willing to get involved and to give of themselves.
“There’s lots of things I love about being a priest but one of the most exciting is when people become aware of God’s presence in their life, and no two stories are ever the same. Every person has their own journey and own ways that are revealed to them.”
He said he’s come to view his ministry as inviting people to give, whether their time, talent or treasure, in order to be of service to others. He said e’s often teased that he has a way about him that makes it impossible for anyone to say no.
“Well, there are people who have said no to me, but I’ve just kind of learned that shouldn’t stop you,” he said. “You go to the next place, you find the next person. I believe in the goodness of people. I also have high expectations of what people can do, and sometimes they really need that invitation to show that.”
Located at 2218 Binney Street, Sacred Heart serves the most poverty stricken area of the city through three nonprofit arms Fangman oversees. The most visible of these is the church, which originally opened at another site clear back in 1890.
The present stone, late-Gothic Revival church that stands today opened in 1902. Through Fangman’s leadership the parish was able to find the funds and in-kind contributions necessary for the building to undergo a $3.3 million restoration in 2009. He announced the capital campaign to fund the project in 2008. After making the case, folks responded, and within a year all pledges were secured.
More than a picture-postcard Old World edifice made new again, the church is a well-attended gathering place that draws worshipers, just as Sacred Heart counts parishioners, from all over the metro. The hospitality there is evident in the way newcomers are greeted. The Sunday 10:30 a.m. Mass is famous for its spirited celebration, complete with a rousing gospel choir and band. The animated “sign of peace” ritual includes hand shakes, salutations, hugs, kisses, as many folks circulate from pew to pew engaging each other. The fellowship resumes after Mass ends.
As a parish priest, Fangman is more than a spiritual figurehead. He’s a flesh-and-blood confessor, advisor, counselor, confidante, friend, leader, fundraiser and CEO. He serves his flock in macro and micro ways. He’s there at the most public and private, joyous and sad occasions. Hundreds of photographs of people in his life adorn every smooth surface in his kitchen, a reflection of how many he impacts and how many touch him.
“Being a parish priest lets you be involved in lots of peoples lives, from womb to tomb,” he said. “People say to me, ‘How can you be around so much sadness and death?’ I don’t know how to answer that but one thing I do know is that holiness is there in the midst of it, because that’s where love is.”
He fills multiple roles in the course of any given week: saying several Masses; hearing confessions; presiding, on average, over at least one wedding or funeral; visiting the sick; preparing couples for marriage; attending board meetings; calling on donors; and crafting his homilies.
He feels good about a lot of things that go on at Sacred Heart.
“I feel like we have a really great thing to sell, and I’m sold, I believe in what we’re doing and I’ll talk to anybody about that,” he said.
A shining example he never tires of touting is Sacred Heart Elementary School, a K-8 institution serving a predominantly African-American, non-Catholic student population. The school’s financial sustainability and operations are supported by the nonprofit CUES or Christian Urban Education Service, comprised of an “established board” of Omaha movers and shakers. Fangman is its executive director.
He said students at the small private school consistently test above average and that faculty and staff rigorously prepare students to succeed, adding that 98 percent graduate high school within four years. Mentors are assigned every student, all of whom receive work and life skills training.
Whether it’s the school, the church, or the center, he said, Sacred Heart is concerned with “addressing the whole person — body, mind and spirit.” Nothing satisfies him more than seeing the results come-full-circle in an each one, teach one way: “I get to see the goodness of people who want to make a difference, and then I get to see who receives from that goodness, and then what they do with that. Ultimately our goal is to give people opportunities. Sacred Heart is about opportunities.”
He said, “This young lady came up to me to say she grew up down the street from Sacred Heart, attended school here nine years, went to Duchesne Academy, then St. Louis University. She worked at First National Bank and she wanted to be a mentor here. To me that spoke pretty loudly about what we’re able to do, which is giving kids the opportunity to make it in life, to grow and discover what they have to offer. I want to see that continue on. I want to see those opportunities always given.”
The parish responds to social service/ human needs through Heart Ministry Center, home to the area’s only self-select pantry. Thousands receive free food, clothing, health care and other services from HMC each year. In 2002 Fangman consolidated its services on campus, raising $650,000 to build a new building.
Sacred Heart’s mission requires big money. The center operates on a $360,000 budget. The school budget is $1.3 million. Running the church/parish costs $500,000.
“That’s $2 million you have to somehow come up with,” said Fangman, adding that to secure that kind of commitment requires reaching into all areas of Omaha.
Three major fundraisers are held yearly. Holy Smokes is a pre-Labor Day bash benefiting HMC. It features barbecue, refreshments and live music. The Gathering is a sit-down dinner in support of the school. The Sacred Heart Open is a croquet tournament, battle-of-the-bands and barbecue to assist the church/parish. Two of the events began under Fangman’s watch and all three, he said, are well supported.
Thirteen years into his post, Fangman’s overdue for a transfer, but he doesn’t sense his work at Sacred Heart is finished yet.
“If I felt like we had done everything we were supposed to do, then I would feel like it’s probably time to try something new and different, but I feel like we’re on the verge of some really vital things happening.”
Whatever happens, he said, “I want to feel like I know I tried to make this a better place. I want to continue trying to get the right people in the right spots.”
To do the right thing.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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