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Omaha’s St. Peter Catholic Church Revival Based on Restoring the Sacred


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.”

 

Rev. Damien Cook

Fr. Damien Cook

 

 

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.”

 

 

St-Peter-platform-with-Tannoy-speakers

 

 

 

 

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.”

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  1. rosie goergen
    December 25, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    I received many sacraments at St. Peter’s and remember the difficult years when Fr. Mac came in to stabilize the parish. What Father Cook has accomplished is amazing, a pure demonstration of the compelling nature of the sacred that I grew up with. It is a very different parish from the one I knew; families were in walking distance of the church but that world is no longer relevant to the propagation of the faith within the special edifice of St. Peter. People from all over Omaha come to worship there. While I pine for the memories of my past as member of St. Pete’s, I understand that a new generation is continuing the faith within a newly renovated space. The old space, the older church, lives with this old Catholic grade school girl but the new face of St. Peter’s still envelops the special nature of this sacred space in downtown Omaha.

    Like

  1. May 12, 2011 at 8:40 pm
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