A big thank you to Mike Kelly for his fine column on Father Ken Vavrina


A big thank you to Mike Kelly for his fine column on Father Ken Vavrina

In the Omaha World-Herald issue dated today (Wednesday, December 23, 2015), columnist Mike Kelly finds the heart of Father Ken Vavrina and of the book I did with him, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden.”  Mike was aware that Father Ken got to know Mother Teresa quite well during his missionary years overseas.  At Mike’s urging, he, Father and myself took in a screening together of the new dramatic feature film about Mother Teresa, “The Letters,” since Father alone among us could provide first-hand impressions of what Mother was really like.  Mike took notes as Father reacted to various things depicted in the film.  After the film, Mike interviewed us.  Mike’s resulting fine column takes the full measure of the humble humanitarian and servant that is Father Ken.  It is Father’s ardent wish that each of us cross our own bridges to experience other cultures and serve diverse peoples.  This is how we grow and this is how we make the world a better place to live.

BOOK EVENT:

Sunday, January 3rd

Father Ken will be signing his book starting at 10:30 a.m. at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church (in the social hall in the basement of the church), 2423 Grant Street. Refreshments will be served.

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BUY THE BOOK:

“Crossing Bridges” is available on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. You can also access it on your Kindle. You can also order the book at- http://www.upliftingpublishing.com/#!book/c24jx

The only two local bookstores carrying “Crossing Bridges” are The Bookworm at 2501 South 90th Street and Hudson Booksellers at Eppley Airfield.

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EXCERPT FROM KELLY’S COLUMN:

 

At the new movie about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an Omaha priest occasionally leaned over and whispered about the saintly Nobel Peace Prize laureate he knew well.

“Sadness took a toll on her,” Father Ken Vavrina said at one point. At another: “Tough lady.”

At the Aksarben Cinema for a showing of “The Letters,” the 80-year-old priest, who himself worked with lepers, admired the actress’s portrayal: “Mother walked stooped, just like that.”

Through letters Mother Teresa wrote over 40 years, the biopic tells of her work amid the slums — and her crisis of faith, never feeling she did enough for God.

Father Ken knew nothing about the letters she wrote to her spiritual adviser, but he knew Mother, who died in 1997. He tells about her in a new autobiography with Omaha writer Leo Adam Biga, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden.”

As we left the theater and walked into afternoon light, the cleric remembered the nun, who died in 1997, as an inspiration.

“We meshed well together,” he said. “She contributed so much to my life and was a great influence in the way she was so humble. She reached out to help people without expecting anything in return.”

The last time I interviewed Father Vavrina was 1998, not long after he returned from 19 years of missionary work overseas. He’d just been assigned to troubled St. Richard Catholic Church at 43rd and Fort Streets, where the former pastor was Daniel Herek, convicted of child pornography and sexual assault.

Vavrina, who had worked in poor, sad situations for most of his priesthood, proclaimed that the parish and elementary school would turn the “negative publicity” around. Always optimistic, he predicted: “This school will still be here in 25 years.”

He tried. But because of declining attendance and enrollment, the church and school closed 11 years later.

Vavrina later served as pastor of St. Benedict the Moor parish in north Omaha. He eventually stated from the pulpit that, against his wishes, Archbishop George Lucas was forcing him to retire at 75.

The priest, who since has survived cancer, now looks at the situation differently. “The archbishop was right, and I was wrong. It was time.”

In retirement, Father Ken can look back on a lifetime of helping the poor — and, as a missionary, assisting “the poorest of the poor.”

He grew up in Clarkson, Nebraska, and was 9 when his father died after a fall from a ladder. As a teen, Ken dated and looked forward to a possible law degree.

But he felt a calling and was ordained in 1962. He worked on the Winnebago and Omaha Indian Reservations in Nebraska and later took medical supplies to members of the American Indian Movement during a 1973 protest in Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

He also served inner-city Omaha parishes, taking part in the civil rights movement.

In 1976, Mother Teresa came to Omaha and received an award at Boys Town. (Its official address today is Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home, 14086 Mother Teresa Lane, Boys Town, NE 68010.)

Vavrina had long been inspired by her work, and in 1977, he received a leave of absence from the Omaha archdiocese.

In Rome, he met Mother, asking if he could help.

“She threw her hands up in her typical way when she was excited,” he recalled. “She said, ‘Father, I need a priest in Yemen to help the sisters working with lepers.’ ”

And so he went, staying five and a half years. He lived in a dirt-floor hut, scraped dead skin from lepers and witnessed amputations. He called it taxing but fulfilling work, “the best job I ever had.”

He contracted malaria, but not leprosy. Eventually, he was arrested and jailed for two weeks, suspected of spying for the CIA. (He says he was not.) The U.S. Embassy arranged his release.

Catholic Relief Services hired him to manage a rebuilding effort after an earthquake, and then to supervise aid in India. As he says in his book:

I will never forget my first night in Calcutta. I said to the driver, “What are in these sacks we keep passing by?”
“Those are people.”

Hundreds upon thousands of people made their beds and homes alongside the road. It was a scale of homelessness I could not fathom.

Father Ken was reunited with Mother Teresa, noting the admiration she received wherever she went. When he left Calcutta in 1991, he wept. He said Mother teared up, too.

He next went to Liberia during civil war, supervising Catholic Relief Services aid and dealing with ruthless dictator Charles Taylor, whom the priest calls “a paranoid egomaniac.”

 

Father Ken hadn’t planned to write a book, but so many people urged him to do so that he agreed, hoping his story might inspire readers.

He contacted Biga, a freelance writer whose work includes a book about director-screenwriter Alexander Payne. Biga also has traveled to Uganda and Rwanda to write about relief work by world champion boxer Terence Crawford of Omaha.

For the rest of the story, visit-http://www.omaha.com/columnists/kelly-from-mother-teresa-to-a-liberian-dictator-nebraskan-priest/article

 

 

 

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