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Father Ken Vavrina Book Signing – Sunday, Jan. 3

December 28, 2015 Leave a comment

 

 

Sunday, January 3, 2016
at 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM
St Benedict The Moor, 2423 Grant Street, Omaha
Father Ken Vavrina will sign copies of his new book, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden,” from 10:30 a.m. to Noon on Sunday, Jan. 3 at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, 2423 Grant Street, In North Omaha. The signing will take place in the social hall located in the church basement. The book chronicles Father’s inspiring life of service at home and abroad. As I helped Father Ken realize the book, I will be there as well. Come out and support Father Ken, a much beloved man of God and of the people whose ministry is both a testimony of faith and a call to action. This social justice champion has served parishes on reservtions and in Omaha’s inner city. He’s worked with lepers in Yemen and with the poorest of the poor in India. He’s aided war refugees in Liberia and earthquake surviors in Italy. He’s given all he has to give and now it’s time for the community to show its appreciation for this once close confidante and colleague of Mother Teresa.

Refreshments will be served. All are welcome. We hope to see you there.

 

 

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

December 23, 2015 Leave a comment

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.

_ _ _

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

 

 

 

Los Dias de Los Muertos festival offers three weeks of exhibits and events

October 16, 2015 2 comments

Omaha has some well known arts couples: Ree and Jun Kaneko, Janet Farber and Michael Krainak, Mary and Gary Day. Then there’s Linda and Jose Garcia. Linda’s the artist and Jose’s the adminstrator. She’s also a curator and storyteller. He’s also a historian and photographer. Together, they pour considerable passion and expertise into an annual Los Dias de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) exhibition and celebration that features a little of everything – art, music, dance, theater, storytelling, workshops. It’s all reflective of their multidisciplinary approach to art and culture. They organize and present it through their Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands. This is my El Perico story about their fifth annual Day of the Dead festival, which for the first time is at the Spanish Renaissance-inspired St. Cecilia Cathedral and adjacent Cultural Center and hosted by Cathedral Arts Project. It’s a great marriage of place, theme, art and architecture. And a great couple with a deep love for community deserves your support.

The free fest runs Oct 17 through Nov. 7.

Los Dias de Los Muertos festival offers three weeks of exhibits and events

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story appeared in El Perico

The Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands will present a free October 17 through November 7 Day of the Dead festival curated by Omaha artist Linda Garcia and her history-buff husband Jose Garcia.

The fifth annual Los Dias de Los Muertos exhibition and celebration is being held for the first time at St. Cecilia Cathedral and its adjacent Cultural Center. The Cathedral Arts Project is hosting the festival.

The Garcias have asked dozens of artists to variously employ visual and performing mediums to express sentiments and symbols associated with this traditional Mexican remembrance of the departed.

Ofrenda installations, artworks, lectures, workshops, storytelling, poetry readings, live theater monologues, music and dance performances will all lend their Day of the Dead interpretations.

The exhibition, featuring works by dozens of area artists, will be on display in the Center’s Sunderland Gallery throughout the duration of the festival.

For the 6 to 9 p.m. opening reception on Saturday, Oct. 17 patrons may follow a luminaria path between the Cathedral, where the ofrendas are installed, to the Cultural Center, where the exhibit stands.

The theme for this year’s festival is the marigold – the traditional flower utilized in Day of the Dead observances. The marigold is called Cempoalxóchitl in the indigenous Uto-Aztecan dialect and it is often incorporated into the ofrendas or stages that people create. Thus, this year’s festival is titled “El Teatro Cempoalxóchitl – the Marigold Theater” as a homage to its historic place and dramatic use.

“The focus is concentrated on the use of the marigold as setting the stage to remember and honor departed loved ones – family, friends, acquaintances, ancestors,” Linda Garcia says.

Thus, ofrenda installations at the Cathedral will incorporate the marigold, which Jose Garcia says “is a symbol of man’s brief period on Earth.” He adds, “For thousands of years it’s been used to represent the essence of memories critical in sustaining a path of remembrance between the soul and the living.”

He says inside the Cathedral, at its Nash Chapel. a community ofrenda-altar will “present an opportunity for parishioners of St. Cecilia’s to place copies of photographs in memory of the departed. These private tributes and offerings represent both the ancient traditions and modern customs that chronicle the perpetual relationship between faith, family and history.”

“Los Dias de Los Muertos traditions serve as a meaningful reminder of the connections between the living and the departed,” he says. “It is this relationship that represents a transcultural fusion of indigenous customs and the Catholic faith. Each, an expression of belief in the immortal nature of the soul.”

A pair of lectures beginning at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 18 at the Cultural Center will discuss the origins and meanings of flowers and other objects in Meso-American art and the parallels between how Egyptians and Mexicans raise remembrance after death to high art.

In keeping with the theatrical trappings of ofrendas, a program of Verbal Ofrendas: Theater Monologues directed by Scott Working will present original works by playwrights read by actors. The monologues, accompanied by musician Michael Murphy, will take place at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24 and at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 1 in the Cathedral’s Our Lady of Nebraska Chapel.

Internationally renowned storyteller and mime Antonio Rocha will perform at 7 p.m. on Saturday , Oct. 24 in the chapel. A 10 a.m. sugar skull workshop will be held at the Center that same Saturday.

Poets will take center stage at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 25 at the Center.

The Saturday, Nov. 7 finale and closing reception from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Cathedral will be highlighted by a performance from the Mexican Dance Academy of Nebraska

Linda Garcia says the complexities of how different peoples have dealt with death across eras and cultures has led her to design a festival that is both multicultural and multimedia in nature.

“Each year we add new artists,” she says. “Jose and I have seen the transformation of the artists and the public in dealing with a very difficult subject – death. The event has created a safe place to speak about our departed. It introduces and perpetuates family histories, traditions, memories and stories.”

“As part of its commitment to multicultural arts events, Cathedral Arts Project is pleased to welcome this celebration of Dia de Los Muertes to St. Cecilia Cathedral,” founder and executive director Brother William Woeger says.

According to Jose Garcia, “I believe Los Dias de los Muertos as practiced in the United States is becoming a cultural standard because of grassroots efforts such as ours.” He says having the festival at the Cathedral campus is only natural given its central location, prominence in the community, arts heritage and Spanish influences.

“We are bringing into play a highly organized arts project that is home grown. We are freely able to interpret traditional and popular art and culture in a venue of veneration – a sacred place.” It’s a good fit, too, he says, given that the Cathedral is replete with Spanish colonial icons “created during the time when Spain and the Church ruled Mexico.”

Brother Woeger adds, “Given the Cathedral’s Spanish Renaissance architecture, this venue should provide a beautiful compliment to this celebration.”

Woeger says the Cathedral has Hispanic membership but more importantly it is “the mother church for the Archdiocese, which has a very significant Hispanic population.”

Guided tours are available throughout the festival.

St. Cecilia Cathedral is located at 701 North 40th Street, between Burt and Webster, The Cultural Center is at 3900 Webster Street.

For exhibition days and hours and other festival details, visit http://www.LosDiosdeLosMuertosOmaha.org or call 402-651-9918.

More praise and news for my new book with Father Ken Vavrina

October 6, 2015 3 comments

Blank bookcover with clipping path

More praise and news for my new book with Father Ken Vavrina
“Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden”

5.0 out of 5 stars “A Humble Man with a Powerful Story” Sept. 1 2015
By Sandra Wendel – Published on Amazon.com

“As a book editor, I find that these incredible heroes among us cross our paths rarely. I am indeed lucky to have worked with Father Ken in shaping his story, which he finally agreed to tell the world. You will enjoy his modesty and humility while serving the poorest of the poor. His story of his first days in the leper colony in Yemen is indeed compelling, as is his survival in prison in Yemen. Later, his work in Calcutta, Liberia, and Cuba made a difference.”

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5.0 out of 5 stars Father Ken Vavrina Sept. 28 2015
By Sandra L Vavrina – Published on Amazon.com

“Crossing Bridges. Father Ken’s life is amazing! He is my husband’s cousin and performed our wedding ceremony 51 years ago right after he was ordained.”

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5.0 out of 5 stars “Great Book” Sept. 1 2015
By ken tuttle – Published on Amazon.com

“Such an amazing life story.”

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BOOK NOTE:

The book is available through http://www.upliftingpublishing.com. You can also find it on Amazon and Kindle and at The Bookworm. Ask for it or order it at your favorite bookstore.

After Father Ken recoups the cost of the book’s priting, all proceeds will go to Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha.

BOOK NOTE:

I will join Father Ken at a Saturday, November 7 signing from 1 to 4 p.m. at The Bookworm.

COVER STORY NOTE:

Look for my cover story about Father Ken that I adapted from the book in the November 2015 issue of the New Horizons newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging.

The cover for my new book with Father Ken Vavrina, “Crossing Bridges, A Priest’s Uplifiting Life Among the Downtrodden”


Blank bookcover with clipping path

Blank bookcover with clipping path

The cover for my new book with Father Ken Vavrina-

“Crossing Bridges, A Priest’s Uplifiting Life Among the Downtrodden”

Father Ken served diverse populations in need in America and in developing nations. His overseas work brought him in close relationship with Mother Teresa.

Look for future posts about where you can get your copies. All proceeds will be donated to Catholic organizations.

Coming Soon: A new book I wrote with Father Ken Vavrina, “Crossing Bridges,” the story of this beloved Omaha priest’s uplifitng life among the downtrodden

July 24, 2015 6 comments

Blank bookcover with clipping path

Blank bookcover with clipping path

COMING SOON A new book I wrote with Father Ken Vavrina-
“Crossing Bridges”

The story of this beloved Omaha priest’s uplifitng life among the downtrodden.

Look for future posts about where you can get your copies. All proceeds will be donated to Catholic organizations.

Like   Comment   

The Sweet Sounds of Sacred Heart’s Freedom Choir

March 10, 2015 2 comments

I keep getting assignments to write about various aspects of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in North Omaha and the latest is this Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com) feature about the church’s Freedom Choir.  The super-charged choir adds to the full-throated, body-swaying gusto that makes the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass there a draw for folks from near and far.  Just like the church is famous for its welcoming spirit, so is the choir.  Oh, and they can sing just a little bit, too.

 

Sacred Heart Freedom Choir | Feel The Revival

 

The Sweet Sounds of Sacred Heart’s Freedom Choir

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com)

 

 

Rousing. Inspired. Dynamic. Electric. Animated.

All apply to Sacred Heart Catholic Church’s Freedom Choir. Home for this contemporary gospel choir is a Late Gothic Revival-style house of worship in a poor, largely African-American northeast Omaha neighborhood. The choir, like the congregation, is mostly white, the members driving-in from outside the community.

The popular 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass features the high-energy choir’s joyful noise. The choir also performs at the parish festival, community concerts, weddings and funerals. In 1997 the group traveled to Rome, Italy to perform at St. Peter’s. The choir’s recorded CDs,

Its up-tempo, full-throated, Baptist-style flavor, complete with swaying singers and musicians, makes for vibrant praise and worship rooted in radical hospitality and stand-up-and raise-your-arms spirituality. Far from your mother’s staid Catholic service, this is Vatican II reform given full license to bust out in song, embrace, even dance.

Though seemingly free-form, it’s the careful design of former pastor Jim Scholz, who sought to shake up an aging membership. Drawing from urban, gospel music-rich liturgies and with a nod to the Blues Brothers, Scholz hired Mary Kay Mueller to birth the choir in all its from-the-gut expressiveness. That’s when the 10:30 Mass took on a lively, high-pitched fervor. As word spread, people packed the pews. They’re still flocking there decades later.

Tom Fangman and JIm Boggess replaced Scholz and Mueller, respectively, to carry on this big, brassy, yet solemn celebration.

“When people first come it’s to hear the choir,” Father Fangman says. “Then when they come they experience it’s not just the choir, it’s the whole community. We really are big on making people feel a part of it and welcome.”

“There’s a sense of inclusion in our particular faith community that keeps me coming back,” says Boggess, who’s regular gig is Omaha Community Playhouse music director. He knows top-flight talent and has plenty in the choir. Percussionist Michael Fitzsimmons is a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist. Soloist Natalie Thomas is lead vocalist with the cover band Envy. Fellow soloist Moira Mangiameli is a veteran theater actress-director. Both Mangiameli and Boggess have written hymns the choir performs.

 

Jim Boggess

 

 

 

Image result for moira mangiameli omaha

Moira Mangiameli

 

Many members have been doing this for years. That makes for tight harmonies and personal bonds.

“Over the years those people have gotten to be some of my best friends,” Boggess says. “They’ve been there for me in good times and in horrible times. I think whatever almighty spirit there be led me here for a reason and the reason was I needed to have those people in my life and I’m so much richer spiritually and as a person and as a musician for having known them.”

“It’s a family,” says choir president Sarah Ruma, who goes back 30 years, “We have our regular family and then we have our church family and that’s basically what Sacred Heart is and our choir is. Some of us have kind of grown up together. We started in our late 20s and early 30s and now we’re into our 50s and 60s.

“Unfortunately, we’ve buried choir members. That’s been hard. We sing together, we smile and laugh together and we cry together.”

Mangiameli says, “It’s the best part of my week.” She’s recruited her sister    Eileen to the choir. Like other devotees there Mangiameli was a disaffected churchgoer who got swept up in the spirit. “People get up and they clap and they rock out. It happens every Sunday. People are really happy to be there. There’s an incredibly positive and heartfelt vibe that just happens every Sunday and it extends to the choir, too.”

Fitzsimmons calls it “energizing.”

“It’s just a warm place to be,” Ruma says.

“I have been moved ever since my first Sunday here 16 years ago,” Fangman says. “I am moved every single week. I can’t wait for the 10:30 Mass.”

It doesn’t hurt that the music’s off the chain.

Mangiameli says, “There’s so many great people in the choir that it makes you better just to be a part of it.”

Boggess doesn’t turn anyone away. “If you can carry a tune that’s fine, but you don’t have to have a great voice, though I’ve got some people with magnificent voices, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “But really passion counts more than anything else. It’s supposed to be a gospel choir and that implies a certain freedom and that’s what I give them.”

“What really sets us apart is the musicians that play with us,” Mangiameli says. “They are just some of the best musicians anywhere around and they really inspire us as singers.”

 

Michael Fitzsimmons

 

Fitzsimmons says it’s the whole package. “The directors, choir and instrumentalists continually amaze and inspire me by their high quality presentation and soulful musicianship. “He says the experience of the Mass is very much interactive with the music.”

“The very best thing that happens is when you feel the energy coming from the congregation,” Mangiameli says. “When we’re in the middle of singing something and then all of a sudden they’re on their feet you know you touched them and made a difference.”

Sometimes, when the congregation’s really feeling it, she says, Boggess has the choir stop and listen to the collective voices. “You get goose bumps, it’s great, there’s nothing like it.”

Sacred Heart is located at 2204 Binney Street.

Everything old newly restored again at historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Omaha

July 15, 2012 4 comments

One of the most popular religious figures in Omaha is Rev. Tom Fangman, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church.  He oversees a parish that includes the church, an elementary school, and community outreach services offered through the Heart Ministry Center.  These and other activities serve the poorest of the poor in poverty stricken North Omaha.  A few years ago the historic church underwent a major restoration and in this article for Omaha Magazine I quote the pastor describing just what a transformation this makeover entailed in a neighborhood and community in need of whatever positive change that can come their way.  This blog contains other articles I’ve done related to Sacred Heart, Fr. Fangman, and the Heart Ministry Center.

 

Everything old newly restored again at historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine

 

In today’s parlance, everything “pops” now at historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church as the result of a 2009 restoration that Rev. Tom Fangman, pastor of the northeast Omaha parish, likes to call “an extreme church makeover.”

The $3.3 million project made long overdue improvements to the 108-year-old church at 22nd and Binney. Designated an Omaha landmark, the church is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The parish was founded in 1890 at a nearby location. The land for the present church was donated by Omaha business magnate and philanthropist Herman Kountze. The stone, late Gothic Revival style edifice with a 124-foot spire was erected there in 1902.

This long history has been much on the mind of Fangman. The Omaha native has served Sacred Heart for 12 years. As steward of the church, he feels responsible to the rich legacy it represents and for which he is keepsaker.

But a poor parish like his that serves an underprivileged neighborhood has few resources. What little it does have goes to Sacred Heart School and the Heart Ministry Center. Supporting the needs of at-risk youths and adults  takes precedence. That reality resulted in letting things slide at the church. Two years ago though Fangman decided repairs could no longer be put off.

“We didn’t do it out of luxury, we did it out of necessity,” he said. “Almost everything was in such dire condition that it needed to be redone or made new. Our stained glass windows had been declared dangerous by three companies because the lead was so old it was cracking and bubbling. The windows were falling apart.

There were cracks across the ceiling, and there were times when I’d be saying Mass and paint chips would fall down.

“We didn’t know how much longer the boiler was going to work.”

The first thing he did was assemble a project team led by: architecture firm RDG; general contractor Boyd Construction; Brother William Woeger with the Omaha Archdiocese; and Sacred Heart members Mike Moylan, a real estate developer, and Stephanie Basham, an interior designer.

Specialists from around the nation were brought in along with local experts, including Lambrecht Glass Studio, which restored Sacred Heart’s exquisite stained glass windows, and McGill Brothers Inc., which did cleaning and tuckpointing.

Rather than do a piecemeal fix over years, the consensus was to tackle the whole job at once. Fangman announced the capital campaign in 2008 and within a year all pledges were secured. “There’s no way our parish ever could afford anything like this,” he said. “We reached out and I spent a lot of that year going out and talking to people.” He made the case and folks responded.

“It’s close to a miracle.”

For Fangman, caring for the building meant respecting the history of the parish and preserving this place of worship for future generations.

“This is an important church in Omaha. It’s pretty sacred to lots and lots of families,” he said. “I just felt like we owed it to the people that started this parish 120 years ago. They built something and gave us something beautiful and lasting, and we have been the recipients of that. I just felt like we owed it to the people that gave this to us over a century ago and we owe it the people that will come next.

“It’s bigger than just what we’re doing today.”

Besides, he said, “Sacred Heart deserved a facelift.”

Years of crud were meticulously cleaned away. Grime, grit, soot. Decades worth cast a dark veil over the exterior, obscuring the pink limestone that, finally revealed again, resembles the subtle pink marble facing of the Joslyn Art Museum.

“The new vividness and brightness is amazing,” said Fangman. “I do feel like I am in the old Sacred Heart, but everything feels so new and preserved. It was very important to the whole team we maintained the integrity of the building.”

Even longtime friends tell him they can “hardly believe it’s the same structure.” “It’s exciting to see the pride that our parishioners have in it and in its beauty,” he added. “I still get choked up when I walk in there.” He said the project seemed to encourage neighbors to do fix-ups to their properties.

 

 

 

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Teams of craftspeople took over Sacred Heart during the intensive six-month project. Floor to ceiling scaffolding was put up. Crews worked day and night. To accommodate it all on such a short schedule the church was temporarily closed. Sanctuary items were removed. Services relocated to the school gymnasium across the street. Fangman said area churches were “gracious” in accommodating weddings and funerals.

The project’s  comprehensive scope encompassed: replacement of the roof, the gutter, the floors and the heating system; laying a new foundation; installing the church’s first air conditioning system; building a baptismal font; restoring the chapel as well as all the church’s extensive stained glass windows, murals and woodwork, including the pews and confessionals.

Watching it all unfold with curiosity and appreciation was Fangman. “We were under the wire so much, but everybody came through. We had people who were looking out for us.” And maybe a touch of divine intervention. He said a team of workers from New York City came in on their own one weekend, for free, to paint a chapel backdrop not in the budget. He said a craftsman who worked on the baptismal font described having a spiritual experience that prompted him to relocate his wife and daughter here from Florida. The family now attends Sacred Heart. The daughter is to baptized at the very font her father helped fashion.

It’s another example to Fangman of how “there’s so many God-things with this project.”

He said the revitalized church is a visible, tangible sign of Sacred Heart’s good works. He hopes more people come there to worship and to support its social justice mission. He prays it also stands as a symbol of revitalization for a community with great needs and sends a signal that Sacred Heart is there to stay.

“We’ve been here and were going to continue to be here.”

Fangman never knew a makeover project could be so impactful.

“When I started, it wasn’t clear to me what it would mean and how beautiful it would all turn out. It turned out better than I ever imagined.”

On Nov. 23 Archbishop George Lucas presided at the restored church’s dedication and the altar’s consecration.

The restoration project had turned up time capsules from previous events. Just as his predecessors did Fr. Tom composed a letter describing the latest milestone and placed it in a capsule for a future pastor to discover.

One more link in an unbroken chain of faith.

Omaha Corpus Christi procession draws hundreds

June 13, 2012 3 comments

I am a cradle Catholic but until Sunday, June 10 I had never observed or participated in a procession.  I intentionally immersed myself as a reporter in the Omaha Corpus Christi Procession that weekend for the purpose of not only getting a story, which follows, but of furthering my own spiritual journey.  I was not disappointed on either count.  There’s something ancient and ancestral and magesterial about a religious procession that taps deep currents in many people, including me as I found out.  I am glad to have experienced it and I intend to do so again.  I have always responded to the high theater of sacred services and I believe I am more open today than before to feel the spirituality of these experiences.  Hopefully this story, soon to appear in El Perico, does a fair job of capturing the event.  My blog doesn’t feature many stories related to religion and spirituality but there are some, including a feature on the sponsor and organizer of the Omaha Corpus Christi Procession, St. Peter Catholic Church.  You’ll also find a features on Sacred Heart Catholic Church and its pastor, Rev. Tom Fangman.  Check out the story I did on some followers of the Latin Mass at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Omaha.  I recently posted an upcoming cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the Omaha-based Tri-Faith Initiative, a collaboration between the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, Temple Israel, and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture that is well on its way to building a campus with a church, a synagogue, and a mosque.  There are also features to be found here of various religious figures, including Rev. Don Doll and the late Fr. John Markoe, and extensive profiles of some of Omaha’s leading African-American ministers.

 

 

 

 

Omaha Corpus Christi procession draws hundreds

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Seven hundred Christian faithful followed a 1.4 mile procession route on June 10 in honor of the Feast of Corpus Christi.

The pageantry-filled Catholic procession celebrating the body of Christ began at Our Lady of Lourdes Church on South 32nd Ave. and ended at St. Peter Church on 27th and Leavenworth, Each worship space was filled to overflowing.

Corpus Christi processions are a centuries-old tradition but until recently Omaha hadn’t seen one in years. When Rev. Damien Cook arrived as St. Peter’s pastor in 2004 he found a growing immigrant Hispanic membership hungry for processions and devotionals and he organized the first march in 2006. It’s been held annually since and more parishes have followed suit.

“We try to make it more and more festive each year. It’s just beautiful,” says Cook.

“This is a big day for our Catholic church,” says Teresa Ribera.

The ceremonial ritual takes months of planning and scores of volunteers. It’s part of St. Peter’s restoring the sacred mission.

For most, the procession’s a testament of faith.

“This is a public expression of our love for Jesus,” says Don Carney. “There’s something splendid about a public expression. I get a great peaceful feeling when I do this. The neighbors seem to like it too.”

Jean Fisher says, “It’s very uplifting to have so many people here, It just kind of jumpstarts your faith and really confirms you in what you believe.”

Solemn services kicked things off at OLL and culminated at St. Peter, their majestic sanctuaries well-suited to the occasion. Plenty of reverent activity happened in between, as did a melange of the sacred and secular that resembled Easter, Fourth of July and Day of the Dead.

In this intercultural convergence of Old World meets New a very public and colorful declaration of faith unfolded in the streets.

There were priests in golden vestments, deacons and seminarians in black and cossacks, nuns in brown habits, children in white First Communion-attire and Knights of Columbus honor guardsmen wearing red sashes. The centerpiece was a golden vessel, called the monstrance, holding a consecrated host. Priests, including Cook, took turns holding it aloft under a fringed canopy borne by escorts.

 

 

 

 

The faithful, including many families, dressed in everything from Sunday best to picnic wear. Parents pushed strollers and pulled wagons. Only stray sprinkles, not forecasted storms, dampened the breezy, overcast day, though the threat kept numbers down, says Cook.

Inside, for the exposition, elaborate praise and worship services featured organ and choir music.

Servers carried flags, banners, incense burners, chalices, crucifixes and altar bells. Outside, the sound of jangling bells mixed with recorded choirs reciting hymns, psalms and chants in English, Spanish and Latin. Piped-in music and prayers, relayed by speakers in a pickup truck, cued the crowd to respond.

Girls carrying baskets filled with rose petals and confetti strew their contents along the path to symbolize heavenly showers of grace.

En route from OLL to St. Peter the multitudes stopped for benedictions at makeshift altars in Hanscom Park and the Gerald R. Ford Birthsite and Gardens. Adoration of the eucharist found people kneeling in the grass and intoning verses as priests hoisted the monstrance for all to see.

As the procession made its way down Woolworth Ave. and Park Ave. the incongruity of the ethereal and the earthy struck home. The area’s been plagued by run down, high crime rental properties. A sign of hope amid the blight is restored apartment buildings, whose clean facades and landscaped yards pop. In what community activists are trying to return to a walking neighborhood a procession helped lead the revival.

Steve, an area apartment dweller, looked out at the passing caravan from his stoop and said, “I think it’s very inspiring to be honest with you. It’s something you don’t see every day and it’s something I think a lot more people need to see. It’s a gathering when there’s not a lot of people to be gathered anymore, you know.”

Procession veteran Jim Keating says, “We process through the streets as a way to give witness to Omaha that God loves the whole city.” Ramon Davila echoed others  in saying he participates “to be a witness that Jesus is alive.” Some call it “walking with Jesus.”

By the time the slow moving pageant reached St. Peter’s at 4 p.m. the crackle, pop, sizzle and whistle of fireworks joined the singing, chants and peeling church bells.

A huge banner of the risen Christ hung from the church’s balcony. Streamers and flower garlands decorated the exterior.

A gawking area resident said, “It’s awesome, I’ve never seen it before.” Two women watching with wonder etched on their faces said the “impressive” sight was worth the drive from Council Bluffs.

The event began at 2:30 but many gathered at OLL before 2. The grounds, parking lots and streets served as staging areas for the religious and lay contingents participating. Members of the sponsoring parishes were joined by believers from other local churches and apostolates.

Among the early arrivals was St. Peter member Julie Steadman. For her, “the reverence” of the event and its communal spirit are what draw her.

“Just to have everybody come as a community together and follow the blessed sacrament and pray and offer the devotions is a very powerful, very spiritual experience,” she says. “A wonderful calmness and reverence comes over the whole ceremony and procession that says something important is going on here .”

Steven Kiernan, a visiting seminarian from Philadelphia, has seen his share of processions and he described this one as “beautifully executed,” adding, “So many people coming out for something that long is especially unique.”

A Decent House for Everyone: Jesuit Brother Mike Wilmot builds affordable homes for the working poor through Gesu Housing

September 9, 2011 6 comments

 

 

Brother Mike Wilmot‘s reputation as a tough guy precedes him, but like most tough guys he’s a pretty soft touch underneath the gruff exterior.

A Decent House for Everyone: Jesuit Brother Mike Wilmot builds affordable homes for the working poor through Gesu Housing

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Early in his life as a brother in the Society of Jesus, his superiors asked Mike Willmot what kind of work he wanted to do. The former Marquette (Milwaukee, Wis.) University High School three-sport athlete said he wanted to coach. Perhaps as a lesson in obedience or humility, the Jesuits instead had him learn cabinet making and welding.

It was hard to see the practicality of it. But the rough-hewn Wilmot eventually became a teacher, coaching basketball and football and serving as dean of students at Omaha Creighton Prep. “Looking back on it I’m glad that happened because I’ve used in my coaching and in my teaching those construction skills for many projects, and I’m still using them,” he says. “I’m still building and welding.”

Among other things, he integrates railroad spikes and other found metal in creating welded sculptures. A large cross he made adorns the grounds at St. James Catholic Church. His home-building mission came into focus when, during a mid-1990s sabbatical serving Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda, he helped construct a school and thus fulfilled a basic tenet of his Jesuit calling.

“In anything that any of us do we want to make the world a better place to live in by spreading the kingdom of God and bringing that to all people, and housing-shelter is one of the ways you can do that,” he says.

His small Gesu Housing Inc. nonprofit is the latest manifestation of putting his building know-how to work in service of his faith. Acting as a developer, Gesu (Italian for Jesus) builds affordable, energy efficient homes for the working poor in north Omaha. Now in his 70s, Wilmot walks with a hitch in his step after decades of jogging wore out his hips and necessitated replacement surgeries.

“The mission of Gesu housing is to put people into houses and to make the neighborhoods better neighborhoods,” says Wilmot.

Ten completed Gesu homes, all but one occupied, stand out from older homes on a two-block stretch of Burdette Street from 43rd to 42nd. He expects to start four new houses this fall. He says the well-built homes, which feature extra thick walls and insulation, get lots of play from interested buyers. Gesu has until now built concrete homes, but is embarking on wood frame construction to see which offers the most cost and energy efficiency.

Unlike many who serve social justice needs in north Omaha but live elsewhere, Wilmot lives in the Clifton Hills neighborhood where he works. He and four Jesuits reside at Mulumba House, a Creighton University satellite Jesuit community with a dedicated inner city presence.

“We felt this was the place we wanted to live,” says Wilmot. “We thought it would be a good idea to live with the people that we’re working for.”

Gesu partially funds its projects through the federal Housing and Urban Development monies through the Omaha City Planning Department. The three-bedroom homes cost $180,000 to construct and sell at well-below market rates to qualified first-time home buyers through Omaha100, a consortium of public-private partnerships dedicated to making home ownership possible for families with low to moderate income.

When Eva Powell and her three foster children took possession of their Gesu home August 20 it marked the gratifying end to a two-year process of searching and applying for a home.

“Oh, it was awesome. It was emotional,” says Powell, who works at International Gamco Inc. “It’s my own. It’s my house.”

She enjoys the two-car attached garage and a wrap-around porch and plentiful closet space among other features. She plans turning the unfinished basement into a rec room. Powell praises the way she was treated in the home qualification process, says of Omaha100 loan processor Carlene Lewis: “When I was getting frustrated she was always there to lift my spirits up and keep me going. She just really reassured me I would have a house. Without her I don’t know if I’d have hung in there this long.” The support Gesu provided also impressed her. “Once Brother Wilmot knew I was serious about wanting the corner lot, he told me, ‘Well, that’s your lot —  just hang in there.’ He was great, too.”

Buyers like Powell receive a $60,000 subsidy loan that comes off the cost of the home, keeping fixed monthly payments at about $600.

Money from HUD and buyers doesn’t cover everything. For each home Gesu builds, Wilmot must raise $40,000 to cover the difference. Asking for money isn’t his favorite chore, but it is vital it Gesu is to continue its work.

“We couldn’t survive without it. It’s hard work but it’s very interesting and you meet a lot of really good people,” he says. “Many things in this country are completed because of fund raising — like education. There’s a gap between what it costs and what people pay for it, so you’ve got to raise the gap, and the same here ….”

He recently secured $250,000 in matching grant money to allow Gesu to finish its most recent crop of homes.

To find those stop-gap dollars and keep construction costs low, Wilmot enlists support from of his extended Prep family. For example, Dan Hall of Hallmarq Homes, the general contractor for Gesu projects, played ball for Wilmot at Prep. After one meeting with his old coach, Hall says, “I bought in. It’s a great thing we’re doing down here  — we’re changing the neighborhood one house at a time. I love doing it.”

Replacing vacant lots with new homes encourages existing homeowners to spruce up their own places. “There are other houses on this block since we started doing this that have been rehabbed, which is a good idea. Other people are fixing up their houses,” Wilmot says.

Hall says residents get involved in the revitalization, even going out of their way to protect new construction sites. “Everybody seems to know me and my truck now because I’ve been down here hundreds of times,” he says. “And there are some folks that watch houses for me. It goes a long way, you know, in establishing a relationship. You get some security out of it when you get people involved. If somebody isn’t supposed to be here they’ll run them off or they’ll call me.”

Whether it’s their place or someone else’s, he says, people “just want a nice house.” And a nice neighborhood.

Wilmot formed Gesu nearly a decade ago after working on  a series of construction projects. They included additions to the then-Jesuit Middle School, now Jesuit Academy, at 2311 North 22nd Street, and to the Mulumba House at 4308 Grant. He was the school’s first assistant principal. But when he got involved building things using a fast, cost effective poured concrete process, he found inspiration for his new path.

“I worked closely with a friend of mine who’s another Prep alum, Phil McKeone of  Daedalus Construction, and I said, ‘Phil, we’ve got to do something with this technology to build some houses, and he was dumb enough to go for it.”

Sister Marilyn Ross, director of Holy Name Housing Corp., urged him to start the home construction nonprofit. He did, and focused on the neighborhood where he lives. Gesu relies on donated and discounted labor and in-kind services.

Much of north central and northeast Omaha have a glut of vacant lots, condemned homes and unkempt rental properties that deflate property values of the area’s nice homes and solid neighborhoods. He says he once counted at least 25 vacant lots in the Clifton Hills section. With for-profit developers ignoring the district, nonprofits like Gesu and Holy Name fill the void for new home construction.

“I do know there’s not necessarily a lot of people breaking their necks to build houses down here,” says Wilmot. “I’m sure economics comes into it. All over this country I think we have to rebuild our cities from the inside out. We can’t just keep going out to 200th and plowing ground. There’s gotta be renewal and rebuilding.”

The inner city provides an attractive landscape for first-time home buyers with its affordable housing and proximity to Omaha’s cultural hub, parks and commercial corridors. He views the racially-ethnically diverse Clifton Hills community as a kind of test case for what urban living should be.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t want to move out to west Omaha,” he says. “They want to live close to downtown. There’s a lot of good neighborhoods here. We’re not just helping people get into houses but improving neighborhoods. It’s about people living together. The best neighborhoods are diverse — economically, culturally, ethnically. It’s whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians living together.”

Gesu uses lots where homes previously stood, filling vacant properties with single-family homes.

“We work with the city very closely,” says Wilmot. “They identify lots and they do some of the site work and stuff like that and then they give it to us.”

The land Gesu uses isn’t always ideal. Some lots are rough and hilly; others choked by overgrowth and refuse. He points to a lot just west of a newly completed Gesu house and says, “There was a house here that was torn down and instead of throwing the debris away they threw it in a hole and covered it up. Now we have to get rid of that junk and take down a lot of this overgrowth.”

“We have to deal with the land the way we get it, and it costs money to do all the cleanup and hauling.” And headaches come with construction. “It rains when you don’t want it to rain, it doesn’t rain when you want it to rain, all that stuff,” he says. “You’re at the mercy of the weather.”

Eventually, the hassles are worth it.

“When you get done closing that house and you tell someone like Eva (Powell), ‘Congratulations, you’re a homeowner,’ that’s a real key time, and a joyous time.”

With more resources, Gesu could expand its reach. “Right now this is the area we’re working in but we’re not locked in here,” he says. “But we are locked into north Omaha.”

Wilmot is by all accounts a mellower man than the owly disciplinarian who patrolled the sidelines and hallways at Prep, and who continues coaching part-time at Omaha Roncalli.

“Coaching is teaching,” he says.

He doesn’t do as much hands-on construction work as he did at the start, but he’s still every bit as committed to Gesu’ social justice mission.

“Everybody should have a decent place to live, but it’s not the case, at least for a lot of people it isn’t. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Visit http://www.gesuhousing.com or call 402-991-0138

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