Posts Tagged ‘Catholic Church’

Omaha address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega sounds hopeful message that repression in Cuba is lifting

July 4, 2011 10 comments

The vast majority of my journalism is accomplished far away from other media, but once in a while I end up as part of the pack when reporting a story, as was the case when I covered a May address by Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana, Cuba during a visit he made to Creighton University in Omaha. Actually, there was just one other journalist there to my knowledge, but he was representing the local daily and so I needed to be on my game with tape recorder rolling and notepad and pen at the ready capturing Ortega’s remarks. As the leader of the Catholic Church in that island nation, he has navigated an uneasy relationship with the Communist regime. In recent years he’s presided over a revival of the church there and entered a dialogue with the hard line government, which has considerably softened in what can only be called a reform movement that’s transforming Cuba into a freer nation. Critics of Ortega contend he hasn’t pressed Cuban officials enough, but the evidence suggests a major change is underway and basic human rights are being respected in ways not see before under the revolutionary banner. My story appeared in El Perico, a weekly Spanish-English newspaper published in South Omaha.



Omaha address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega sounds hopeful message that repression in Cuba is lifting

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico


During a May 12 commencement address at Creighton University, Havana, Cuba archbishop Rev. Jaime Ortega described the uneasy journey the Catholic Church has navigated in the Communist island nation.

At a separate weekend event, Cardinal Ortega received an honorary law degree in recognition of his humanitarian work.

In introductory remarks last Thursday Creighton president Rev. John Schlegel, who’s visited Ortega in Cuba, praised the cardinal for “working relentlessly to mediate between the government of Raul Castro and the families of prisoners of conscience…Above all, Cardinal Ortega has proven to be a great pastor, a great leader, especially through challenging times, and a great priest.” Schlegel described Ortega as a “diplomat” seeking “the greater good, truth and justice.”

The estimated 125 attendees included Creighton faculty, Archdiocese of Omaha officials and members of Nebraska’s Cuban and greater Latino communities.

Speaking through a translator, Ortega charted the repression that followed the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Ortega sounded hopeful about the new, freer Cuba emerging. He referred to frank, cooperative exchanges between the church and government authorities that recently brought the release of 52 political prisoners.

This avowed son of Cuba proudly declared, “I am a Cuban who lives in Cuba. I never wanted to live outside Cuba. It is a country I love with all my heart.”

He drew parallels between early Christian religious leaders serving their flocks amid oppression and clergy and pro-Democracy dissidents finding their voices suppressed under Fidel. He said rather than take a militant tack, the Cuban church followed a pastoral, passive approach.

“The Cuban bishops have tried to be shepherds in this way in Cuba,” he said. “Its role is not to confront the established powers.”

However, he says “the church is always asking for religious liberty, so that its followers can live their lives in peace.”

He outlined where the church and Cuba are today in comparison with the post-revolutionary period. “Initially,” he said, “there was a great acceptance of the revolution because of finding so many points of value with it.”

Within two years though, he said “very strong confrontation” and persecution  distanced the church from the regime and the revolutionary fervor. He said priests were expelled from the country, Catholic schools closed, ministries and other expressions of religion curtailed and various “attacks” made on the church. He was among many young men in the church sent to labor camps.

The harsh measures, he said, “had a negative impact on the Catholic faithful” and “marked the memory” of older Cubans. He said, “This is a mark that is hard to erase.” While the bishops decried human rights violations, he said “the church as an organization was very diminished and had no means of communicating with its people.” He characterized the Cuban church then as “a church of silence,” adding, “The attitude of the church then was one of patience, perseverance, prudence.”

He said despite restrictions imposed on social, political, religious practices, fear of arrest and economic hardship, many Cuban Catholics remained faithful and risked much to speak out.

A turning point was a reflective, renewal process the Cuban Bishops Conference initiated in 1981, extending to every diocese, culminating with the 1986 National Ecclesial Encounter Cuba. “This constituted a very decisive moment for the history of the church in Cuba,” he said. It laid the groundwork for Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba. As a result, he said, “the church in Cuba let itself be known to the world and Cubans themselves realized there was in Cuba a church that was alive and dynamic.”

Since the conference and papal visit, he asserts the church has taken more of an active, public, missionary role and today is a church “that lives for its people,” rather than “wrapped up in itself,”” welcoming whoever comes to it.



Framing this empowerment, he said, is a new spirit of dialogue between the church and government, which he describes as “more fluid” under Raul Castro. In a Q & A after his address, Ortega said, “It has been much easier to find somebody with whom to dialogue. There seems to be a greater openness to changes.”

He’s encouraged by greater religious freedom, whose public manifestations include massive crowds for outdoor rites and a recently dedicated seminary.

On the activist front, he said an intentional process of “pastoral action” with authorities negotiated improved conditions for political prisoners, who were allowed to have contact with their families before finally gaining release. “Our humanitarian gesture was accepted,” Ortega said. He also alluded to recently announced Cuban social-political reforms.

With Cuba now thriving, he said its experience demonstrates “the human spirit should not be endangered or limited” and that liberation needs to come in both the spiritual and social life of people, adding, “It should never be necessary to negate God in order to enjoy human rights or to be active citizens.”

Ortega acknowledges that for victims of Cuban injustice “the baggage” and “suffering” remain. For “true reconciliation among all Cubans,” he said, there must be forgiveness and understanding — only then will the wounds inflicted under the old regime heal. Cuba, he insists, is moving on in acceptance and he suggests the rest of the world move on, too.

University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, who’s extensively studied Cuba, admires Ortega for “toeing the line for the purposes of advancing the church and its teachings and its ministry.”

Referring to criticism by some that Ortega’s been slow to press for more reforms, Benjamin-Alvarado says, “His approach perhaps wasn’t as quick as some would have liked, but the fact is it’s been successful. I think what he’s understood perhaps better than most was the limitations on what the church actually could do. He moved when he could and didn’t try to deal with issues he wasn’t able to have any answer or response to.”

Omaha St. Peter Catholic Church revival based on restoring the sacred

May 12, 2011 8 comments

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 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.”








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.”

Devotees hold fast to Latin rite

June 15, 2010 5 comments

Tridentine Mass celebrated on Palm Sunday in t...

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I was raised Catholic.  Long after I became a lapsed Catholic, my mother and an aunt attended a church on the south side of Omaha that offered a Mass said in Latin.  I am barely old enough to remember that Masses said in Latin, with the priest’s back to the congregation, were once the standard Mass of the church.  Then Vatican II came in and the Latin Mass was quickly abandoned, as the church, to its credit, began opening the service up, through language and music and engagement, to make it a more accessible, welcoming, inclusive experience. The Latin Mass was relegated to fringe or alternative status, but its proponents, though small in number, were fierce in their devotion to it. When a priest friend of mine became pastor at the very church my mom and aunt attended, and he told me about the schism in his own church between the Latin adherents and the mainstream Mass followers, I felt called to do a story.  The following story, originally published in The Reader (, is the result.

Devotees hold fast to Latin rite

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


There is a small band of tradition-minded Roman Catholics whose affection for the largely disbanded Latin Mass is so strong they endure a certain scorn to attend this austere, orthodox ceremony that, as local Latin rite worshiper Steve Mahowald puts it, “more effectively expresses the mysteries of the faith I believe in.”

The fervor that Mahowald and his fellow worshipers — who can be regarded as the fundamentalists of the Catholic church — have for the Latin Mass is what has kept this old sacramental rite alive amid these liberal times and made its followers a thorn in the side of church hierarchy, who view dissent as a threat to unity. While the Latin Mass is not officially disapproved of by the church, which effectively abandoned it in favor of the modern, vernacular rite — the Novus Ordo — in 1969, it has been suppressed in recent decades and its adherents have been made to feel like they stand uneasily on the fringes of mainstream Catholicism.
Starting in 1969, when decrees from the Second Vatican Council held earlier that decade replaced the heavy, somber Tridentine Mass said in Latin with the lighter, more upbeat Novus Ordo said in the vernacular tongue, the traditional Mass not only fell out of disfavor with the church but its celebration became an act of defiance against religious leadership.

Defenders of the Latin Mass and the traditions bound up in it openly questioned church leaders. Splinter groups within the church evolved, notably among followers of renegade French Bishop Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of St. Pius X, who openly rejected the Novus Ordo, along with the modern trappings accompanying it, and instead continued embracing the Latin Mass and all other things traditionally Catholic. Lefebvre, who defied the Pope by consecrating four bishops to aid him in his crusade, was excommunicated.

Later, the Society of St. Pius X reached an accord with the Vatican that allowed the nearly schismatic group to provide the Latin Mass for those faithful still attached to it. For decades, Society priests have crisscrossed the country on an informal circuit to celebrate the Mass for devotees of the old ways. Often, these Masses are held secretly, in settings other than churches, because many bishops have been slow to recognize indults by the church granting permission for the Latin rite.

Local “Latins” or “Trads,” as they have come to be derisively called, petitioned then-Archbishop Daniel Sheehan during the 1970s and early ‘80s for permission to have the Mass at a local church, but their entreaties were denied. Frustrated by what they considered aberrations or abuses in the new Mass, including altar alterations and displacements, the introduction of non-sacred music and the use of laity as liturgists and extraordinary ministers, Trads solicited the Society of St. Pius X for priests to come and offer the Mass they knew and revered.




In Omaha, the Latins organized under the name St. Michael Chapel. The group furtively attended their outlaw Mass, not unlike the huddled few apostles in the Bible, at various locations around town — ranging from the Sapp Brothers chapel to Lil Willy’s restaurant to a series of motels before finally settling on the Ramada Inn Airport.

The group made regular pilgrimages there, where a large 5th floor party room was turned into a makeshift place of worship. An altar was cobbled together from tables draped in linens. The faithful, whose numbers ranged from 50 to 100, variously sat in folding chairs arranged in front of the altar and knelt on the floor. A closet was used as a confessional and a bar in the back for storing vestments. A member outfitted a suitcase to carry nearly everything visiting priests needed for saying Mass — the ciborium, the chalice, the cruets, et cetera.

Members of St. Michael Chapel faced the odd dilemma of worshiping at what once was and what they still believed to be the one true Mass but having to attend that rite outside the confines of a church and without the permission of their own bishop. Timothy Fangman, a coordinator with the group, said at the time, “It’s very embarrassing and it’s very humiliating to attend Mass in a hotel room. Some officials regard us as renegade dissidents, but when in reality we have been more faithful to our religion than many of them.” A worshiper from that group who requested anonymity because she “doesn’t want to get into trouble” said, “I can’t say I felt embarrassed. We did feel persecuted in some ways. But, to me, it was such a relief to find this Mass and to find the faith still lives. Most of us were ready to put up with anything. Going through what we did made us appreciate it more, too.”

All during the time the local Latin community struggled to be taken seriously by the archdiocese, they had an ally in the Rev. Lucian Astuto, the then-pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in south Omaha. Sympathetic to the group and their convictions, he made his church a forum for the Latins and worked behind-the-scenes to validate their position and their passion. Finally, in 1984, Sheehan allowed the Latin Mass to be said, one day only, at St. Pat’s following a decision by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, which left the rite’s celebration up to the discretion of local bishops. In 1988, the Ecclesia Dei promulgated by Pope John Paul II further legitimatized the Mass and established an order of priests, the Fraternity of St. Peter, with a mission of ministering to the traditional faithful and celebrating sacraments in Latin.

According to Archdiocese of Omaha Chancellor Rev. Michael Gutgsell, the Pope’s action wasn’t done merely to placate “a certain group or devotion of people, it was a public and universal recognition of the legitimacy of the 1962 Roman missal and a matter of the unity of the church. The schism of Lefebvre is, of course, the backdrop for this particular permission of the 1962 missal. Rome devised a means to safeguard the unity of the church by providing this special fraternity with an authorized missal and other sacramental rites to allow priests to exercise their priesthood in union with the Pope.”





An “unauthorized” Latin Mass is offered in Omaha at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church, 7745 Military Ave. Gutgsell said the group sponsoring the rite, the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen, “is not in union with Rome. They have sort of created their own community. They do not recognize the Pope. They do not recognize Archbishop (Elden) Curtiss.” Officials with Mary Immaculate Church, however, assert they do heed Papal authority, just not its infallibility.

By the late ‘80s the Latin Mass was a fully-condoned fixture at St. Pat’s, where Astuto, now retired, celebrated the rite. In recent years St. Pat’s has hosted a Fraternity of St. Peter priest to serve the traditional faithful there. Although the Latin Mass is secure for now, Trads still feel marginalized in their own church and fear they may not have their beloved celebration much longer. They point to the fact their Mass is confined to only one church, that services are relegated to inconvenient times and that vigorous promotion of the rite is at least implicitly discouraged by the church’s ruling class. “It is though they’re keeping us in check where we can’t do a lot of damage,” said one worshiper who preferred to remain anonymous. Another worshiper who also requested anonymity, said, “You get the feeling, even if you’re not paranoid, that they don’t like you.”

As confirmation of that, Rev. Eric Flood, the Fraternity of St. Peter priest stationed at St. Pat’s, said, “I’d say at best we’re tolerated. I think we’d fit any sociological analysis done on a minority group. We’re often scared, thinking that we can’t speak our own mind or proffer our own opinion because what we say may take away the good things that have been handed us. I, myself, have been ridiculed when I’ve given talks about the Fraternity. I’ve been scolded by people who say, ‘You’re not with the church — get out of here. You’re the one causing the problems.’ In some churches Latin rite priests hide their missals from the pastor. I do know of some places where we’re not even allowed to advertise in the diocesan newspaper or even put out a sign saying, ‘Latin Mass here.’”

He said such reactions stem from a widely held misconception the Mass is forbidden, “I think it’s fair to say maybe half of all Catholics don’t even know there’s such a thing as a Latin Mass or they think it’s not allowed. There are others who think the Latin Mass is just here temporarily. That in another 10 or 15 years it’ll die out. But, in fact, we see the trend is that won’t occur.” He estimates 100,000 Catholics attend the Mass in the U.S., where more than half of all dioceses have it, and the Fraternity’s seminaries, including a new one just outside Lincoln, Neb., are filled to capacity.





St. Patrick’s, 1404 Castelar Street, continues as home to Omaha’s lone sanctioned Latin Mass. The faithful attending the rite there — 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 8:30 a.m. on Sunday — are drawn by a common set of beliefs and an overriding desire to keep this core sacrament of Catholicism free of what they regard as not only cosmetic changes but fundamental deviations in the way the mainstream Mass is said today. Here, in this tiny brick church, both the profound presence of silence found in long stretches of the Latin Mass and the strange but sublime sounds of Gregorian chant sung during many intervals of the rite set the other-worldly tone for the sacred proceedings.

The priest, garbed in full vestments, is a figure of reverence in the restrained way he moves, in the fact he keeps his back to the congregation and in the quiet way he recites the long litany of prayers that are the foundation of the Mass. The faithful, ranging from silver-haired seniors to a surprising number of families with young children, display a reserved, pious countenance, with much bowing and genuflecting, and little talking. As was customary before Vatican II, women are veiled in head coverings and wear loose-fitting clothes revealing little more than their submission.

Latin rite followers flock to the traditional service because, for them, it retains a sense of sanctity and wonder they find missing from the new Mass. “I guess it comes down to the reverence — the fact that I feel God is here,” Marcia Hardman said after a recent Sunday service. “You go to the others (English Masses) and you get a lot of music, you get a lot of entertainment, you get a lot of whoopdedo, but you don’t get much else. You’re looking for God all the time and you’re just wondering where He is. I think we’re mainstreaming people right out of the church.”

Maurcicio Abascal, a native of Mexico City who moved with his wife and five young children from Texas to Omaha two years ago, said, “I find with this Mass (the Latin) we can worship with more reverence, with more dignity, with more devotion. It is respectful and it leads people to really understand they are present on Mount Calvary.”

For the faithful few that attend, the Mass is a sanctuary from the unending changes they feel have been made to this most solemn expression of their faith. As Hardman said, “I watched the changes come and I didn’t like the changes. I think it was change for change’s sake. That’s not a good idea.” Sharon Cooney, who regularly attends with her husband Tom, said that before the Novus Ordo, the Latin Mass provided a constant source of identification for her faith. “Wherever you would go, all over the world, there used to be a Catholic Mass you could go to and it would always be the same.”

Then, when the new Mass arrived with much of the old rite’s rituals stripped away, she felt the underpinnings of the sacrament undone. “I felt crushed. Church was not a worship place anymore. It was more of a meeting place. The Mass lost its sacredness. I call it a production now. Our church is built on tradition. The tradition started with Abraham when God spoke to him and he built an altar to worship God. Our Mass has developed from Abraham to Jesus at the Last Supper to all down through the line. Well, every church now has their different service. The priest doesn’t even follow the same words. You’re not sure what you’re supposed to say in responses.”

In the aftermath of the reform movement that swept through the Catholic church in the 1960s, heralded by the Second Vatican Council’s call for full active conscious participation by the faithful, the traditional Latin Mass was revamped all around the world. In America, this meant it was no longer said in Latin but in English or Spanish or whatever language predominated each parish. The priest, who out of reverence mainly faced the altar, began facing the congregation.





The altar itself, traditionally an ornate tabernacle at the head of the church, often got scaled-back and moved from its place of awesome prominence to more pedestrian settings in order to be closer to the people. The Gregorian chant sung by the choir was replaced with more contemporary hymns. Many of the prayers said by the priest in the old rite were eliminated and responses only uttered before by the altar servers became the new province of the faithful. Kneelers in some churches were removed. Instead of receiving the Holy Eucharist by kneeling at the altar railing, the congregation began received it while standing. The consecrated host, historically placed on the tongue, was now presented in open hands.

The decorum of the Mass dramatically changed too with the addition of the sign of peace before communion. Where before, no overt interaction occurred between worshipers, handshakes, hugs, kisses and words of peace are exchanged. In later years, the laity have played an ever bigger role in the liturgy — from reading scriptures to distributing communion.

As traditionalists rejected the new order of things, rifts developed — even in families. “When the new Mass was introduced it brought about a lot of confusion and hard feelings…Families were torn apart by it,” Mahowald said. “I‘m the youngest of nine children and my family now thinks I’m crazy for going to the Latin Mass. Some of my own children go to the Novus Ordo. Free choice. But they’re all going to Mass — I’m happy about that.”

Cooney added, “People sort of look down on you” when they hear “you’re a Latin riter.” As change upon change piled up, traditionalists were left feeling out in the cold — that their church was betrayed by progressivists and “modernists” in what amounted to “the Second Reformation.” In describing what it’s like to remain rooted, perhaps stubbornly, in tradition while the whole church around them is swept up in change, one believer said, “How did I get so wrong just by standing still?” Allied by their shared rebel status, believers have formed a close community. Many know each other by name and subscribe to publications like The Remnant that champion traditional Catholic practices.

Flood said many faithful feel uneasy with the laxness in the sacraments today, especially when priests go well beyond the intentions of the Novus Ordo to create something altogether new again. “The Mass has changed so dramatically and for reasons that are unexplained to the faithful that people are lost and question how they should worship God. Worshipers here are tired of changes in the English Mass. So many go from church to church and find so many differences that they wonder when it’s going to stop. So often with the new Mass it becomes what the priest wants to do. You don’t see that so much in the Latin Mass, outside the homily, because the priest is really structured. I am told where I have to keep my hands and where I am supposed to stand, and to not sway from that requires humility on my part. It requires an act of obedience to follow all the rubrics. For the faithful, there is a solidity in the Latin Mass in that it doesn’t change.”

According to Rev. “Roc” O’Conner, an instructor in the theology department at Creighton University, “the original idea” of Vatican II reformers was “that only sections of the liturgy would be done in the vernacular and then, what happened was, that goal was just kind of overrun because there was such an initial delight in having the Mass” in the native tongue.

He said those decrying changes made to the Mass ignore the fact this rite has seen many revisions before, albeit not on so encompassing a level as those imposed by Vatican II. “There was great variety probably through the time of Charlemagne in the 9th century. Charlemagne was the first person to mandate a certain way of doing things for the sake of the unity of the empire. Then, with the Council of Trent in 1570, the missal of Pius X came to predominate.”

He said when it comes to the question of which Mass most truly reflects the faith, one must consider the Mass is a reflection of that “living-breathing organism” — the church — that has been in a process of formation for two millennium. “




There’s a battle of history in this whole thing. Is the Latin Mass used today something that’s been celebrated for thousands of years or does it really mainly go back to 1570? Which tradition do you want? It depends on your definition of tradition. Even things like “the Last Gospel” and the prayers to St. Michael the Archangel are accretions that got put in and became traditional. So, do you want to go back to the 4th century or the 9th century or the 16th century? It depends on where you want to land.” As he sees it, the church’s strength lies in the worshipful rituals that have evolved among ethnic groups over time to become standard. The church, he said, is “not just a museum piece. At the local parish level remarkable things come out of the people. It’ll be interesting to see what effect the growing Hispanic community has on mainstream practices.”

Steve Mahowald, whose personal faith journey has ranged from a traditional Catholic upbringing to spiritual estrangement to a reawakening while serving time in prison, said the new Mass has “lost its focus” amid all the change. He echoes the view of other traditionalists who feel the bright, shiny, noisy new Mass impedes reflection. “It’s forced the people into a position where they can no longer contemplate. They can no longer sit back and meditate on the mystery of their redemption, which is their role in the Mass.”

The role of prayer at Mass, O’Conner said, is not just an individual matter but a communal one, too. “Something the Council (Vatican) looked at is some movement towards a corporate sense of worship. We’re still far from that, I think. It seems to me people are still pretty passive in church.” He said the notion of how the church prays can be looked at from different vantage points. “Is it a lot of individual separated units each contemplating and therefore implicitly in community? Or is it people growing in a sense of themselves more explicitly as a community and then offering worship as part of that body? People go to where they’re being touched.”

O’Conner believes people today “are looking for more of an integration” of old and new. He said the problem in discussing the relative merits of the Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo is that “you get an ideological battle. It’s either one or the other. And, to my mind, it’s more of an integration of the sense of the sacred and the community, instead of one or the other. I know a lot of parishes today are employing chant, either in translation or in Latin, at various celebrations. There’s also been a growing use of incense. I think we’ve learned something in the last 33 years, but not everything. It’s part of a development.”

Meanwhile, the Latins intend to remain true to their traditional beliefs. “I’m going to stay right here where I am,” said Sharon Cooney. “There’ll always be a remnant left.”

A matter of faith: Beth Katz and Project Interfaith find bridges to religious beliefs

May 31, 2010 1 comment

Several of my most recent posts, including this one, emphasize a social justice theme. Beth Katz and her Project Interfaith bridge the divide that often separates different faith communities.  It is just the kind of effort there needs to be more of in a society that preaches tolerance but that often doesn’t practice it.  Katz and Project Interfaith bring people from different traditions together at the table in an attempt to better understand and appreciate each other and their differences.  In the divisiveness of the immigration debate and in a climate when negative attitudes still persist about Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Fundamentalists, right on down the line, anything that people can do to promote harmony and unity is to be applauded.  My story about Katz and her project originally appeared in the City Weekly (, which recently stopped publishing. Katz is active in an initiative here gaining national attention called Project Interfaith, a coalition of Jews, Episcopalians, and Muslims attempting to build consensus for an envisioned tri-faith campus.


A matter of faith, Beth Katz and Project Interfaith find bridges to religious beliefs

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the City Weekly (



Growing up in predominantly Catholic and WASP Omaha, Beth Katz was often the lone Jew in the room. That meant fielding questions about her faith. This sense of Otherness, combined with her natural curiosity, led the Central High grad to ask Christians about their traditions.

It all came to a head at Jesuit Creighton University in the early 2000s. She assumed living among Christians her whole life told her all she needed to know about Christianity. Then she found out different. “I might know something about Christianity in a cultural sense,” she said, “but I have a very shallow understanding of what it means in a spiritual sense. Don’t confuse familiarity with knowledge — they’re not the same thing.” When she had no answers to several questions friends asked about Judaism, she said, “I realized just how shallow my own knowledge of my faith was and it made me go back and investigate some of these issues. That was a very spiritual experience for me.”

When a required theology class glossed over Judaism and other non-Christian world religions, she raised the issue about inclusion.

“I got active on campus to try and change some of the curriculum requirements,” she said. That effort led her to CU’s Campus Ministry, whose then-director, Father Bert Thelen, “really wanted to create an environment where all students felt welcomed and felt their spiritual needs were met,” she said. “He encouraged us to become involved. The Muslim Student Association had just formed and we were just forming a Jewish Student Association. We created a multi-faith student group and started holding dialogues and different programs on campus that would engage students about issues of faith and identity.”

Fast forward to 2005. Katz, fresh from graduate studies in social work, public policy and community organizing at the University of Michigan, came home to do “something I felt called to do.” That was founding Project Interfaith, a resource and facilitator for interfaith and religious diversity issues. The nonprofit, which she directs with the aid of a part-time paid assistant and volunteers, is an extension of the mission she began at Creighton. More deeply, it’s an expression of her faith.

“I am such a product of Judaism. It’s really shaped who I am,” she said. “Community has always been so important to me. It’s not just about you, you have to think of yourself in the context of others.”

She felt so strongly about community she passed on a federal fellowship in the executive branch to, instead, create “a sustainable interfaith program for Omaha. I felt like the time was right and this was something that was needed,” she said. She laid the groundwork by talking to a cross-section of folks. Finding only “scattered, sporadic, grassroots interfaith initiatives, she saw an opportunity for “a formal, multi-pronged, comprehensive approach to engaging people on these issues.”

“I saw a hunger in our community to have these sorts of interactions, conversations, resources,” she said. “I think part of it is people don’t know where to go, and we can help connect people…I feel like we’re really doing something that’s meaningful, that’s making the community better.”

Project Interfaith is an affiliate of the Anti-Defamation League Plains States Regional Office. Reflecting the diversity Katz espouses she’s formed an advisory council and board of directors made up of representatives from 13 different religious communities and two universities. Religious tensions would have made such cooperation difficult in the not so distant past. The modern interfaith movement, Katz said, began in 1965 when the Second Vatican Council issued Nostra Aetate, a document reconciling strained Catholic-Jewish relations, affirming shared values-histories and encouraging outreach and dialogue between faith groups.

Katz, who by virtue of not being a religious studies scholar and not aligning her organization with any one group avoids even the hint of favoritism, diplomatically brings parties to the table for discussion.

“We want to broker relationships. We like to partner with a lot of different organizations so that we can bring as many people into the conversation as possible,” she said. “I just want to…get people learning and talking and ultimately creating relationships. That’s really what we’re trying to do.”

She also works to include “people across the ideological spectrum.” Said Katz, “I am so sick of how polarized things are. We want to offer an opportunity to transcend all that.”

An array of Project Interfaith programs and activities promote understanding and reflect her belief “interfaith work is multidimensional — it’s not just about sitting in a circle talking about your faith. We want to give people a lot of different ways to be involved…”





Community Conversations bring nationally known speakers to discuss interfaith issues. Vanderbilt University-based author and scholar Amy-Jill Levine presented a January 8 address entitled, “From the Academy to the Pews: What Clergy, Lay Leaders, Scholars and Community Members Need to Know About the Origins, Evolutions and Future of Jewish-Christian Relations.” Coming up on April 3 is a presentation by Krista Tippett, host of National Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith.

Perodic Jewish-Christian-Muslim Study Circles aim to foster an appreciation and respect for both the commonalities and differences of these faith traditions.

The annual Interfaith Architectural Tour on March 9 visits the Hindu Temple and St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church. The theme is the role icons and imagery play in shaping art and architecture in religious communities.

She organized a conference on interfaith dialogue in a post-9/11 world.

Katz plans reprising the Interfaith Storytelling Festival co-sponsored with the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Rose Theatre and the Omaha Children’s Museum in 2006. The event featured Jewish, Christian and Muslim storytellers and various art activities for youths and families. She’d like to expand the number of storytellers and faith traditions represented. An interfaith film festival is a possibility.

“I love to use the arts as a way to teach about religious diversity, as a vehicle for people to express and explore their faith,” said Katz.

In collaboration with the Cathedral Arts Project, a fall exhibition called Images of Faith: Private and Public Rituals is planned around the five major world religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. A collection of sacred objects from each will be displayed. Photo essays will examine the role ritual plays in these communities. A Web-based component will invite the public to submit images for posting online. A curriculum is being formulated with lesson plans built around the exhibit that teachers can implement in schools.

Project Interfaith’s formal educational side offers religious diversity trainings to educators, health care providers and nonprofit agency workers. The goal of these workshops is to help participants be sensitive to the religious orientations of the constituencies they serve. She said professionals want this training because “they recognize how religiously diverse our population is and they’re struggling to make sure they’re meeting the needs” of everyone.

“We do identity exercises where people look at their own attitudes about religion,” Katz said. “We develop a common language for talking about religious diversity issues. We bring in a legal expert to look at the legal parameters of dealing with religion in public schools.”

She said schools find the trainings useful because educators are given “concrete ways to teach about religion in public schools that are academic, neutral, constitutional and totally appropriate. We also give some guidance on what sort of accommodations are appropriate for students that do not impinge on their First Amendment right for religious freedom.”

The same considerations, she said, apply to students who do not affiliate themselves with any religion or who identify as atheist.

Katz, who hopes Project Interfaith can have an impact beyond Omaha, said schools in Wichita, Kan. and Lincoln, Neb. “have invited us to offer our religious diversity training for educators.” She added that an interfaith alliance in Des Moines, Iowa “wants to meet with us and learn more about what we do.”

She said Project Interfaith is doing “ground breaking work” that “can translate to other communities — locally, nationally, even potentially beyond that. We try to think outside the box. We deconstruct the box. Anybody, really, is a potential partner. I know a lot of businesses pilot products in Omaha — it’s a great test market — and I think we can be a test market for innovative interfaith work.”

Amy-Jill Levine has high praise for what Project Interfaith does. She said the January program she spoke at “demonstrated Omaha’s triumph over the religious and cultural battles that beset American society.”

Katz said Omaha’s well-suited for interfaith action because its individual faith communities don’t split “along ideological and ethnic lines” as they do elsewhere.

All Project Interfaith programs, she said, invite discussion. “It’s in a safe environment where people can be honest and we can get to the heart of some of the stereotypes and myths that are out there and break those down. I really feel honored at the amount of trust people give me and Project Interfaith because it takes a lot of guts to be honest and open. Faith is so personal, you know, and so fundamental to how people understand themselves in the world.”

One myth she said Project Interfaith tries overturning “is that we all have to agree or that at the end of the day we’re all the same. We don’t have to agree on everything but in order to get along we have to learn something about each other. Hopefully that understanding will evolve into respect. It’s important people appreciate their commonalities and recognize their similar values, but also explore and understand the differences that are so interesting and that create such rich and fertile conversations.”

She said another myth is that interfaith work weakens one’s own faith identity.

“My own personal experience is that it only tends to strengthen your identity,” she said, “because it’s provocative. As you’re asking questions of the other you’re beginning to reflect and understand and explore your own faith. I think it makes you want to go deeper and learn more about your own faith tradition.”

Two trips in 2007 affirmed this for her. Apropos for someone dedicated to interfaith exchanges, she made her first trip to Israel with a group of Christians. Then she went to the Vatican with a Catholic priest, a brother and a theology teacher as Omaha’s representatives at a conference on Catholic-Jewish relations.

She said each experience reinforced for her the importance of interfaith action. She came away with a better sense for the progress that’s been made, the challenges that persist and the path to take from this point forward.

“I love what I do. I feel inspired by the work and by the people I meet doing it.”

Gimme Shelter: Sacred Heart Catholic Church Offers a Haven for Searchers

May 31, 2010 5 comments

Sacred Heart Catholic Church

Image by bluekdesign via Flickr

I had long been aware of the rousing 10:30 a.m. Sunday service at a certain North Omaha Catholic church, where gospel music is a main attraction owing to a congregation that includes a significant African American presence and a neighborhood that is predominantly black.  The sign of peace greeting there is also famous for how it brings people out of their pews for open displays of welcome and affection — a marked departure from the usual repressed Catholic ritual. The dichotomy of Sacred Heart Catholic Church is that most of its members and visitors are white, almost all of whom live far from the church’s inner city locale, which has some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the nation.  When I finally got around to attending the dynamic service there, I was not disappointed.  The gospel choir and band make a powerful sound and parishioners go out of their way to welcome newcomers.  The story I wrote about this place and its people originally appeared in the City Weekly (

Gimme Shelter: Sacred Heart Catholic Church Offers a Haven for Searchers

©by Leo Adam Biga

A shorter version of this story appeared in the City Weekly (

Something’s happening in Omaha’s African American inner city. Most any day on the Sacred Heart Catholic Church campus at 22nd and Binney a diverse mix of folks gets together for Mass, community service projects, school activities, Rite of Christian Initiation classes, Bible study sessions, et cetera.

Black or white, straight or gay, most Sacred Heart members live far outside this old working class area beset by poverty, unemployment and crime. They gather from all over — the suburbs, mid-town, out-of-town. Some are disaffected Catholics. Others are of different faiths. All come in search of something. The unconditional  embrace and dynamic liturgy they find lead many to make it their spiritual home.

The blended crowds qualify it as Omaha’s most integrated Catholic church. Sacred Heart’s 800 members include about 150 blacks, the majority of whom attend Saturday night service. Sunday mornings at 10:30 the 117-year-old Gothic Revival church fills for a justly famous, popular, rollicking rite that’s livelier and longer than the typical stodgy, albeit sublime, Mass. Mostly whites attend. Some blacks, too.

The SRO Sunday celebration features some nontraditional, by Catholic standards, elements, headlined by the gospel music-inspired Freedom Choir and band. We’re talking raise-the-rafters vocals and instrumentals by stand-up-and-shout, get-justified-with-the-Lord performers who hold their own with any Baptist ensemble. They’ve got it all, minus the robes — big voices, pleasing harmonies, scorching solos, hot bass lines, slamming percussive riffs and rousing piano jags.

The mostly white choir defies expectations. They know how to get down though.

“I grew up as a Baptist. I’ve been around some very spiritual choirs and I would say this one would pretty much give them a run for their money,” said Shedrick Triplett.

Frank Allen describes it as “the most stepped-up Catholic service you’ll see. It’s not this solemn, stagnant, boring service.” Fellow parishioner Johnnie Shaw said, “This is a one of a kind place, not just for Omaha. There’s nothing like Sacred Heart. It’s truly off the beaten path. Its not the traditional Simon-Says Catholic church. It’s a whole lot more than that.” “I think it’s a breath of fresh air. They do things a little differently there,” Triplett said.

Jim Chambers knew he’d found something different the first time he stepped foot in Sacred Heart and heard those sounds. “It wasn’t all that Ave Maria-type stuff. The music was more upbeat.”

Gospel’s a Protestant, not a Catholic thing. The only Catholic churches with a gospel tradition are those with significant black membership. As Omaha’s historic home to black Catholics, St. Benedict has gospel music-rich liturgies.

Music makes Sacred Heart a destination. The congregation’s hospitality, including official greeters, keeps folks coming back. The pews fill a half hour before the service, so get there early. Unlike the silence before most Masses, there’s a din at Sacred Heart. Performers jam as worshipers file in. The crowd interacts. It all feeds what Allen calls “a concert-style atmosphere.”

It becomes one live-wire church, buzzing with a crazy energy from all the praying, clapping, dancing, singing and music making. Call it the Holy Spirit.

“You feel that electricity in the air. You feel that this isn’t just a ho-hum service,” Allen said. “It’s less formal or stuffy, it’s more fun, it’s more lively. You feel you can be a more active participant and not just an observer,” said Anne Chambers.

The hymns offer a call to surrender and action — to walk humbly with God and to serve the least among us. The Our Father’s sung in a hand-holding, communal style that ends with interlinked arms raised overhead. The sign of peace is an over-the-top love-fest with folks spilling out of the pews to exchange handshakes, hugs, kisses, well-wishes. It lasts 10 minutes.

Pastor Tom Fangman admits “it’s not for everybody. Some think it’s too much, too loud, too expressive.” Omaha’s archbishop is reportedly displeased with some of what goes on there, but Fangman insists it’s all orthodox. So does Liz Hruska, who said “it isn’t a fringe Catholic church. It’s just our worship style is a little more emotional and expressive…” She comes all the way from Lincoln to do it. One member drives in from South Dakota.

They’ve been flocking there to worship this way since the 1980s. Then pastor Jim Scholz took over an integrated parish in decline, its ranks thinned by white flight. Mass attendance was abysmal. Gospel already had a hold there, thanks to Father Tom Furlong introducing it in the ‘late ’60s-early ’70s, but not like it does today.

“It was a very conservative, quiet little neighborhood parish,” Scholz said. “Most of the members were longtime parishioners, many of them quite elderly. Physically, the place was dilapidated. I felt we had to do something dramatic.”

Scholz got the idea for spirited, gospel music-based “uplifting liturgies” from an inner city parishes conference in Detroit. He was impressed how churches in similar circumstances turned things around with the help of gospel. He saw the music as a homage to black heritage and a magnet for new members.

“What the music said was we are reaching out to your traditions and we’re trying to make you feel comfortable to come to our church,” he said.

He found a first-rate choir director in Glenn Burleigh, under whom the church’s full-blown entry into gospel began at the Saturday night Mass. The 10:30 Sunday liturgy remained ultra-traditional and sparsely attended.

“Six months later we’d gone from a Saturday service with 30 to 35 people, with hardly any music, to standing in the aisles full with a wonderful ensemble,” Scholz said. “Glenn wrote special music almost weekly for the service. People started to come out of the woodwork once the word got out. It was such a refreshing thing.

“We didn’t grow exponentially in black membership, although we did grow some. What we grew in was white membership.”

Sacred Heart’s black members appreciated the gospel emphasis. “As African Americans what sets us apart as Catholics is we were always exposed to gospel music. At home Mahalia Jackson was required listening on Sundays,” Lynette McCowen said. She added that while gospel “was already a great part of Sacred Heart, it just came to a different level (under Burleigh).”

When Burleigh was hired away by a mega-Baptist church in Houston Scholz tapped his assistant, William Tate, to take over. Tate still leads the gospel choir on Saturdays. Scholz recruited a new choir director, Mary Kay Mueller, to energize the 10:30 Sunday service. For inspiration, he referred her to The Blues Brothers.

So it came to pass the movie’s Triple Rock Church became a model for the expressive Sacred Heart liturgy. No, Scholz wasn’t interested in “people doing somersaults down the front aisle,” he said. But he wanted “to come up with that spirit.” Unbridled. Joyous. Free. “We really need to come alive here,” he told Mueller. Thus, the Freedom Choir was born.

Post-Vatican II liturgies tended to be, well, dull. “When I started there Catholic churches were playing it really safe. Non-denominational churches were full of people who left as a result. A lot of the heart had gone out of the liturgy,” Mueller said. “It was more cerebral than emotional…more head than heart. Father Jim and I were in full agreement that we wanted a joyful celebration.”

By its very nature, she said, gospel taps deep stirrings. “The goal is never to sing it the same way twice because you are never the same person…When you bring your heart and soul to a song it’s fresh and new every time.”

“I think that music cuts right to the heart of things. It’s immediate, it’s arresting, it’s accessible, it’s gut wrenching. I’m trying to move the choir more into being both quiet and big and brassy and loud, but still in a very soulful way,” said Jim Boggess, who succeeded Mueller in ‘99.

The metamorphosis that begat the 10:30 phenomenon happened gradually. A conga drum, a saxophone, a tambourine were incorporated. “No Catholic churches in this area were using percussion then,” Mueller said. “We had to take some risks.”

Among the risks was Scholz extending an open invitation for anyone to worship there. The service evolved into what one member calls “a free-for-all,” or as Scholz likes to say, “a razz-ma-tazz sort of thing.” This vivaciousness includes the marathon, effusive peace greeting — what Shaw calls “a great social celebration.” The fellowship continues after Mass. Substance is behind the razz-ma-tazz.

“I think what grabbed me when I first started going there is that everybody that walks in the door is made to feel important and welcome,” Judy Haney said, “no matter where they’re from, what stage of life they’re at, what they look like, what kind of lifestyle they lead. Gays and straights, poor and rich, black and white, it doesn’t make any difference, you’re just welcome.”

“The church is very open to whatever problems you may be going through or    whatever your situation may be,” Jim Chambers said. “Some people there have had their struggles in the church. Some come in with broken spirits. It doesn’t matter,” said Shaw. Haney was among those to find healing. “I was going through a real rough period in my life,” she said, “so I came here, and that was it. It’s just like a second family.” “You’ll never meet a congregation that’s more loving toward each other,” Boggess said.

Irene Kilstrom was drifting from her faith when she found Sacred Heart.

“A friend of mine said, ‘Before you decide not to go to church anymore come to Sacred Heart.’ I did and have never looked back. I really do feel it is a community. Wherever this church was I would go to it. I was in San Diego for a year and looked everywhere in that big city for anything even close to this, and didn’t find it.”

Mary Lynn Focht said she came after “some unfortunate experiences” at “very conservative, narrow-minded” churches, “and what I found here was open-mindedness and tolerance for all.”

Boggess, who’s gay, said at one time he didn’t have a home in the Catholic Church. “I felt unwanted. I’m gay, I’m a big mouth, I’m a lot of things they don’t seem to particularly care for, and I don’t feel that way anymore.” Sacred Heart, he said, “is so unlike anything I had experienced — the joy, the acceptance, the wonderful mix of people…” It all starts at the top. “The message that Father Fangman puts in his sermons — is all about acceptance, it’s all about inclusion,” Boggess said.

Biracial couple Ann and Frank Allen didn’t feel welcome at other churches. “We definitely got the cold shoulder at a couple places — one was flat out rude,” Ann said. “Sacred Heart is not like that. People are hugging you there the first day you’re there. Just a very loving, warm environment.” Frank likes how at Sacred Heart their kids “are judged by their character and not for the color of their skin.”

The Allens come all the way from Papillion. “The drive’s worth it,” Anne said.

Convert Jennifer Di Ruocco feels “welcomed,” not “shunned” as she did elsewhere. Profoundly deaf worshiper Sheldon Bernard appreciates the interpretive signing Julie Delkamiller does for the deaf and hard of hearing.

“People find what they’re looking for here — a Catholic church that nurtures them, makes them feel like they belong and they can feel a connection to,” Fangman said.

In a segregated district saddled by negative perceptions that keep many outsiders, read: whites, away, these pilgrims venture there anyway. So what’s it all about? Are they urban adventurers out ‘slumming’? Liberals assuaging a sense of guilt or satisfying a call to service? Perhaps their presence is an act of faith or a call for action in a community many write-off as hopeless.

“I guess in my case it’s an act of defiance to show people who think like that they’re wrong,” Haney said. “North Omaha gets a bad rap. If you’re prone to believe everything you see in the news, you’d think north Omaha is full of thugs and criminals. We owe it to this community” to overturn those ideas. “This area’s got its problems, but I know so many people in this neighborhood that are just outstanding, wonderful citizens. They want the best for their kids. The school provides kids a great education. Ninety-nine percent of the students are not Catholic,” said Haney, former Sacred Heart school board president.

Toni Holiday said those from outside the neighborhood who support Sacred Heart “have that sensitivity that these are my brothers and sisters.” Anne Chambers said, “I think it means they have a vested interest in that community. I think it says a lot that a church in north Omaha can bring white people in. I like that participation.”

“Many parishioners would never have stepped foot in north Omaha if not for Sacred Heart,” said Pastoral Associate Joyce Glenn. “There’s fear at first but all the scary stories we hear about north Omaha are dissipated when you’re part of the community.” “It really helps people understand to not be afraid to drive down 24th Street,” Michelle Jackson-Triplett said. “The whole north Omaha thing — we need to break through that,” Mueller noted.

Deb Burkholder admits she and husband Kent “worried” when they first went there. “Our perception has changed hugely,” she said. “I’m not going to say it doesn’t have its issues — it does. But there are issues downtown.” The couple believe so strongly in North O, the people and the parish that these empty-nesters moved from an Old Market condo to a house across the street from the church.

“We finally came to the realization that things aren’t going to change in our city unless we become part of the change,” she said.

Appreciating differences within a multicultural setting can breech barriers. Music and other ministries at Sacred Heart attempt to do just that.

“My big thing is diversity,” Haney said. “I want to be around people that aren’t like me. I want to learn from them. They have so many things to give. I’ve been to a lot of Catholic churches in Omaha and they don’t reflect the world. Sacred Heart looks like the world should. It’s made my life a lot richer.”

Glenn said interracial friendships result from the integrated church’s fellowship. “The more we can become friends,” she said, “the more color blind we are.”

Sacred Heart has an impact on the neighborhood. The school, which serves 130 students, offers employability and life skills classes to help kids out of poverty. Fangman said 98 percent of its grads go onto complete high school. Many earn college scholarships. He said the Heart Ministry Center provides food, clothing, utility assistance and nutrition-health ed classes to thousands each month.

“We’re an anchor,” he said. “I know we’re making a difference.”

The work Sacred Heart does draws much support — both in dollars and volunteers.
Then there are the throngs that gather for services and special events.

“To get that many people together every Sunday has got to be a stabilizing influence,” Jim Chambers said. “I think it’s healthy.”

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