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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.

 

 

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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.

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BUY THE BOOK:

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

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

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EXCERPT FROM KELLY’S COLUMN:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.

Contemplative Compassion

July 11, 2010 1 comment

Sometimes a writer can shed light on a little understood facet of society or humanity, and through the prism of a story perhaps bring some new clarity and insight to the subject.  That’s the task I set for myself with this story about a community of contemplative nuns who after a very long presence in my hometown of Omaha left for another city.  Few people had even heard of much less knew anything about the Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd.  Their neighbors could only imagine what went on behind their semi-cloistered compound.  In truth, the sisters for some time now have led rather community-oriented if not public lives thanks to relaxed restrictions.  When I heard they were leaving the campus they occupied not far from where I lived and once attended church and school, I decided to explore for myself who these women were, how they lived, and what they did.  In doing the piece I met an extraordinary woman, Sister Cecelia Porter, whose formidable spirit and gentle soul impressed me, and if I did my job right will impress you, too.  The story originally appeared in the New Horizons and I am glad to share its bittersweet tale here.

 

Mary Euphrasia Pelletier

Mary Euphrasia Pelletier

 

Contemplative Compassion

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

With the departure of the Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd in November, Omaha lost an exceptional group of older women dedicated to a regimen of prayerful meditation, hard labor and good will. Due to advanced age, ill health and depleted ranks, this once large Catholic community of nuns has moved to the Good Shepherd provincial colony in St. Paul, Minn. While the sisters are gone, the legacy of their amazing grace endures.

The Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd (CGS) is an international congregation founded in 19th century France by St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier. The contemplatives, a branch of the Good Shepherd order serving marginalized women and children, maintained a presence in Omaha much of the past century. Originally called Sister Magdalens and, later, Sisters of the Cross, their first home here was on South 40th Street. They moved in 1969 to the former Poor Clare Sisters convent at 29th and Hamilton. When the huge old building became untenable a new convent was erected at 3321 Fontenelle Blvd.. Occupied in 1989, the new site was home to the contemplatives until last November. It is now for sale.

Consistent with the good shepherd mission, the sisters pray for the poor, the sick, the dispossessed or anyone else needing spiritual intercession. They accept prayer requests by phone and mail. All who call on them find refuge in their gentle house of hearts. From the quiet of their tree-shaded Omaha sanctuary, complete with chapel and dining hall, the sisters provided solace and support to countless petitioners. It is a mission they continue today from their bucolic St. Paul retreat.

Despite being an enclosed community, the sisters lead lives fully engaged with, not removed from, the world. Indeed, since Vatican II eased restrictions on religious orders in the 1960s, the sisters have enjoyed greater freedom. No longer a classically cloistered community bound by strict monastic codes of silence and isolation, the sisters have used the more relaxed rules to extend their grace to ever more souls. That has meant getting involved in the lives of persons pleading for help, including “adopting” families in distress and distributing food to the hungry.

Sister Barbara Beasley, RGS, an apostolic Good Shepherd leader in St. Paul, said, “If the contemplatives are really doing their job, which is all about spirituality, then they are connected with everything that’s going on. And that’s exactly the truth about these women. The proof of their contemplative life is that they are not turned inwards on themselves. They are the least turned-in people you can imagine. Their interests are outward. Before news of a crisis hits the paper they already know it because somebody has called up asking them to pray about it. They’re truly centered people. They know what they’re about. They know their calling is to pray for ministries, to pray for needs, to pray for everything. They are alert and responsive to what’s happening.” She said while there is no plan to do so, a small group of contemplatives could one day again be assigned here.

 

 

 

The oldest and longest professed member of the former Omaha community, 89-year-old Sister Cecelia Porter, CGS, finds people from all walks of life confiding in them. “They tell us many things. They talk on the phone for hours, especially people living alone. You’d be surprised who it is too. You can be rich and still be lonely. Sometimes it’s hard to listen. We have one sister, Edith (Hesser), who listens and listens and listens to every kind of problem under the sun and everyone just loves her for that,” she said. “One talent God has given me is to pray with others, and to pray with them in a way that they feel they are included in the making of the prayer. If I know your problems I can pray for you so deeply. I can pray almost out of your own hope. People tell me they feel encouraged and helped by that.”

A measure of the impact the sisters made here was the stream of friends and patrons stopping by the convent to say farewell and thanks in the days prior to the move. Denise Maryanski of Papillion spoke for many in describing the sisters’ amazing grace. “Nothing I do in my life, even raising four children, would be as hard as the work they’ve done and the dedication they’ve shown in their life,” she said. “These women are totally pure in spirit. It is perfection. They are as close to being saints on earth as anyone we have met. They just don’t seem to have ugly days. They deal with whatever they’re handed and they deal with it with this joyful spirit and heart. When you’re with them, you just smile. You can’t help it. Even in their darkest hours, dealing with life-threatening illnesses, the joy is still there. They accept the challenges God gives them. You never hear them say, ‘Why me?’ When life looks really ugly to me I think, ‘What would Sister Clare (Filipowicz) do? What would Sister Edith do?’ They’ve enriched our life and been an inspiration.”

As divorced Catholics-turned-Episcopalians, Denise Maryanski and her husband Tony cherish the unconditional love extended them and trace the success of their home construction business to the prayers granted them. “You don’t have to show your Catholic badge at the door. They’re not at all judgmental,” she said. “We know they’ve taken care of us too. Stressful things have happened in our family and in our business over the last two years and all we had to do was pick up the phone and say we were having some issue in our lives and they were right there praying for us. We attribute all our blessings to them.”

There is no limit to what the sisters pray for. “We consider ourselves responsible for the entire world, prayerwise, and we are very thoughtful to that,” Sister Porter said. “That’s one thing about contemplation — it widens the mind so much. We make our prayer fruitful by having an intention, a motive and a thought in mind. It can be a disaster, a tragedy or an accident or it can be people looking for better jobs or better marriages or better health. All of it is a matter for prayer. Whether we know the people or not, we put some spiritual power in their lives that wouldn’t otherwise be there. You never know for sure what your prayer does, but people do call and say, ‘Thanks, it happened.’”

Even with the world as their focus, there are special prayer causes. For example, Sister Porter prays for governmental leaders. And, as a group, they pray for their fellow religious. Sister Eileen Schiltz, RGS, an Omaha counselor who often attended Sunday mass with the contemplatives, said, “At mass they always remember all of our Good Shepherd sisters and ministers all over the world.”

For years, Rev. Lee Lubbers, SJ, of Creighton University, took turns with other Jesuits saying mass at the convent and has relied on the sisters’ mediation for various Jesuit-related endeavors. “It was important for me to count on their prayers for the non-profit educational satellite network (SCOLA) I started in 1981. I kind of count them as the founders of that whole operation, which has become a big network worldwide. I keep them praying for every development. I count on their support constantly,” he said. Typical of the sisters’ caring, he added, was their desire to visit SCOLA and minister to its staff, which they did every year. For him and others the sisters represented a comforting presence where “the important things in the universe were in touch at least, someplace, all the time.”

 

 

Rev. Lee Lubbers

 

In her work counseling abused women and children, Sister Schiltz often calls and asks the contemplatives to pray for her clients and senses a genuine interest in their plight. “I have never been let down. They always ask how the woman or child they’re praying for is doing.” She said the sisters have even taken under their wing children whose parents are imprisoned or deceased — sharing mass and meals with them. She said the sisters have not only provided a prayer-line, but a lifeline to those in need. “I wish I could find a donor for an 800 number so people could call them up in St. Paul and still have their prayers answered in Omaha.”

In a culture like ours, where tangible results are held sacred, something as ephemeral as prayer may seem like wishful fancy to a cynic. For Sister Porter, it is an article of faith. “You can’t see it. You can’t prove anything. The only thing you can live by is faith. But the things we can’t see are so real. Look at your radio or TV. Their reception is based on signals and waves. You can’t see those things, but do you doubt they exist? Or oxygen. You can’t see it, but by golly if you didn’t have it you sure would miss it. Just like those things, you’ve got to have faith your prayers will be heard. I believe with all my heart it can and does happen.”

In a loud, hectic world muddled with distractions, finding the time and space for quiet reflection can be a challenge. It is all a matter of intent and focus. Likewise, being contemplative is more than taking a vow or mouthing words. It means embodying one’s faith and spirit through expressions, thoughts and deeds. “Your entire life has to have a contemplative stance in order to produce any real contemplative fruit, because your mind does not snap like that from one thing to another, usually,” Sister Porter explained, snapping her fingers for emphasis. “You can wear the habit and say all kinds of prayers and do all this stuff and not change your character one bit. To me, it’s more of a thing of opinions and dispositions and actions and priorities. You have to have the depth to know you don’t live here just to wear a habit. It’s how deep you think. How deep you live.”

Sister Schiltz feels these women remind us what our spiritual life can be. “I think they’re a symbol. We need those symbols of contemplative life more than ever now because we’re so rushed and hurried. A lot of people long for that because the world is so chaotic. The contemplatives show it can be done. But it’s hard to live. It’s a gift that God calls you to. Some choose to answer it and some don’t. Maybe we can’t do it ourselves, but it’s something we can strive for in our own way.”

Ultimately, a contemplative life is a calling. Sister Porter heeded the call as a young woman. “I didn’t resist it. I was looking forward to more of the deep mystery of  spiritual life.” But the story of how she came to follow her calling, like the stories of her fellow nuns, is probably not what you would expect. Born Thelma Porter in 1910 Portland, she grew up in Seattle. Her family, she said, practiced no particular faith and were in fact hostile to Catholicism. Her mother died when she was young and her stern father raised her and her two brothers alone. Despite her father’s opposition, she had Catholic schoolgirl friends and came under the influence of local Good Shepherd nuns, whose flowing white habits made them appear “angels.”

At 16, she left home to fend for herself. She only completed a couple years of high school before going to work. By 19, she decided to become a Catholic. Even though she admits she had a rather naive idea of the commitment she was making, she decided to not only take up the forbidden faith but become a nun as well. When she told her father, he disowned her. In her youthful arrogance, she defiantly turned away from him too. They never saw each other again. She also became alienated from her brothers and extended family. The separation hurt.

“As years went by I knew I hadn’t done the right thing. I could have handled it differently. It caused me much suffering and much bitterness. I felt it was my own fault. I was pretty unhappy about that part of my life.”

 

 

 

It was only as she matured she came to terms with what happened. By then, however, her father was dead, the bad feelings between them left unresolved. Amidst the sweeping changes of Vatican II, when many religious reexamined their vows and dropped out, Sister Porter too had an awakening that helped her overcome the doubt and acrimony and rededicate herself to her vocation.

“At that time I rethought my whole life and I came to the conclusion this life has got to be a better one if I live it right because I feel drawn to it. It must be what I’m meant to do.I dropped all the bitterness I had about my family. I realized you can’t undo what you’ve done when you’re young, no matter how much you regret it. The Lord sent me so much satisfaction with my life as soon as I let that go.”

She flourished amid the new freedom Vatican II and modern feminism ushered in. “I just really sort of blossomed in so many ways. I made a lot of new friends. I began to paint. I began to do things and go places. I got elected to the order’s leadership council and went to Europe. I met Good Shepherd sisters aiding women all over the world. It gave me an experience of belonging to the entire world. It also made me realize so many women are not treated equally and are just used in so many ways.”

She believes the ensuing large exodus from religious life was not all bad, but instead a necessary, if painful, purge. “The truth is it needed to be done. There were lots of people in religion because mama wanted a priest and papa wanted a nun. If you kept the routine, that’s all that was required, really. It wasn’t a deep spiritual thing like it should have been.” She speaks from personal experience, having come to religious life with starry-eyed ideals that were soon dispelled. “I didn’t know how to be a Catholic much less how to be a nun. The reason I became a nun was because I thought, erroneously, living a contemplative life would be a religious equivalent to a studious life. That I would write and read and meditate and be untouchable by other things. It was a rather romantic, mystical notion. I never realized we had to work, we had to eat, we had to pay bills. I was the bookkeeper the last 30 years, so I’m very conscious there’s more to life than prayer.”

Besides her faith, music has been her refuge. A trained pianist and organist, she accompanied the sisters’ singing of the psalms since entering the order in 1936. She spent the first 30-some years of religious life in Denver and after the convent there closed in 1969 she moved to Omaha, where she remained active right up until the community’s departure. Her vocation has been both rewarding and trying. As she can attest, a contemplative cannot be an idler. It is a life of rigorous devotion and discipline. Little time is wasted. Scant thought given to personal needs. Orders must be obeyed. Sacrifices made. Slackers need not apply. An unbending routine of required daily prayers and assigned chores fill the hours. The routine used to be even tougher. Rising well before dawn, sisters followed a taxing prayer and work schedule. Until just a few weeks before their move, the Omaha sisters supported themselves working as seamstresses for clothing and fabric manufacturers and making altar breads for churches.

 

 

 

 

“Because we’re considered a relaxed community now, our day starts at 6 a.m. But when we were younger we got up at 4:30. In the old days the thinking went if you had any spare time you were not doing something worthwhile. You were supposed to be doing some kind of labor at all times. You were expected to just keep going, even if you were sick, until you couldn’t go another step. The harder you were on yourself, the better. That was the way religious life was. And, boy, it was hard,” Sister Porter said. “But after Vatican II we began to live more like the world lives. We didn’t have to work quite so hard. Our life was divided between work and prayer and leisure, but leisure was the thing that always suffered. Personally, as far this new thinking is concerned, I’m right with it. Why treat your body like that? And the fact I’m here at my age, and in good health, tells me it works.”

She feels past hardships likely contributed to the health crisis that beset several members of her community last fall. With the weakest unable to work (some were transferred months earlier to the St. Paul infirmary), the aging nuns, their ranks already depleted by illness or death, lacked the necessary vigor and numbers to maintain the Omaha facility. It was the final straw that broke the convent’s back.

“Four of them could hardly walk they were so old and tired. They were to the end of their strength. They simply couldn’t go on anymore. It’s just my opinion, but their life was probably too hard when they were younger. We were going to hang on here another two years, but things fell apart so fast we had to act.”

Leaving Omaha has been a strain on the sisters, all of whom are in their 70s and 80s and own deep-rooted ties to the area. Of their relocation, Sister Porter said, “You have no idea of the trauma it really was. I’m only now beginning to be quite accepting of what’s happened. I just need to forget it. I think I will. I always know I’ll have a lot of friends there who love me.” And there is the camaraderie among her sisters of the cloth. “The loyalty among us is something you can’t believe.”

The people they served so faithfully through the years remain close to their hearts. She said she and her fellow sisters appreciate the outpouring of support Omahans showed through donations of time, talent and treasure, whether landscaping the convent’s grounds or supplying the religious enclave with food or helping maintain financial records. More often than not, she said, these Good Samaritans became dear friends. She firmly believes such relationships marked the Holy Spirit in action.

“God has blessed us in so many ways with so many friends. Everything we ever needed seemed to show up before too long. Food and books and just about everything you can think of. In that way we got to know so many people. All of those people came to us by God sending them,” she said. “Somehow, our friendships with others seem to be founded more on deeper things in life. It often begins with us praying for them, and somehow the bonds just develop into something very personal.”

John Hoich was introduced to the sisters 11 years when, as owner of his own landscape and lawn sprinkler business, he gave them a bid on a sprinkler system. Hoich, a single lapsed Catholic at the time, soon found his life transformed.

“When the sisters got done with me I told them I’d knock the sprinkler system down to cost if they prayed for me. I installed the system at cost and, boy, did they ever keep their end of the bargain. They pretty much adopted me at that point and I just fell in love with them. I started bringing trees out and planting them. I donated money. Every time I’d come they’d sit me down and feed me. They constantly ministered to me too. They prayed for me. They prayed I’d get married to a Catholic woman and have a family, and three years ago I married Denise and two years ago we had healthy twin boys. I really believe Denise came into my life and my business grew due because of them. They’re powerful, powerful ladies.”

The sisters got to know Hoich’s wife and boys and even attended a pig roast he held on an acreage he owns. Along the way, Hoich, orphaned at a young age and raised in foster homes, gained a renewed appreciation for his faith and for the goodness of others. “They reminded me to keep my priorities straight. To keep God first, family second and business third,” he said, “They taught me the spirit of giving and caring. They walk and talk their belief, yet they’re down to earth.”

Friends like Hoich say the sisters may be gone but will not be forgotten. Letters and phone calls have already been exchanged. Visits have been made or are being planned. “We’ll keep in touch. This chain will not be broken. It is that much an integral part of our lives. They are our extended family,” Denise Maryanski said.

As for Sister Porter, she’ll be turning 90 soon but far prefers embracing the here and now to wallowing in the past. “Time doesn’t hang heavy on my hands and I don’t look back. I’ve had so much in front of me all my life I’ve never had a minute when I didn’t have something to do and there’s still a lot of things I want to do.” In February she goes to Atlanta for meetings of her order. In July she’s taking a month’s sabbatical in her birthplace of Portland. She is content with where her chosen path has taken her. “I made sacrifices for this life. I could have had a better education. I could have married and had a family. But I think I’ve done something extra special. My life has been worth something.”

 

 
 

Santa Lucia Festival, Omaha Style

July 5, 2010 3 comments

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Domenico Beccafumi, Saint Lucy. Pinacoteca Naz...

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My heritage is half Polish-American and half Italian-American.  My late mother was Gemma Pietramale, and as you can guess from the name hers is the Italian side of my family.  She and her many siblings and friends from the old neighborhood, which still goes by Little Italy today, attended the annual Santa Lucia Festival.  By the time my brothers and I came along, we grew up on the other side of town and the festival never held much appeal to us, although my mom still went some years, if not to the festival itself, then attending the special Mass and procession that officially kicked off the event. That’s not to say I didn’t celebrate certain aspects of my Italian cultural heritage, for I did, particularly indulging its food, which I’ve always loved eating and cooking.  There were Italian grocers and bakeries I frequented and other Italian festivals I attended, but most of my Italian-American immersion came via interacting with my large extended family.

I finally attended a Santa Lucia Mass with my and its pageantry inspired me to do the following story on the festival.  The piece originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, a paper that is no longer around.

Santa Lucia Festival, Omaha Style

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly

As Omaha continues plowing under the old to make room for the new, the city leaves behind fewer and fewer remnants of its once distinct ethnic neighborhoods and traditions. Among the oldest surviving ethnic celebrations still observed here is the annual Santa Lucia Festival, a peasant-style street pageant honoring St. Lucy, a saint invoked for her healing powers. This year the tradition-laden festival unfolds June 22-25 in the heart of Omaha’s former Italian colony at 6th and Pierce Streets.

While the festival proceeds in an area that is no longer an Italian district per se, it attracts many former residents of Italian ancestry and stirs in them deep currents. “We grew up in the atmosphere of the festival, and it’s a tradition that’s in our blood. It’s a part of us. It’s a part of our life. It’s like a reunion. You gather with relatives and friends and follow through on what your ancestors from Sicily brought over,” said trumpet player Dominic Digiacomo, leader of the Santa Lucia Band.

 

 

The 77-year-old festival is a direct link to the Sicilian emigrants who settled in Omaha around the turn-of-the-century, when they established an enclave in the hilly area just south of downtown that became known as Little Italy. The Salerno family of Carlentini, Sicily is credited with making Omaha a destination for hundreds and eventually thousands of immigrants from that district of the Italian island. The Salernos acted as padrones or patrons to the new arrivals. Within the span of a generation the Italian American colony here was a large, predominately Catholic working class stronghold (many of the men toiled for the railroads) whose cultural heritage was centered around church, home, school and the large array of Italian-run businesses that catered to people’s every need. One tradition missing from the old country, however, was the festival honoring Carlentini’s patron saint, Lucia, a young visionary martyred for her beliefs in Syracuse, Sicily in 320 A.D. when a Roman soldier stabbed her to death. The festival, which continues in Sicily to this day, is a gala occasion highlighted by a decorative procession with an ornate float carrying a statue of the beloved saint. Traditionally, believers in the saint line the streets to make donations of money, jewelry, flowers and articles of clothing in hopes of obtaining her intercession and indulgence.

Feeling the time was ripe for Omaha’s Italian Americans to stage a Santa Lucia fest of their own, Carlentini native Grazia Buonafede Caniglia led a drive to start one in the early 1920s. The matriarch of the Caniglia family that went on to establish some of Omaha’s best loved restaurants, including Mr. C’s and the Venice Inn, Caniglia went door to door soliciting funds for putting on the event here and she ultimately enlisted the support of business leaders. A committed was formed and the festival launched. Since its 1925 start, the festival has come to represent the local Italian-American community’s most visible and enduring heritage celebration.

The festival, which has changed little since its beginning, features a carnival with rides and games, booths stocked with Italian foods (from sausage and peppers to meatballs to biscotti), a band playing traditional Italian music and a solemn Sunday mass at St. Frances Cabrini Church (which has been the site of the festival mass since the church was known as St. Philomena’s). A color guard comprised of uniformed and saber-carrying men from the Santa Lucia Society, each dressed in matching coat, cape, white gloves, bow tie and plumed hat, stands at attention beside the statue during portions of the service, which features the singing of the Santa Lucia song. The color guard accompanies the statue outside, where it is placed on the decorative float. The mass, which attracts an overflow crowd to the tiny church at 13th and William, is the festival centerpiece along with the procession and the crowning of the festival queen that follows it.

For old timers like Frank Marino, the mass and the procession are deeply affecting moments that hearken back to early memories of the festival and all it represents. “When I was a kid I can remember that it was probably the biggest event of the whole year,” he said. “Even though those were tough times, our folks would get my sisters and I new clothes and new shoes. We always dressed real fancy because we met all our friends and relatives down there. This was the big thing. And it was always the religious aspect that was stressed. We always went to the church to the mass. That was the great thing — going to mass and seeing all the people there dressed up and listening to the preaching. Then, when the statue came out of the church, you almost cried because it was such a beautiful sight.”

The statue, patterned after a Santa Lucia icon in Carlentini, was fashioned in Sicily not long before the inaugural 1925 Omaha festival. The float, bedecked with angel figures from Italy, was constructed in Omaha. Where the float used to be pulled by hand, it has in recent decades been rigged to a rolling jeep frame.

Just like in Carlentini, devoted onlookers press in close to offer up money or personal items to the icon. Attendants accept the donations, pinning the money to ribbons and fabrics adorning the float, draping the jewelry about the statue and placing larger items below it. The Santa Lucia song is sung once more before the march through the neighborhood commences.

Nowadays, the post-mass procession is the only march of the four-day fest. In years past, a series of parades were held during the course of what was a seven or nine-day festival. And whereas today the march is a mere few blocks long, it used to wend through the narrow streets of Little Italy along a route covering some three or four square miles. “It started at 6th and Pierce and we would go up and around Little Italy, all the way down to 4th Street and then come all the way up to 12th and Center. It was quite a jaunt. We’d  start at 4 o’clock and we’d get back about 7 or 8 o’clock. We were dead tired after we got back. We used to call it the Italian Death March,” said Marino, a past Santa Lucia Festival committee president.

 

According to Marino, the festival has been pared down over the years in response to the changing makeup of the area. What used to be an almost exclusively Italian section tied together by a common belief and background is now a mishmash of nationalities, histories and interests. “It seemed like in every other house there was an Italian family living along the route, and they would come out and greet us and talk to us and donate money to the cause and ask for the Santa Lucia song to be played in front of their house,” he said. “Many times, in one block alone, we’d stop five or six times for that song to be played. The Italian people all understood the festival. Then, in later years, we’d go almost a whole block without anybody coming out to greet us. The new people didn’t understand the whole deal.”

Italian-Americans, like other ethnic groups, joined the great rush to suburbia in the 1960s and ‘70s — fleeing the old neighborhood in droves for the promised perks of ranch-style upward mobility. Historic Little Italy is home now to only a smattering of second and third generation Italian-American residents, merchants and institutions.

In the early 1980s the festival, faced with declining attendance, pulled up stakes from the old neighborhood and moved to the area around the then-new Central Park Mall. It proved to be the first in a series of moves for the festival, which gained bigger crowds but lost some of its authentic charm and historic surroundings in the process. After downtown construction impinged on the mall site, the event found its way to the Deer Park Boulevard area adjacent to the Henry Doorly Zoo and Rosenblatt Stadium. When parking problems surfaced there, the festival found a new if somewhat sterile home on the south side of Ak-Sar-Ben, where it remained until last year. With the south side Ak-Sar-Ben property’s future in doubt and old timers nostalgic for a return to the festival’s original turf, the  2000 event came back home after an absence of nearly two decades. Santa Lucia Festival Committee president Frank Distefano said, “We tried having it in different parts of the city…but it’s just not the same without having it in the neighborhood.” Except for two rain outs, the festival’s return to what some consider almost sacred ground was a hit. “All the people were talking about how great it was to be back in the old neighborhood and the festival’s original roots,” Marino said. For him, there is no doubt the event is back where it belongs. “Oh, yes, absolutely. That’s still Little Italy in my heart.”

Dominic Digiacomo feels the festival should never have left in the first place. “This is where it should have been,” he said from the kitchen of the Santa Lucia Hall at 7th and Pierce after a festival committee meeting there. “I really wasn’t for it when we moved. We were just kind of feeling our way around. We all wanted to be back here in the old neighborhood and now that we’re back we’re happy about it.”

 

The religious meaning, ethnic pride and historic ties bound up in the long-running festival became an issue recently when a few detractors sought to prevent its taking place in the mixed residential-commercial district that has traditionally been its home base. Having failed to stop the festival from proceeding there, opponents then tried blocking the sale of beer at the fest, but lost out when organizers and supporters appeared before a City Council hearing to emphasize what an integral part of the Italian-American legacy in Omaha the event is and how vital concession sales are to its success. By a 5-1 vote, the Council granted the beer license. To backers like Frank Marino, the public flap over whether the festival is still a good fit given the area’s altered cultural landscape only helps bring into focus what a vital link it is to Omaha’s Italian-American past and what a revered tradition it continues being for descendants of the event’s originators.

“That’s the whole thing — the tradition behind it all,” said the white-aproned Marino from behind the refrigerated meat locker of his A. Marino Grocery store on South 13th Street. The cozy neighborhood market was started by his late father Andrew Marino in 1920. “And that’s what we keep going — the tradition. That’s what were all after. We don’t want to lose our tradition. It’s the highlight of our year, really. I want to continue it. My children want to continue it.”

Or, as former festival master of ceremonies Joe Carlentine put it, “It’s just a thing we were brought up with and believe in and that’s been part of our life all of our lives. It’s a family thing. It’s a tradition that brings back memories of old times.” Just as Carlentine said of Marino’s throwback store — “It never changes; it always stays the same; it’s part of the old times here” — the festival is one constant in this fast-changing era and one relic from the past preserved in all its glory.

For Yano Falcone, who like the others has been attending the festival for nearly its entire duration, it offers a connection to a time, a place, a people and a sentiment that is otherwise gone. “This is the way we were raised and this is our way of coming back to our home and to our roots. We’re trying to do the festival in the same manner as when our mothers and fathers around. We’re trying to keep the tradition flowing through.”

The event triggers such feelings of pride and reverence among the faithful that anyone describing it as a mere carnival should be prepared for a fight. As Joe Pattavina, who has been at virtually every festival since the early 1930s, explained, “To us, it’s a festival — it’s not a carnival. The festival is what we celebrate. We believe in the saint. We believe in our Catholic heritage. If we didn’t believe in it, I don’t think we’d be here all these years.”

Santa Lucia Festival president Frank Distefano, who is considerably younger than most of his fellow committee members, said, “Most of our members are in their 70s and as a younger member I feel a responsibility and a sense of pride and, actually, urgency to keep this tradition alive.” How far the festival continues into the new century will depend on how well it does financially. Things are tight right now due in large part to last year’s rain outs, which cost the festival $8,500 in projected revenue. “We had to go to the bank and borrow some money to put on this year’s festival,” Distefano said. “But we’re going to get it done. We’re going to spend close to $43,000 this year. That’s why we’re praying for good weather so we can generate enough money from the carnival and the sale of food and beer to cover our costs and to raise money for the charities we contribute to.” The festival donates proceeds to the Lions Club as well as various church and civic groups.

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