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February 3 - 16, 2013

Never doubt the influence of a mother’s fervent prayers

By Dolores Madlener



Father Tirso Villaverde is pastor at St. Thomas of Canterbury Parish in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. The avid “Star Wars” fan has a room dedicated to the classic film series displaying posters, figurines and autographs. Brian J. Morowczynski / Catholic New World

He is: Father Tirso Villaverde, the second Filipino priest to be ordained for the archdiocese. Became pastor of St. Thomas of Canterbury, July 2012. Former pastor of St. Francis of Assisi/Our Lady of the Angels and St. Peter Canisius parishes. Ordained at Mundelein in 1996.

Growing up: “I have three brothers and a sister. I’m the youngest. I was born in the Philippines. We settled on the Northwest Side of Chicago in St. Edward Parish when I was about 5.” He went through Chicago Public Schools, including Roosevelt High School on Kimball and Wilson. “My parents expected excellence from us. I tell kids, ‘When I was your age if I brought any paper home lower than a ‘C’ I’d have to be afraid of my dad.’ That motivated me to work hard.

“Mom babysat for kids in our home, and dad was a civil engineer. His firm did a lot of projects for the city. He spearheaded one on the Kennedy. My dad’s example was, ‘Study hard and work hard because an education will open opportunities and you take advantage of it.’”

Vocation: “We had a lot of our hometown people around us growing up. Lucban, in the Philippines, is about 95 percent Catholic. These people still get together and I’m their unofficial chaplain. They remember me as a kid. We’d get together for something religious – a death, maybe – even someone not related to us -- we’d get together for the nine days of prayer. And my mom was usually asked to lead those prayers because no one else knew them.

“I credit my vocation to my mom. We were faithful churchgoers. I thought every birthday was a holy day of obligation as a kid, and rosary every single night. It was my mom teaching me to pray that put the seed of a vocation in me.

“She never mentioned priesthood. I told her about the seminary in my senior year in high school, after I’d applied and been accepted at IIT with a plan to go into architecture. We were praying the rosary and afterwards I told her. I thought she’d jump for joy. She just said calmly, ‘Pray about it a few more days and then we’ll tell your dad.’ My dad went to church, but he wasn’t that thrilled about me being a priest. She knew that. About two months before ordination Mom shared with me that one of her hopes was that one of her four boys would at least consider priesthood.”   

Parish life: “I was ordained seven years when I became pastor of St. Francis of Assisi/Our Lady of the Angels and St. Peter Canisius. I dove into the assignment, but my parents had become sick and were dying. The two parishes were also ‘dying,’ with increasing debt. Four years later, after my parents had passed away, I spoke with the bishop. He said I needed a sabbatical. I spent several months in the Philippines and was able to spend Holy Week there.

“I became an associate at St. Bartholomew. A few years later when St. Thomas of Canterbury was offered I said yes, mainly because of its cultural diversity. We have Vietnamese, Laotian, English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, the Eritreans (from a country north of Ethiopia), and people from other African countries. We have a good number of young adults and the median age is 50-60. I’m learning some Vietnamese. When Father Hung goes on vacation I want to be able to celebrate Mass for them.

“I get up at 6 a.m. and the first thing I do is pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I couldn’t do what I do without maintaining a prayer life. I think mom would be upset, too!”

Leisure: “In the summer I’m on my bike every day. In winter I’m at a health club. I get together with friends, and I’ve made sure to reach out to Filipino seminarians and get to know them. It’s in my heart. Several have given me the honor to vest them at their ordination.

“I learned how to cook when Mom had a stroke some years before she died. It dawned on me, ‘Who would her traditions be passed on to?’ So she taught me several of her dishes. Cooking is therapeutic. You can eat out all the time and gain weight, or learn to cook and control what you eat.

“I do love ‘Star Wars.’ It started when I was a kid. The first movie came out in 1970 and I got into it in ’77-’78. It’s in some of my homilies. I’ve also brought in parts of my collection for the school kids to see. While I’m not a hardcore collector, I have a room in the rectory dedicated to it.”

Favorite saints: “Of course St. Lorenzo Ruiz and St. Pedro Calungsod. St. Augustine, because I was born on his feast day. Isidore the Farmer, because my dad was a farmer in his younger days. And the patron saint of our town — St. Louis, bishop of Toulouse.”