Aims to ‘lift up their hearts’

By Dolores Madlener | Staff writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010

Father Pascal Bigirimana, pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul Parish, 12433 S. Halsted St., stands in the daily Mass chapel in the rectory. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

The haunting film “Hotel Rwanda” tells of genocide in East Africa in the 1990s — the murder of a million neighbors in a complicated seesaw of power between two ethnic groups. As a teacher-seminarian near Rwanda, Pascal Bigirimana and his sister survived the genocide. His parents and five siblings were killed, as well as many other relatives.

He is: Father Pascal Bigirimana, administrator of Ss. Peter and Paul Parish on Chicago’s South Side since 2007. Ordained in Africa July 20, 1997, at age 36. Served as sacramental minister at Seven Holy Founders Parish in Calumet Park, 2004 to 2007.

“I don’t know why I’m still alive.”

Chilling words from a 48-yearold priest. But logical if you hear his story.

“I was born and grew up in Burundi. Burundi and Rwanda were one country called Rwanda-Urundi until 1962. In 1993 I was a seminarian in my home parish.

“Then on Oct. 21, the president in Burundi, a Hutu, was assassinated and genocide began against all Tutsi.” [Bigirimana is Tutsi.]

“I hid under the convent floorboards for a week while the Hutus searched for me. One nun, a Hutu, told the men I had fled and was probably already dead. They left.

“Eventually the bishop came with some soldiers and took me to his residence. That’s how I escaped. It was a miracle. I thought I was already dead.”

His sister, married to a soldier, survived because she was with her husband near a military camp.

“My father and mother, with my three brothers and two other sisters were killed, along with their spouses and children. I don’t even know where they are buried. I pray for all of them.

“Our bishop served God well and protected priests, seminarians and nuns on both sides, but many of them were killed nonetheless. I witnessed many things, but I don’t like to talk about them.”

How does he see the face of God in all that? “For me, in the end, I found God in everything. He has his own plan. My faith was shaken but did not die. Many people lost their faith because of what happened to us. We have seen Catholics killing Catholics.”

His mother: “My faith and my vocation come from my parents. My mother was a very just lady. I was the third child, and the first boy. She was praying for a boy.

“My parents used to tell us, ‘You have to be in church 10 minutes before Mass.’ When I was an altar boy she would say, ‘Dress well. Today you have to appear before God and before people.’

“She convinced my father, ‘Maybe it would be better to have one of our sons become a priest.’ My mother said, ‘My son is a gift, and I have to give him back to the one who gave me the gift.’ Bigirimana means “gift from God.” It is a common name in my culture.”

Dad and grandfather: “Christianity is only 100 years old in Rwanda. My father was already baptized, but my grandfather was baptized when I was in high school by a German missionary. The priest asked him to pick a baptismal name. He didn’t know what to choose. The priest said, ‘We are going to call you Peter.’ But he said, ‘No, Peter denied his master. Call me Joseph, because he was a faithful husband and able to educate the child Jesus.’”

Parish life in America: “When I came to Ss. Peter and Paul I said to parishioners: This is not my church. This is our church. We began to visit the neighborhood every Saturday for one hour, two by two, visiting about 15 homes.

“The Catholic Church is open to everyone. It is not just a building. The church is Jesus Christ. He has invited even the tax collectors.

“I enjoy serving people here, but I want to serve the people in Rwanda also. A couple at St. Boniface Parish in Minnesota had read about Rwanda and asked what they could do. I said, ‘Start a foundation and raise some money for the widows of genocide. Help pay for the orphans’ high school tuition.’ We named it ‘Lift Up Their Hearts.’

“They’ve bought goats for 20 widows. A goat can have two or three babies in six months. They’ll keep some and sell some. It is easy to raise a goat and a good income. It is all run by volunteers.” [Lift Up Their Hearts, P.O. Box 101, 8975 Hilltop Dr., St. Bonifacius, MN 55375 or]

Favorite saying: “People think God is far away from us. He’s not! Jesus is one of us, not just among us — connected to you and to me. We have a saying: ‘God is watching us through the roof.’ When they used to build houses with grass roofs they used to leave a little hole on top of the house so God could keep watching us. They did this even before they knew Christianity.”