Went to Quigley to ‘see the world’ and found vocation

By Dolores Madlener | Staff writer
Sunday, August 24, 2014

Father Thomas Walsh is pictured in St. Martin De Porres Church, 5112 W. Washington Blvd., on Aug. 2. (Brian J. Morowczynski/Catholic New World)

He is:  Father Tom Walsh, pastor of St. Martin de Porres Church, former pastor of Presentation Parish, both on Chicago’s West Side. He was involved at Holy Trinity High School for 16 years, until July, 2013 -- eight as a teacher and chair of the religion department. Ordained at Mundelein in 1986.

Growing up: Attended St. Juliana School on the North Side, Quigley, Niles Seminary and Mundelein. “My dad was a Chicago police officer. Mom planned on being a teacher but I came along. When I went to high school she went back and got her master’s degree in library science from Rosary College, and worked as librarian at St. Scholastica High School for a number of years.

“I’m an only child. I wasn’t spoiled but any ‘only child’ has a different life than – for instance my mother’s brother who had 10 children. I was very close with some of my cousins so I saw both sides. My dad’s sister became a nun. My dad in his youth considered becoming a Benedictine priest. He and his sister were pretty much raised at St. Bede’s Boarding School in LaSalle-Peru.

“I played basket ball in high school and college. It was a major part of my growth. I learned a lot from my coaches, and some of my team mates about life in general.”

Seminary: “I was an altar boy at St. Juliana’s and we had some really great priests. As an Irish kid, I was all set to go to Notre Dame High School for Boys in Niles. A couple weeks before the entrance tests, Father Frank Kub asked me where I was going to high school. When I said Notre Dame, he said, ‘I think you should go to Quigley.’ I’d never heard of the school. When I saw the place I fell in love with it because it was downtown Chicago. I’ll be honest, originally I didn’t go to Quigley to become a priest, but to take a bus and two ‘L’s every day. I love the architecture of Chicago especially the skyscrapers. And I love the subway.

“Quigley gave me a chance ‘to see the world’ and different people. I had good experiences at St. Juliana, but once I got out, and started to make friendships at Quigley with people who were different from me ethnically, it really opened me up. I wanted to meet people from other cultures. I think that played a major role in where I am today. In fact, my closest friend my first two years at Quigley was a young man who came from Precious Blood Church and Rockwell Gardens in Chicago. He’s a college professor now at Edinburgh College in Pennsylvania. 

Priesthood: “I was part of that founding group of the Running Revs for vocations put together after our ordination by my classmate, Father Terry Keehan. We had a lot of fun with that over the years. Got to play the Bears, and WGCI Radio. Got to go all around the archdiocese while we could still run. Up until three years ago I’d coached basketball at parishes during a lot of my priesthood. I coached at Holy Trinity High School for 13 years. Holy Trinity was part of my life for 16 years. After I was pastor of Presentation for a while, I knew I had a calling to work with youth, especially encouraging them to reach their full potential.

“I worked a lot with junior high students to encourage them to try for the best high schools they could go to. I started meeting a lot of people who went to Holy Trinity, a diverse school, mostly Hispanics and African-Americans. I felt strongly about the school and how it was helping kids from the inner city achieve their goals.

“I also was impressed with the Brothers of the Holy Cross. I almost want to call myself an ‘unofficial’ brother. I learned a lot about Holy Cross education and values. I developed a great affection for St. Andre Bessette. When I took some time off this fall during my sabbatical, one of the things I read was a book about Brother Andre.”

Sabbatical: “Last summer and fall in my four-month sabbatical, I drove 8,200 miles. The last stretch of my journey I visited St. Edward University in Austin, Tex. again. It’s a small Holy Cross university. I really like what the brothers have done in creating that school.  Some of my former students and players got full academic scholarships down there because they’re hard workers. They may not have been able to go to a full four year university without that type of assistance.

“Part of the Sabbatical I went to St. Meinrad’s in southern Indiana for four weeks in July for a program with other priests from around the world. September and October I drove up to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, spent a couple weeks in Utah. Spent time with my mother who lives near Phoenix. I did a retreat at a wonderful Redemptorist retreat center in Tucson, and eventually headed back to Chicago. I think being that only child, I don’t mind being by myself. A lot of my time as a priest I’ve been by myself in rectories.”

Parish life: “A desire to serve in African-American parishes developed all through my years at Mundelein. When I got to Niles College with their apostolate program, I spent all my summers working at parishes in the city. I spent two summers at Little Flower Church. Then I ended up on the Southeast Side at St. Lawrence Church. I met some really wonderful people; some I’m still in touch with -- young people who grew up and I’ve done weddings or funerals in their family.

“I love the spirituality and the liturgies found in the Black Catholic church. I found them very vibrant. St. Juliana always had good liturgy but the spirituality in the Black Catholic community really touched me.

“The majority of people only know what they read or see on TV about high crime in these areas. I’ve been blessed to be in these communities and get to really know people beyond that. There are situations out here we’re all working and praying and trying to bring an end to. But I’ve had the opportunity to be with people, who commend this prayer every day of their lives. The media doesn’t focus on that. There are just so many gifts and blessings here.

“Take Holy Trinity High School for example. The majority of people who wind up in the public school system would never go to college. But because of the sacrifices of family, as well as others coming together who contribute -- mentors, teachers, staff members -- they’ve helped a lot of these young people go to Holy Trinity and realize their goals and dreams. I’ve met kids over the years who may have been the first one to graduate from high school in their family, or the first to go to college. They’re going to graduate and go on to good professions.

“I know a young man who didn’t grow up too far from here, who attended the Number One liberal arts college, Williams College, on the East Coast. He just graduated from Northwestern’s Law School. And he doesn’t just want to leave his community. He’s written a small book about the need for people to stay with these neighborhoods and help, not abandon the people. That’s fulfilling. I’ve gotten to the age now where the young people I’ve known are in their 30s and 40s and they’re making a difference.

“St. Martin de Porres Church inspires me. Parishioners have literally had 10 pastors in 10 years. But this is a strong parish because of the determination of the lay people. We’ve got a men’s organization -- about 15 retired men who run a food pantry here and feed 120 families a week. Not just boxed or canned goods, but produce, meats. These are unsung heroes, volunteers who aren’t doing it for recognition, or getting paid, but because they know it’s right and they enjoy being together. They’ve come to me and want to have a really good men’s retreat this year. Women at St. Martin’s are just as determined as the men.

“There’s the service side, the spiritual side and the social side. Their Mardi Gras is a yearly event. Deacon Anthony Llorens and his wife, who originally were from St. Mel-Holy Ghost that merged into our parish, are from Louisiana. A number of parishioners are from the Louisiana area, and every year they put on a ‘real’ Mardi Gras with Creole food – not one of those pizza Mardi-Gras in other places.”

Prayer life: “I hadn’t been on a real retreat for years until my sabbatical. Sometimes our work can consume us. Having worked at a high school and lived at St. Agatha for eight years, a lot of my week was dedicated to school – sometimes Monday-Saturday, 12-14 hours a day, and trying to help out at the parish on weekends. I loved both. At Holy Trinity I went from coaching basketball to taking over campus ministry, planning retreats, prayer services, Masses and service work. I felt like I was pastor of the school in a lot of ways. It opened my eyes to some things I needed to do for myself.

“I do my prayers daily. I’ve been told we’re the largest geographical parish in the archdiocese. A lot of challenges. Six churches have merged into this. I asked to come here. I wanted to stay on the West Side because we only have four Black Catholic churches left here. I just heard so many good things about the strength of the lay people -- how they kept this church going. I said ‘I gotta go here, because there’s a lot of people who want to make this place happen.’ And what more could a pastor ask for?”

Leisure: “Sleep all day – no, just kidding. I enjoy sports, especially basketball. I see it as a motivational opportunity. I actually know someone who’s a player on the New York Knicks, so whenever he’s in Indianapolis or Milwaukee I buy a ticket and go see him play. He’s the nephew of Deacon Shumpert over at St. Agatha, who just finished his third season. I became friends with his famiily. He’s a graduate of Oak Park-River Forest. I like to see people I know who are positive and successful.

“I did a lot of reading this past year. One was “The New Jim Crow,” and about Brother Andre and St. Martin de Porres. I also got to read a book I’ve been wanting to for years, “An Alley in Chicago” on Msgr. Jack Egan. I travel to two spots – my mother’s in Arizona, and I love northern Wisconsin. I stay in a shack on a little lake. That’s about the only time I get to read. I enjoy music, especially Gospel Music.”

Favorite Scripture verse: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9.


  • father thomas walsh