Bishop Birmingham: He has a ‘very pastoral approach’

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Bishop Birmingham: He has a ‘very pastoral approach’

When Bishop Kevin Birmingham received word that Pope Francis wanted him to be an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Chicago, he was surprised, to say the least.
A young Kevin Birmingham poses for a photo with his mother, Jeanette, and then-Bishop Wilton Gregory, who confirmed him. (Photos provided)
Bishop Birmingham lived at St. Agnes of Bohemia Parish, 2651 S. Central Park Ave., in the summer of 1993, while he was a seminarian. Here, he installs pavers along the sidewalk at the parish. (Photo provided)
Then-Father Kevin Birmingham celebrates Mass at the main altar of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City on May 27, 1997, four days after being ordained to the priesthood. Bishop Birmingham said that when the Oblate Sisters of Jesus the Priest told him they had arranged the Mass, he assumed it would be at a side altar, not the noon Mass with nearly 15,000 people. (Photo provided)
Bishop Kevin Birmingham holds his newborn triplet nephews Alex, Ben and Jake in June 1997, weeks after being ordained a priest. (Photo provided)

When Bishop Kevin Birmingham received word that Pope Francis wanted him to be an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Chicago, he was surprised, to say the least.

“I had no idea, no desire for it, no need for it,” Bishop Birmingham said. “Then, talking to my brother priests, they were the ones who said they were not surprised. They said, ‘It’s because of your desire to be a pastor, and now you will be one.’”

That’s because Bishop Birmingham had been hoping to serve as a pastor of a parish again, following a nearly six-year assignment as Cardinal Cupich’s priest-secretary. Instead, he was appointed director of the archdiocese’s Department of Parish Vitality and Mission.

It’s a great job, he said.

“I get to work with really good people running wonderful programs for all the parishes,” he said, but “it’s still an administrative job in the archdiocese.”

He’s expected to keep that role for the time being, but being an auxiliary bishop comes with a more pastoral role, both with the laity and the clergy.

“So now I get the best of both worlds,” Bishop Birmingham said.

It’s in that pastoral role that Bishop Birmingham shines, according to friends and former parishioners.

“He’s really got a very pastoral approach to people,” said Father Ed Upton, retired pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Orland Park, where Bishop Birmingham was an associate pastor from 2001 to 2005. “He certainly did that here at the parish. He’s very caring, he’s very prayerful, he’s very faithful. He works well with people. I think that will be the gift he will bring to the episcopacy.”

For the record, Upton said, he was not at all surprised when he heard that his former associate pastor was to become a bishop — he once mentioned the idea to Cardinal Cupich, he said — but was a little surprised at how soon it happened.

Also not surprised is Father William Vollmer, an associate pastor at Holy Name Cathedral and a member of Bishop Birmingham’s 1997 ordination class.

“He wanted to go from his position (with the cardinal) to being a parish priest, and God often has other plans,” Vollmer said “That’s one of the things I’ve admired about Kevin, is that he will go where he is needed most. He goes and he serves where he has been called, and he has served so many people in so many different ways.”

Bishop Birmingham, 49, and Vollmer were ordained in the same class as Bishop Alberto Rojas, 55, now serving as coadjutor bishop of San Berndardino, California.

Bishop Birmingham was 25 when he was ordained, and more or less went straight through from high school to college seminary to major seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary.

He grew up in Chicago Ridge, the seventh of 10 children in his family, and attended public elementary and middle school. The summer between seventh and eighth grade, he was invited to a summer camp for boys at Quigley South, and decided to go, since the camp advertised use of the school’s computer room.

“I was a computer geek back then,” Bishop Birmingham said, president of his middle school computer club, working on Commodore 64s and Apple IIes. At the summer day camp, the boys went to Mass and prayed, played sports and did other activities. “It was the last hour of the last day they let us into the computer room, and then they just taught us to turn them on. They got me under false pretenses!”

His experience was enough to convince Bishop Birmingham that he wanted to go to Quigley South, though. His parents had a rule that they would pay for private high school for their children, if that was what they wanted, but the children had to pay for transportation. The cost of the bus from Chicago Ridge to Quigley South, at 77th Street and Western Ave., was $625 a year, more than half of what tuition was, so 13-year-old Kevin took a paper route and looked for odd jobs.

“I was already working my butt off because I knew I wanted to go to college,” Bishop Birmingham said, noting that he was the first of his siblings to graduate with a four-year degree. “But it was worth spending that money to get to Quigley South.”

By the time he graduated from high school, he was sure he wanted to be a priest, so sure that his certainty gave rise to doubts.

“I thought maybe I was so sure because this is what Kevin wants for his life, not because it’s what God wants for Kevin’s life,” he said.

He went to Loyola University Chicago for two years, studying math and computer science, while he discerned further.

“I did some of my best discernment when I was out of the seminary,” he said. “But the idea of it was always in the back of my mind.”

He transferred into Niles College seminary as a junior, finishing undergraduate college with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy four years after graduating from high school and moving on to Mundelein.

While his journey to the priesthood was relatively smooth, Bishop Birmingham said he has experienced his share of doubts along the way. At those times, he has found support from sometimes unexpected places.

“I’ve had many moments like that, where I’ve questioned if this was the right path, to give my life over this way. God has a strange way of bringing people into your life to draw you closer to him.”

That includes his parents, who were always supportive of his vocation, but also the Oblate Sisters of Jesus the Priest from Mexico City, who ministered at Niles College and Mundelein Seminary.

They were the ones who arranged for his second Mass as a priest to be celebrated from the main altar at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, much to his surprise.

“I thought they were going to have me at one of the side altars, but no,” he said. He was celebrating Mass at the main altar for a congregation of almost 15,000 pilgrims.

He made the trip to Mexico after his ordination to give thanks to Our Lady of Guadalupe, to whom he developed a devotion while he was in seminary, especially when he spent time in Morelia, Mexico, learning Spanish.

He also developed an affinity for serving Latino Catholics, who he found reminded him of his own large Irish family.

“There was a lot of love, a lot of support, a lot of families eating together,” he said. “Learning more about the culture and the people, I felt comfortable. I felt at home.”

When he spent time teaching RCIA at St. Agnes of Bohemia Parish, 2651 S. Central Park Ave., he would go to a local shop for a torta afterwards, and he felt out of place because everyone else was speaking Spanish.

“I wanted to know what they were saying,” he said. “I wanted to hear the ‘chisme,’ the gossip.”

His Spanish now is fluent, enough so that he has been celebrating Spanish Masses most weekends at St. John
Berchmans Parish, 2519 W. Logan Blvd., while not assigned to a parish.

Yolanda Guzmán, a member of the former Maternity BVM Parish, 3647 W. North Ave., said parishioners there enjoyed his Spanish Masses and homilies when he was pastor from 2011 to 2014. Maternity BVM is now part of San Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio Parish.

“My kids always loved his homilies,” Guzmán said. “Especially when they were in school. He always brought props, he always gave examples to explain the Gospel. He’s very respectful and kind and funny. He makes us all laugh. My kids, too, they enjoy talking to Father Kevin.”

He impressed parishioners, Guzmán said, by not just directing others when there was work to be done but jumping in himself.

“He swept and mopped and shoveled snow,” she said. “He didn’t just talk to us, he walked with us.”

Guzmán’s children are now 25, 19, 18 and 9, and none of them would be surprised to find Bishop Birmingham dropping in for a family dinner, especially if posole is on the menu.

He hasn’t abandoned his Irish roots, though, according to Rose Hanlon, a member of St. Benedict Parish in Blue Island, the parish where he was first assigned as an associate pastor.

“He was here last St. Patrick’s Day,” said Hanlon, adding that Bishop Birmingham calls her “Grandma Jane.” “He likes his corned beef.”

Hanlon’s daughter, Rosemary Hanlon, said Bishop Birmingham would visit her mother during her winter trip to Florida when he was vacationing with his own mother.

“He’s like another brother,” Rosemary Hanlon said.

Jane Hanlon said St. Benedict parishioners were sorry to see Bishop Birmingham move on, and Guzmán said the same about parishioners at Maternity BVM.

Bishop Birmingham himself wasn’t too sure about it when then-Archbishop Cupich asked him to leave the parish and become his priest-secretary.

“While he was interviewing me, I was also interviewing him,” Bishop Birmingham said of the conversation that took place the day before the cardinal was installed. “’Will I still get a day off? Will I still be able to be in a parish?’”

It wasn’t until he worked in the cardinal’s office that he got to know Msgr. Patrick Pollard, former director of Catholic Cemeteries.

Over the years, Pollard, now retired, and Bishop Birmingham became golfing buddies.

“One of the things I think is so distinctive about him is he’s such a patient listener,” Pollard said. “He listened to everybody who was calling, asking for something to happen or arranging a meeting. He just handled it all so nicely.”

Pollard said he admires Bishop Birmingham’s simple style of living.

“It speaks of the place of the Lord in his life,” Pollard said. “It’s simplicity in what he wears, what he drives, what he finds entertaining and relaxing. It’s an inspiring simplicity, and there are times I’ve felt challenged by it. Once he told me, ‘It’s very easy to move from rectory to rectory because I can put all my belongings in my car.’ He did say last time he moved, it took two carloads.”


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