Bishop Manz: mentor to many, voice for immigrants

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Bishop Manz anoints a confirmand with chrism oil during confirmation at St. Adalbert Church, 1650 W. 17th St., on June 6, 2009. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Bishop Kevin Birmingham spent his summers as a college seminarian at St. Agnes of Bohemia Parish in Little Village, teaching English-language RCIA and one summer organizing a day camp for kids.

That was where he first met Bishop John Manz, then pastor of St. Agnes.

“Perhaps he didn’t know it, but he became quickly one of my priest-mentors as a student,” said Bishop Birmingham, who succeeded Bishop Manz as episcopal vicar for Vicariate IV when Bishop Manz retired July 1. “What drew me to him was that he was not only a good pastor to the people, a true shepherd, but he witnessed what Pope Francis calls the ‘field hospital.’ He walked to the margins, he ministered to and brought the love of Christ to the broken, the migrant, the poor. I felt that if I could have just some of that, God could make a good priest out of me.”

When Bishop Manz’s retirement became official, plaudits and kind words flowed in, from San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller and San Bernardino, California, Bishop Alberto Rojas, both of whom served as auxiliary bishops with Bishop Manz, from priests and colleagues and from Cardinal Cupich.

Bishop Manz, 75, grew up in Chicago and the suburbs, attending St. Matthias School on the North Side and St. Martha School in Morton Grove before entering Quigley Preparatory Seminary for high school.

He learned Spanish while a student at Niles College Seminary, first from the Oblates of Jesus the Priest, members of a Mexican religious congregation who served at the seminary. Bishop Manz worked with the sisters in the dining hall.

“One of them became my indirect or informal teacher,” Bishop Manz said. “Learning a language — sometimes people learn a language to be able to study, but usually people learn a language to communicate with a person. In my case, it was to learn a culture. The language opens the door to a culture.”

The sisters were not his only teachers.

“My summer jobs were in landscaping and I was working with Mexican guys in landscaping,” Bishop Manz said. “I learned certain words with the sisters and other words from the guys I worked with.”

While in seminary, he spent two months in the Valley of Texas and, the following year, six months at the Archdiocese of Chicago’s San Miguelito mission in Panama. When he was ordained in 1971, he asked to be assigned to Providence of God Parish in Pilsen, which was home to many newly arrived and economically struggling immigrants.

“Cardinal Cody didn’t want me to go,” Bishop Manz said. “He didn’t want newly ordained priests to go to the ‘inner city,’ as they called it then.”

Providence of God’s pastor, Father John Harrington, convinced Cardinal Cody that then-Father Manz would be a good fit, and the seven years Bishop Manz spent there helped him learn what it meant to be a priest.

“It wasn’t easy at the beginning, but no place is easy at the beginning,” he said. “The people have to know as time goes on that you love them and care about them. The only way you can do that is day-in-day-out listening to people. You really have to listen. You have to let people tell their story to you, and you have to make time for that. … In a very poor community, people didn’t go to a psychiatrist or things like that, especially in a Hispanic community. They come to a parish priest.”

That meant many hours in the confessional for the young priest.

“People wouldn’t come in and say, ‘I did this four times and this two times.’ They’d come in and gush out their life,” he said. “It’s a tremendous honor for a priest that people confide things to you that are intimate and important.”

Bishop Manz then served as associate pastor of St. Roman, another largely Hispanic parish, before becoming pastor of St. Agnes of Bohemia, a primarily Mexican parish and one of the largest in the archdiocese.

He was pastor there for 13 years and knew he would be moved soon when he learned he was to be made a bishop.

“They’ll all tell you it’s a humbling thing, and it is,” Bishop Manz said. “I was open to the idea. Cardinal (Joseph) Bernardin had called me in, and he was the one who told me, ‘The Holy Father wants you to be a bishop.’

“I asked, ‘How long do I get to think about it?’ He said, ‘What do you mean, think about it?’”

Still, Bishop Manz took his day off to discern, and a good priest friend told him he would be crazy to even consider it.

“But I thought, ‘I don’t really have a reason to say no,’” Bishop Manz said. “So I said yes.”

Not everyone was happy, he said. Some Hispanic leaders resented that a Hispanic priest had not been appointed, especially since his appointment came a year after the episcopal ordinations of Bishop Edwin Conway, Bishop Gerald Kicanas and Bishop George Murry, none of whom were Hispanic. Bishop Manz continued to minister in areas with large populations of Latino Catholics, first in Vicariate III, which includes the West Side and the Near Northwest and Near Southwest sides, and then in Vicariate IV, which lies west of Vicariate III and includes the near western suburbs and some city neighborhoods.

Over time, Latino parishioners and priests came to accept Bishop Manz as one of their own, often calling him “Padre Juan.”

“I knew the community, I’d been a parish priest,” Bishop Manz said. “One of the roles of a bishop is to try to get along with the priests, and I tried to do that. Can I say that I enjoyed it? I enjoyed a lot of it. I’m not much for ceremonies and a lot of things that go with it.”

Priests, staff members and people who worked with Bishop Manz often speak of him as down-to-earth, recalling him arriving at parishes in his pickup truck and entering through the back door, and, even as a bishop, taking the time to listen.

When he attended a parish event or celebrated Mass, he would stay after it ended, talking to people and listening to their stories, telling jokes and sharing laughs.

In addition to his work as a pastor in the Latino community, he has been a champion of the struggle for immigration reform and ministry to immigrants, said Elena Segura, senior coordinator for immigration — national ministry.

“He really is the godfather of Pastoral Migratoria,” Segura said, referring to the parish-based immigrant-to-immigrant ministry model developed in Chicago that is now being used in several dioceses around the country.

Bishop Manz supported the national Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform when it started in 2005, pushing for comprehensive immigration reform legislation, and his support did not waver when the legislation failed and the effort eventually became known as Justice for Immigrants. The Archdiocese of Chicago maintained its leadership role in both advocacy and direct ministry, but the setbacks were often disheartening, Segura said.

“There were moments when there were anti-immigrant proposals,” Segura said. “He always raised the voice of the church in Chicago and the country, saying immigrants are human beings, that the church has to accompany immigrants. How many times I went to his office, crying and complaining. He encouraged me. He raised me up.”

Bishop Manz said bishops must keep their feet rooted to the earth.

“As a bishop, people can be very flattering, but you can’t let that get to your head,” he said. “You have to have a basic sense of humility.”

Priests, he said, must be focused on sharing Christ’s love with their people.

“They have to love being a priest,” Bishop Manz said. “The two things you have to do — you have to serve the Lord and serve the people. And you have to as much as possible be a person of prayer.”

That’s especially important now, as priests are being asked to lead their parishes through the Renew My Church process, he said. The ultimate goal is to build a stronger, more vital church with parishes that have the resources to not only meet the needs of their parishioners but also to evangelize their communities. Doing so, however, means there will be fewer parishes.

“A lot of young priests, they are now given the task of trying to unite two or three or four former parishes,” Bishop Manz said. “These are tough tasks. It’s something I never had to do.”

Now Bishop Manz is looking forward to having more time to relax in retirement (“Not having your calendar filled with meetings is kind of nice,” he said), but bishops and priests in the archdiocese are still looking to his example.



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