Divine Word Missionaries have long history of serving Catholics in Bronzeville

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Thursday, August 11, 2022

Divine Word Missionaries have long history of serving Catholics in Bronzeville

Our Lady of Africa Parish hosts the ordination of two Divine Word Missionary priests on May 28, 2022. Divine Word Missionary Bishop Curtis Guillory ordained Fathers Carl Gales and Derek Nguyen during a Mass at the parish. The Divine Word fathers staff the parish and Gales will be their new associate pastor. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Soon to be ordained Carl Gales signals to family and friends following the opening procession. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Divine Word Missionary Bishop Curtis Guillory receives the Promise of Obedience from Derek Nguyen. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The ordinandi lie prostrate in front of the altar. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Capuchin Father M.J. Groark, prepares to lay his hands on Carl Gales. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Priests lay their hands on Carl Gales. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Family members of Carl Gales watch during the ordination. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Gales and Nguyen pray during the Mass at the parish. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Bishop Guillory presents the chalice to newly ordained Father Carl Gales. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Fathers Gales and Nguyen thank the congregation after finishing the ordination part of the Mass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Michael Hill leads the congregation in song. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Fathers Gales and Nguyen rejoice after becoming priests. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Fathers Gales and Nguyen join Divine Word Missionary Bishop Curtis Guillory during the Eucharistic Prayer. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father Gales blesses a family member during Communion. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father Gales receives Mission Cross from the provincial. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Parishioners congratulate Father Gales following the ordination. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A couple receives first blessings from newly ordained Father Derek Nguyen following the Mass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

When Divine Word Father Carl Gales looks out at the congregation at Our Lady of Africa Parish, 697 E. Oakwood Blvd., he sees familiar faces looking back.

Gales, a Black man born in Baltimore and raised in Phoenix, feels like he is among family, even though his relatives don’t live in Chicago.

“I like that fact that I look out and I see my grandmother, I see aunts, I see people who remind me of my family — the good, the bad, the ugly,” said Gales. “Family can be very honest, can almost be brutal, but family is family. I feel that people here are sincere. A lot of us wear our heart on our sleeve, and you know where you stand.”

Gales, 44, was ordained a priest in the Society of the Divine Word with his confrere, Divine Word Father Derek Nguyen, at Our Lady of Africa on May 28. While Nguyen, born in Malaysia to Vietnamese parents, was assigned to minister in Ecuador, Gales was asked to stay on at Our Lady of Africa to minister to the Black Catholic community where Divine Word missionaries have served for more than a century.

“A lot of religious orders have specific charisms, and the charism of the SVD has long been reaching out to the marginalized, reaching out to those who have no voice,” Gales said. “We often go to places or parishes that no one else wants to go to.”

That doesn’t mean that’s the case at Our Lady of Africa, he said, but it may have been when Cardinal George Mundelein invited the community to minister to Black Catholics in the early 20th century.

Divine Word Father Bob Kelly, pastor of Our Lady of Africa, said Divine Word Father Joseph Eckert was assigned to St. Monica Parish, which had been founded by Venerable Father Augustus Tolton to serve Black Catholics, some time around 1916. When St. Monica was folded into St. Elizabeth Parish in 1924, Eckert became pastor, and SVDs continued to serve St. Elizabeth until it became part of Our Lady of Africa in 2021.

The community also served St. Anselm, another of the five legacy parishes that made up Our Lady of Africa. Kelly has been living in Bronzeville since 2013, and was officially assigned to St. Anselm in 2017. He became pastor of both St. Anselm and St. Elizabeth in 2018.

The Divine Word congregation has been having transitional diaconate ordinations in local parishes for several years, Kelly said, and both Gales and Nguyen, who studied at Catholic Theological Union, were ordained deacons at Our Lady of Africa.

Since the SVDs’ retreat and conference center in Techny was closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the congregation asked Kelly if the parish would also host the priesthood ordination. He was glad to do it, he said.

“It’s a visible sign to the community of faith, and it’s a small way of attracting vocations,” Kelly said.

“That ordination day was almost like seeing a full circle of all the people of my past vocations and occupations and careers merge into one joyous event and occasion,” said Gales, who grew up in the Pentecostal tradition.

As a child, he was a member of the Phoenix Boys Choir, and he pursued a career as a concert pianist. When he became Catholic, he expected he would be called to use his musical gifts for the people of God, but he soon realized he was being called to something else.

“I entered into formation in 2014, and I haven’t looked back,” Gales said. “I have no regrets. It was almost like everything that came before was preparation. It shows what God can do when we say yes.”

Both his musical career and his formation with the SVDs took him around the world, and he has been in churches where it seems like the pastor would rather be somewhere else, he said.

“That was something that was an impetus for my own vocation,” he said. “I had the distinct sadness of seeing priests who did not choose to be at specific parishes. Even if their words don’t say that, you can feel that from their actions, and inactions in certain circumstances, and it’s very, very discouraging. Everyone knows when they are unwanted, and that’s not a great feeling to have.”

That’s not the case at Our Lady of Africa, where the Divine Word Missionaries have a long history in the community.

“I see the commitment of the SVDs towards Black Catholics in the United States as sincere,” Gales said. “The SVDs have made it a priority by emphasizing presence in the Black community whenever possible. We’re making steps in a positive direction to help, and to foster growth and to foster assistance.”

But members of the parish are mourning the loss of their legacy parishes, he said.

“There’s a great wealth of grief that seems to be the main priority that I have been focusing on, especially with the parishioners who have mixed feelings about the unification and how things have happened,” Gales said. “I’m not called to chime in. I am called to listen. I am called to hear and sincerely act in such a way so that they know they are cared for, they are loved, they are appreciated and what they say and how they feel really matters.”

Kelly acknowledged that the unification was difficult but necessary, given dwindling congregations, financial resources and numbers of priests, and he believes that the spirit of Renew My Church can help build a vital, evangelizing parish.

“My focus is to build this new parish community with all the support of the archdiocese,” he said. “Welcoming people — radical hospitality is the first and foremost. That’s really the first stage. Then building a community of faith and uniting the people from all the parishes that came together. We’re building a Catholic community of faith that is welcoming and hospitable and reaching out to others in the community, and learning to love one another. It’s all based on the Gospel.”

It’s that community that has Gales looking forward.

“I’m very hopeful for the future,” he said. “There is so much potential for the future, so much potential for growth, for evangelization, for social justice. All the elements are there. The soil is fertile. I’m just waiting to see what God will do.”


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