Parish transportation ministries help members attend Mass

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Parish transportation ministries help members attend Mass

St. Edward’s transportation ministry started after the COVID-19 pandemic. It began picking up and dropping off passengers who can’t drive themselves to church about the same time the parish added an elevator, making the church accessible to people who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids as well.
Jimmy Sattler assists riders onto the parish bus after the 9:30 a.m. Mass on June 25, 2023, at St. Edward Church. The bus is equipped with an elevator lift and two wheelchair spaces and is free for parishioners to be picked up and taken home before and after Mass. Bus service is also available for certain feast days and holy days of obligation. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
“Stairway to Heaven” is printed above the bus doors, which feature a celestial theme in the glass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

On the days that he drives the parish bus, Jack Ward makes sure to arrive at the bus parking spot just across the street from St. Edward Church an hour or so before Mass starts.

That gives Ward a chance to check the oil, walk around the bus in a quick safety inspection and raise and lower the wheelchair lift before setting off.

Ward now trains mechanics for PACE, the suburban bus agency, after a career in vehicle maintenance for the CTA, so he’s very familiar with driving buses. While the 15-passenger vehicle St. Edward Parish bought two years ago is shorter than most PACE buses, he said, it’s just as wide.

“And we have to get down all those side streets,” he added. “I just go slow.”

Ward is one of more than a half-dozen volunteer drivers for St. Edward’s transportation ministry, an effort that Father Dominic Clemente, the parish’s pastor, started after the COVID-19 pandemic. It began picking up and dropping off passengers who can’t drive themselves to church about the same time the parish added an elevator, making the church accessible to people who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids as well.

The bus usually has eight to 10 passengers for each of its weekend trips, one for the 4:30 p.m. Mass on Saturday afternoon and one for the 9 a.m. Mass on Sunday, Ward said. Anyone who wants a ride can call the parish office during the week to sign up, and parish staff members often call regular riders if they haven’t heard from them.

On a warm Saturday in June, Ward was to pick up five people from a senior living residence several blocks for the church. Saturday pickups also usually include another cluster of passengers, who live near the now closed Our Lady of Victory Church.

When Ward pulled up outside the senior building, Patricia Wurst and Judy Esquitin were among the riders waiting outside. They climbed into the bus under the “Stairway to Heaven” sign painted over the main door and settled in for the brief ride.

“I ride the bus because I can’t walk to church anymore,” Wurst said. “For medical reasons. If I didn’t have the bus, I’d watch Mass on TV. But I wouldn’t like it. You can’t get Communion on TV.”

Esquitin, who was the first passenger ever to ride St. Edward’s bus, encouraged neighbors in the building to join her.

“It’s a real lifesaver,” she said.

They were joined by neighbor David Zagorski, who walks to church for daily Mass but joins the group on the bus for weekend Masses.

“It’s nice to spend time with my churchmates,” he explained.

Clemente said that when he was a teenager, the youth group at his home parish, St. Celestine in Elmwood Park, raised money for a parish bus, which picked people up for Mass and was used by the youth group and other organizations. It’s practical and convenient, he said, but just as important is the message it sends to riders.

“It says, ‘We still want you to be part of us. We want you to continue to come and be part of our faith community,’” he said. “You are not unworthy of attendance just because you can’t get here on your own.”

That the message that Immaculate Conception-St. Joseph Parish has been sending with its transportation ministry for about 20 years. While the parish doesn’t have a bus, the proceeds from its annual fundraiser in 2022 went to the purchase of a used minivan to replace the one that was getting too old and unreliable.

“The value is that they are able to pray with us on Sunday,” said Father Larry Lisowski, ICSJ’s pastor. “They are able to not only come to Mass, they are able to connect with people. It makes people feel that their presence is valued. Especially coming out of COVID, people didn’t see each other for a long time. You realize how important it is.”

Parishioner Ray Dowling drives the ICSJ minivan to bring people to each of the parish’s four weekend Masses, held at two worship sites: Immaculate Conception Church, 1431 N. North Park Ave., and St Joseph Church, 1107 N. Orleans St.

Dowling said he started as a substitute driver for an older man, who eventually asked Dowling to take over full time. He enjoys driving “his ladies,” he said.

One of them is Maureen Wilson, 62, one of the younger passengers, who began taking the van after a car accident left her unable to walk to church.

Wilson is a longtime active parishioner, she said, and she appreciates that she is still able to get to church without having to use a rideshare service or rely on friends every week.

“It’s wonderful now that they have stopped doing Zoom stuff,” Wilson said.

“It’s actually perfect,” said Pat Rashid, 88, who has used the van service since she stopped driving two years ago. “Ray is always on time, and in some cases, when one or the other of us needs a quick stop at Jewel after church, he’ll run in and get it for us. … I always smiled as the little old ladies piled out of the van before Mass and thought, ‘Someday I’ll be there,’ and now I am.”

Leaders of both parishes said the program does cost money to start, but maybe not as much as people think. Clemente was able to buy the bus at St. Edward, complete with wheelchair lift, used for $36,000. The minivan at ICSJ was less. Neither parish charges for rides, but organizers say passengers — and other parishioners — often make small donations for fuel.

For Clemente, that’s a small price for the ministry.

“It’s about how much we value Mass,” he said. “It is the high point of our week, it is the liturgy that feeds everything that we do. We pride ourselves on being a super active parish, and it all flows from the Mass.”


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