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Warming up for the next 25

By Dolores Madlener | Staff writer
Sunday, June 5, 2011

Father Robert Perez is pastor at St. Michael Parish in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood. (Brian J. Morowczynski / Catholic New World)

He is: Father Robert R. Perez, pastor of St. Michael Church in South Shore for the past eight years. Former pastor of Providence of God in Pilsen, where he grew up. Celebrated his 25th anniversary of priesthood last month.

Youth: “Our school was Providence of God/St. Joseph. St. Joseph was the Bohemian parish down the block and they combined our schools. I have two sisters and one brother. Dad worked as maintenance engineer at Oak Park-River Forest High School and Mom worked for the U.S. Post Office.

Family life: “It was the average Catholic family life. It was customary to go to Mass on Sundays and holy days. My parents insisted on that. My grandparents lived in our two-flat. My grandmother took care of us while our parents worked. 
“I had a job at the Chicago Public Library at Washington and Michigan while a student at Harrison High School. I’d shelve books, straighten up, and was able to read all kinds of books in my free time while I worked there.”

Vocation: “I knew a Benedictine priest in the neighborhood from St. Procopius College [later Illinois Benedictine College]. Father Terrence Fitzmaurice had a summer youth program at St. Procopius and hired me to help. At high-school graduation he recommended me for a scholarship to IBC. I worked during the summer months with his youth program and did odd jobs in factories.
“I always had an attraction to priesthood, even in grade school, but never pursued it. In college I joined the Benedictines -- I was so moved by their life of prayer and other things. I spent my second year in novitiate there. But I realized that wasn’t quite what I was looking for and came back out to work again. I completed my studies at IBC and later attended St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, with ordination in 1986.” 

Parish work: St Michael’s is very multi-cultural. “Delightfully so.” African-Americans, others from Haiti, many Mexican and Mexican-Americans and families of the original Polish founders. How do you bring them together? “Our Catholic faith does it, the Eucharist which is so strong in their lives. We understand that, so there’s a tolerance and acceptance of everyone.”

Staying centered: “I feel I’m sustained somehow in the priesthood. Prayer is certainly a big part of that, but it seems to me there’s more to it than that. It’s by God’s grace anyone finds his way into the priesthood, and by his grace we stay in the priesthood. Working with the community of faith, celebrating the Eucharist, the sacraments, that is another piece of the puzzle. 
“We have a priest group that gets together on a regular basis. That is another important aspect, to have friends who are priests. Some may not think that’s important, but I think it is. It’s where you can talk openly about your problems or experiences. There’s always prayer and a meal we share together on these occasions.”

Sabbatical: “In 2010 I took some time off and travelled to Peru in South America. I have priest friends there I’ve grown close to over the years. I did a comparative study of Spanish colonial art and how it was used to evangelize the indigenous people of the Americas.  I visited different cities and towns to see some of their breathtaking, amazing artwork. That was how they taught a population that was ‘illiterate’ the tenets of the faith in a way that still impacts their life and society. As a result, they have all these masterpieces of art still part of like a ‘neighborhood church,’ down the street. My ancestors came from Mexico, they share a common history with other Latin American countries, and there are similarities in art as well.”

Day off: “I try to spend time with my mother and sister and friends. I like to garden. I used to do a lot more of it. I might go to a movie with friends. I visit museums, and also collect art. I’ll pick up something simple in a flea market or garage sale that I enjoy. I cook, but nobody can cook like my Mom.”

Favorite saints: “I visited the shrines of St. Rose of Lima in Peru and of St. Martin de Porres as well. I was very moved by their lives. St. John Vianney, and of course a special devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe who is always present in our life in some way.”

One other thing: “There’s a missionary outreach that started five or six years ago as a Lenten project here at St. Michael’s. Every year our “Missionary Association Working for A World Without Hunger” loads a shipping container with needed items for people in Puno, Peru, where it’s distributed by the priests. I also speak to other parishes here about this need as part of World Mission Sunday. We pick up donations or equipment from doctors, dentists, clinics, contract workers, as well as furniture, or clothing and blankets for the high altitudes near Lake Titicaca. The people are wonderful and you feel you’re making a difference when you get actively involved.”