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Song, sermons and more

By Dolores Madlener | Staff writer
Sunday, July 3, 2011

Father Robert Tonelli, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Wilmette, stands near a tapestry of St. Thomas Becket he had commissioned in London. The tapestry resembles a stained-glass window in the Canterbury Cathedral. (Natalie Battaglia / Catholic New World)

He is: Father Robert Tonelli, pastor of St. Joseph’s in Wilmette for a year; former pastor of St. John the Evangelist, Streamwood, for 18 years. Ordained at Mundelein in 1972, and received certification in clinical pastoral education at Wesley Medical Center in Kansas during the 1970s.

Youth: An only child, he was born in Wrigleyville and lived at Diversey and Sheffield until school age. The family eventually moved to St. Ferdinand’s. “That’s when we built a house on the corner of Austin and Barry, directly behind the convent. I just walked a block to school.

“Mom was a homemaker, a small-town girl from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She met Dad at the Aragon Ballroom here in Chicago and they married in their early 30s. My two sets of grandparents came from two towns in Tuscany 12 miles apart.

“My dad owned a tavern at Kedzie and Lake. At the age of 10, I was making drinks for the locals who came in. My dad would provide food for them, too. Then he sold the business, became a politician, and an assessor in the County Assessor’s office. I got some jobs through the office in the summers when I was at Niles to pay for college.”

Vocation: “I served Mass in Latin a long time ago. Then when I was about 16 at Quigley, a lot of the changes of Vatican II began coming in. I’m thankful I was in the seminary system because I could understand it better. John XXIII and Paul VI were heroes in my time for me.”

CPE beckons: “Clinical pastoral education began opening up in the seminary system — hospital certification. Seven of us volunteered to try it out at Mercy Hospital. We were kind of guinea pigs. I liked it so much that summer, that the following summer I went into an official program of CPE at Lutheran General Hospital. I thought I might want to do this in the future as a priest. They accepted me at Wichita’s Methodist hospital; was there for a year, and then came back and was a deacon for a year at St. Jerome’s. I benefited from having two great experiences, one in a hospital and one in a parish before ordination.”

Priesthood: He served at his first parish, the just-founded St. Thomas Becket in Mount Prospect, for five years. “Then they called me to be at Holy Trinity in the Medical Center. It was a combination Newman Center for the U of I medical campus, a hospital chaplaincy for priests, and a school for hearingimpaired children.”

He was a hospital chaplain there for about seven years and campus minister at the Newman Center. He has also served at St. Peter’s in Antioch, a mile from the Wisconsin border, and in 1992 was named pastor of St. John’s in Streamwood, the last parish in western Cook County.

“Another thing I’ve been doing in recent years is mentoring seminarians. Pastoral internship is part of their curriculum and certain parishes and pastors are chosen to take a seminarian into the parish if they can. I’m on my ninth student. Mentoring young guys for the priesthood has brought life to me. The majority of them have been ordained. Attending their ordinations brings back good memories.”

Leisure: “I like to bicycle in good weather months, and enjoy art museums. I’ve travelled to Europe and other parts of the world, and studied and learned a lot, through traveling, about monastic history. It helped in designing the new church in Streamwood.

“I’ve recently read ‘From Slave to Priest,’ the Father Tolton book, and gained insight I didn’t know. I read John Allen’s book, ‘The Future Church’ on retreat. I belong to a prayer group of classmates — four of us. We’ve been together for almost 35 years. We’ve shared a lot about our ministry, our private lives, our family lives. We challenge and support one another.”

One more thing: “I like to sing! It started at Quigley with Msgr. Charles Meter. He gave me a great love for music when he chose me for the Cathedral Choristers. When I was at Antioch there was a cabaret-type fundraiser called ‘Footlights.’ I got together with a group of parishioners for an act we called ‘Duets.’ My female partner and I sang love songs from the ’70s and ’80s. I enjoyed four years of doing that, with new music each year. Then at St. John’s I got to sing Bochelli’s ‘Prayer’ with a partner there.

“Music has been an enjoyable part of my life.”