Rev. Tom Mulcrone
Chaplain, Chicago Fire Department

For about 25 years, Father Tom Mulcrone has been chasing fires as a chaplain to the city’s firefighters and paramedics. “What they’re doing is God’s work,” he says. “They always say, ‘I was just doing my job,’ so I remind them that what they do is sacred.”

Mulcrone is one of the three clergymen (there is a Protestant minister and a rabbi) attached to the fire department, tending Chicago’s bravest in the firehouse, at the hospital, in their homes, and on the scene of all sorts of calls. The son of a Chicago police officer, Mulcrone, 53, says that as a kid he had a fascination with the fire department. “I grew up two blocks from the firehouse,” he says. “I knew early on that I wanted to be a priest, but I always enjoyed being around firemen-they’re a different breed.”

He provides all the services a parish priest would-wakes, weddings, baptisms, and funerals-but he also regularly responds to major disasters, donning his CFD coat and helmet and reporting his arrival over the radio. “When you’re at a parish you get close to a lot of families,” he says. “But me? I’ve got 100 firehouses I can go to anytime I want and there’s always coffee on and always someone awake to greet you. And that’s an incredible feeling.”

-A. H.

Rev. Donald Senior
President /professor of New Testament studies, Catholic Theological Union

As a teacher, Don Senior keeps an open mind. As a priest, he encourages tolerance. Which explains why Senior is so saddened by the tone of much of the discourse going on within the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

To start with, Senior-a Passionist priest since 1967 and president of the Theological Union for the past 18 years-understands that even serious Catholics have questions about their faith. “There are, in the Catholic tradition, perennial truths,” he says. “Each generation has to try to understand those core truths in the light of its own experience and culture. Each generation is looking for its own way.”

Senior, 65, acknowledges that any discussions about the nature of truth must be conducted within the framework of Catholic doctrine-he is running the country’s largest Catholic graduate school of theology and ministry, after all. But it grieves him that the national debate over the future of the church has turned so bitterly antagonistic, particularly at the fringes. “Reactionaries on the right side are very rigid,” he says. “On the far left, there are people who see no boundaries and are too accommodating to our own culture. We can’t afford those extremes. We must be able to mingle, to meet not in confrontation or disdain. We need a more civil discourse.”

Senior, one of the nation’s leading experts in New Testament studies, also wants to extend the conversation to people of other faiths, and his school familiarizes students with Judaism and Islam. “We are a theology school and certain truths are taught and emphasized, but the membrane [between faiths] should be very permeable,” he says. “The future of humanity is at stake.”

-G. J.

Sister Rosemary Connelly
Executive director, Misericordia

“People think I should be retired, but there’s so much to do.”

Sister Rosemary Connelly vividly remembers when she first reported to work at Chicago’s Misericordia Home, a private residence for children under six with mental and physical disabilities. “I didn’t exactly know what my mission here was,” she says now, “but I understood that God had given me a challenge. I wanted to get these kids out of bed.” That was in 1969, and Connelly, of the Sisters of Mercy, had just been appointed Misericordia’s new executive director.  

Connelly’s programming ideas were considered radical at the time. “Society’s attitude toward the disabled was ‘Poor things, keep them comfortable,'” she recalls. “Behind my back, I’d hear the staff say, ‘Does she think these children will become lawyers and doctors?’ But I wouldn’t give up.”

A Chicago native, Connelly, now 74, was sensitized to the problems of the disabled by the experience of her nephew, Brian, now 45, who suffered brain damage shortly after birth. She saw her sister and brother-in-law’s frustration with trying to meet Brian’s needs-plus those of their six other children. An accidental pioneer, Connelly entered the convent at 18, became a social sciences teacher, and later earned two advanced degrees. When the Sisters of Mercy tapped her to run Misericordia, she was a psychiatric social worker. “I had no experience working with the disabled,” she says. “I just had common sense and compassion.”

Today, as Misericordia marks its 85th anniversary, its large campus on the city’s Far North Side hums with activity. The facility serves more than 550 developmentally challenged individuals, and recreation abounds, from bowling to basketball to singing and dancing-all activities that require getting out of bed.

-A. H.

Joseph Scheidler
Pro-Life Action League

“Morality isn’t relative.”

When Joseph Scheidler read the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, an activist was born. At the time, Scheidler, a former seminarian, was an account executive for a Chicago public relations firm. “But I knew then that people were going to have to fight this fight full-time,” says Scheidler, 77.

Through the past three decades, and a number of organizations, Scheidler has been taking on what he calls “the culture of death.” In 1980, he started the Pro-Life Action League with himself as president. Today, with more than 10,000 members, the league is one of the largest pro-life advocacy groups. Scheidler’s involvement with the Operation Rescue/Summer of Mercy campaigns at abortion clinics (prayer vigils, sit-ins, sidewalk counseling) earned him a racketeering conviction in 1989 (which was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003).

Today he is fighting “the euthanasia of the elderly and the sick” and battling over the semantics of his cause. “Stem cell research,” he says, “should be called ‘people cell research.'” And he is also keeping his eye on the Catholic hierarchy. “There’s not enough leadership against abortion from the leadership of the church,” he says. “It’s getting better, but this is a black-and-white fight.”

-M. F. C.       

Dan Cheely
Supernumerary, Opus Dei

On a typical workday, Dan Cheely attends one of the early morning masses at Queen of All Saints Church near his home in the Sauganash neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side. He then commutes downtown by train to his civil litigation law firm, Cheely, O’Flaherty, and Ayres, spending most of the trip in silent prayer. While walking to and from court, he will pray the rosary, and often stop in to St. Peter’s Church near his office to take Communion. He’ll pray again on his commute home and, before bed, spend some time reading the Bible and books on spirituality.

This schedule is Cheely’s way of observing the Norms of Piety, the daily spiritual regimen practiced by members of Opus Dei. The organization-which has its own bishop in Rome-tries to help lay people find holiness in their everyday activities. Like 80 percent of Opus Dei’s 86,000 members worldwide, Cheely is a “supernumerary”-that is, a working person who may be married and have a family. Other levels of membership, for men and women, require practicing celibacy and living in a group home.

A 55-year-old father of nine children, Cheely earned degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law School but still has the self-described “rough-hewn” demeanor that reflects his upbringing in an Italian American family in Melrose Park. A pamphlet about Opus Dei in a church pew caught his eye when he was in high school; at age 21, he met with a member for the first time. “I liked the idea that you could go the whole hog with Christianity without being a priest or nun, just because you love God,” he says. He joined in 1972.

The best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code portrays Opus Dei as an organization of villainous Vatican henchmen-a depiction members denounce as false, though some critics have accused the organization of cult-like practices, including limiting communication between members and their families. Opus Dei in the Chicago area, 570 members strong, runs preparatory schools in Niles and Des Plaines; Lexington College, a downtown hospitality management school for women; and, on the South Side, the Midtown Educational Foundation, which runs programs for inner-city children.

For Cheely, Opus Dei’s spiritual program-“If you look at it under normal circumstances, it’s a real pain in the you-know-what,” he says-is a small price to pay for the deep sense of spirituality it provides. “What I get out of it is incalculable,” he says. “The sense of closeness to God is like seeing a light. You never feel alone.”

-K. M.


Dorothy Schardt
Volunteer, Amate House

Dorothy Schardt recently finished her ten-month stint working for Amate House, an archdiocese social service program, and she was supposed to receive a final $500 stipend (to supplement the $100 per month she had been earning). But Schardt had already spent that money: she knew that her work in Cicero would mean speaking a lot of Spanish, so before she started she went on a volunteer trip (at a cost of about $475) to Mexico, to improve her language skills. “It really helped me, though,” Schardt says. “I used it every day.”

The 22-year-old daughter of two Chicago public school teachers, Schardt grew up in Darien and graduated summa cum laude from Loyola University. She was one of the 40 young people who live in four communal residences around the city during a year of service at one of 30 sites designated by the archdiocese. The jobs can range from teaching in the inner city to counseling victims of torture at the Marjorie Kovler Center near Loyola. Each group has a modest household budget, and residents share the chores. Schardt had restroom cleaning duty at her house.

Schardt worked one day a week at an activities center for the elderly, and started an afterschool program for Cicero kids. “For most of these kids, the language at home is not English-so when they get home they can’t get help with their homework,” Schardt says.

And are her efforts part of a spiritual quest? An expression of deep devotion? Schardt doesn’t seem to give those matters too much thought. “I am a bad person to talk about those things,” she says. “I am not very religious.”

-D. Z.

Sister Dorothy Pagosa
8th Day Center for Justice

“We say there are two feet to social justice,” says Sister Dorothy Pagosa, a staffer at the 8th Day Center for Justice. “You have direct service, like Catholic Charities, and then there’s us. We are seeking systemic change.”

For 30 years, the center, located at 205 West Monroe Street, has been a hub of nonviolent protest. Every Tuesday since 9/11, the group has run a prayer vigil for peace in front of the Kluczynski Federal Building.

While the group has a strong base in Chicago, it has 40 congregations nationwide and seeks to comment primarily on national issues. In May 2004, the group helped place 100 mock coffins on Federal Plaza to commemorate “Iraq War Memorial Day”-typical of their eloquent protests.

Pagosa, 51, has worked at the center since 1987, and serves as its de facto accountant, though the organization is run by consensus. In 2003, Pagosa and 8th Day staffer Kathy Long were arrested in Georgia while protesting the School of the Americas at Fort Benning. They served three months in Pekin federal prison, near Peoria, for misdemeanor criminal trespass on military property. Many of the full-timers at the Center-the majority of whom are nuns and priests-have served prison time. That, Pagosa says, just goes with the territory.

“I think the lives we have chosen demand that we lead a discerning life,” says Pagosa. “We have to be aware of our world and what is going on and proclaim it.”

-D. Z.

Margarita Garcia
Parishioner, St. Lambert Church

“I can’t say the act of contrition in English. If I say it in Spanish I mean it.”

The Catholic Church brought Margarita Garcia to Chicago from Cuba when she was a teenager, and more than 40 years later, her faith continues to give her life direction. Garcia, then 15, was one of the more than 14,000 Cuban children who came to the United States in the early 1960s, after Castro came to power.

Placed in the Wilmette home of Frank and Margaret O’Dowd (then expecting their ninth child), Garcia learned English with the family’s three-year-old and found comfort in the faith they shared. “I felt I was in known territory,” she says. “We believed the same things.”

Reunited with her parents here a few years later, Garcia went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. For the past 24 years she has been a partner in Hernandez & Garcia, an ad agency-and for the past 25 years she has been a member of St. Lambert Church in Skokie. She serves on the board of advisers for Catholic Charities.

As unusual as her experience was, Garcia knows she shares much with thousands of other new Chicagoans. “The church is the one thing that can center them,” she says. “They may not have a job, they may be undocumented, but they can always trust that somehow God is in control.”

-K. M.

Barbara Blaine
Founder and president of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP)

When news of the scandal involving widespread abuse by priests started breaking out of Boston in 2002, many Catholics were shocked. But not Barbara Blaine. As president and founder of SNAP, Blaine, now 49, was well acquainted with such dark secrets. Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Blaine as a teenager was abused by a priest. “I thought that when I finally came forward, the church would do the right thing,” she says. “When I realized they weren’t going to help me, I started looking for other survivors.”

SNAP was born in 1989, when Blaine, then a Chicago social worker, put ads in Catholic newspapers searching for other victims. The group quickly spread to other cities. Mainly a self-help group at its start, today with more than 5,000 members SNAP is the largest, oldest, and most active national support group for those abused by religious authority figures.

“Since 2002, 700 priests who were abusing kids have been removed from their positions,” she says. “So I concede that the church is safer today. But still, many changes are little more than paper shuffling and window dressing [that] do not go to the heart of the matter.” To that end, Blaine, who for six years worked for the office of the Cook County Public Guardian, now works full-time for SNAP. “How can the church work authentically for peace and social justice in the world,” she asks, “if it can’t do so within its own boundaries first?”

-M. F. C.

The Exorcist
Associate pastor, Archdiocese of Chicago

“These battles are not mine. I’m solely an instrument, thank God.”

According to the exorcist for the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Devil keeps very busy. “You’d be surprised,” he says. “Evil definitely exists in the world.”

In 1999, to the delight of the newspapers, Cardinal Francis George quietly appointed a parish priest to serve as the city’s first full-time Satan-buster. He was sent to Rome-“thrown into the deep end,” he says-and assisted in some eight exorcisms. He and the cardinal had agreed that it would be best for him to remain anonymous, and today even most of his own parishioners do not know about his extra duties. (Chicago magazine agreed to withhold his identity.)

As one of 18 Catholic exorcists in the United States, the priest, 52, an associate pastor at a church in Chicago, helps those who have been possessed by an evil spirit that, in the worst cases, causes ordinary people to spit, vomit, curse, or behave indecently or even violently. Growing up on Chicago’s Far Southwest Side, he took the traditional priestly route, attending Quigley South, Niles College, and the seminary in Mundelein. “Never, in a million years,” he says, “would I have thought that this would be my calling.”

The priest says he gets about 25 referrals a month, though many of those calls are resolved medically or psychologically. He says he has performed “about ten” bona fide exorcisms in the past year. Armed with religious artifacts, the exorcist, working with an assistant, prays for the intercession of saints and help from the Virgin Mary to cast out the demons. The key, he says, is pushing the evil entity’s buttons. “We provoke him and keep hammering away through prayer,” he says. “It’s much more subtle than Hollywood would have you believe.”

The most rewarding aspect of his work? The good guys always win. “You’re watching God at work, and the forces of good against evil,” he says. “Every exorcism I do . . . only deepens my faith.”

-A. H.


Ramón Rodriguez
Dignity Chicago

Every Sunday at 5 p.m., the members of Dignity Chicago gather for Mass with a Catholic priest; rather than convening at a Catholic church, however, they meet at the Broadway United Methodist Church. The reason? It’s where they feel most welcome. Dignity Chicago is the local chapter of Dignity U.S.A., a national organization that promotes equality in the Catholic Church for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals.

Founded in 1972, the Chicago group is one of the oldest chapters in the country. With a current membership of 120, Dignity Chicago includes among its goals getting the church not only to accept gays and lesbians as active Catholics, but also to bless their unions-goals that, the group admits, conflict with current church positions.

“Disagreement doesn’t mean you should be out of the church,” says Ramón Rodriguez, 29, president, who lives in Lake View. “If everyone who disagreed with the hierarchy over some issue just left, then very few people would still be members of the church. We are Catholics because we were baptized, because we call ourselves Catholic, and because we are trying to live the Gospel the best way possible for us. If we can reach one person who would otherwise feel alienated from his or her church, then we are accomplishing something.”

Current activities include regular talks with Cardinal George. “They are very pleasant meetings,” says Rodriguez. “He has always been willing to engage in a dialogue with us. We don’t try to change his mind, and he knows he won’t change our minds. But we still try to find some common ground and focus on that.”

-M. F. C.

Susan A. Ross
Professor of theology, Loyola University of Chicago

Inevitably every semester Susan A. Ross, professor of theology at Loyola University, faces the same question from some of her young female students: How can you stay in a church that so limits women? “Some days, I admit, it’s by my fingernails,” says Ross, 55. But she quickly points out, “No institution is perfect. I have friends who are Lutheran or Episcopalian and they run into sexism, too. So ordaining women as priests doesn’t solve all the problems.”

In her book Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology (Continuum, 2001), Ross explores the idea of living a sacramental life. “Many Catholic women are becoming extremely creative, expressing their spirituality in ways that don’t require official approval,” she says. An example: the growing number of celebrations of Mary Magdalene.

Ross, who is married and lives in Evanston, includes herself in a generation of women who, “if we were Protestant, might have gone to seminary and become ordained.” Since that avenue is closed to Catholic women, Ross pursued graduate degrees in theology at the University of Chicago. “Education is one place where women have always found a place for themselves.”

Still, when Ross addresses various Catholic women’s groups, she senses “a low level of anger and frustration. They are dealing with an institution that has nurtured them and provided meaning to their lives, yet they see their daughters walking away from it. And they find it difficult to explain why, in this church, leadership by women is not permitted.

“It’s sort of like being in a family with a relative who is very hurtful. You just have to live with this person as best you can.”    

-M. F. C.

Vicki Quade
Co-creator of Late Nite Catechism

“I feel that I lead the life I was raised to.”

Vicki Quade grew up being both taught and fascinated by nuns, and in a sense her life still revolves around them today. In 1993, Quade and the actress Maripat Donovan created the one-woman comedy show Late Nite Catechism, in which Sister, a nun with no name, mixes lessons on Catholic Church history and the lives of the saints with plenty of improvised audience interaction. “It puts you back in your school days,” Quade says of the show’s success.

Originally scheduled for only 12 performances, the show has had a continuous run in Chicago since it opened (it’s now performed Friday through Sunday at the Royal George Theatre) and has also been staged throughout the United States and in other countries. Earlier this year, Quade launched a spinoff show, Put the Nuns in Charge, that finds Sister mixing a lesson on the seven deadly sins with commentary on contemporary events.

(At press time Quade was negotiating a settlement with Donovan, who now performs her own spinoff show in Los Angeles, and who had filed a lawsuit charging Quade with unauthorized use of the Sister character.)

Quade, 52, grew up in Burbank, a southwest suburb, where she attended St. Albert the Great School-“It seems like the guy had an ego problem; come on, just make it St. Albert,” she quips-and was taught by Adrian Dominican nuns. “I didn’t know what nuns were,” she remembers. “I knew they weren’t angels, because I talked to them, but they couldn’t be human because they didn’t look like anyone I knew. I was mystified, but I enjoyed being around them. I think that was a wonderful gift I was given when I was a child.”

Although she has sent all three of her children to Catholic schools, Quade describes herself as ambivalent and questioning in her faith today. She doesn’t go to church much anymore, and yet she has made a point of giving back. End-of-show collections at Late Nite Catechism have raised more than $2 million for nuns’ retirement funds.

-K. M.

Darlene Chan
Parishioner, St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church

“So many Asians are looking for a place to call home.”

As a second-generation member of St. Therese’s Church in Chinatown, Darlene Chan, 46, understands the unique role that the parish-the only Chinese Catholic church in the Midwest-plays. “We deal with a lot of immigrants-some are Catholic and some aren’t,” she says. But all of them-Indonesian, Korean, Filipino, and Vietnamese families, as well as Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking parishioners-are looking for transitional help, friendly faces, and, often, a translated homily.

For many recent Asian Catholic immigrants, who in China had to practice their religion underground, St. Therese’s is a revelation. “We have deep roots in the Asian community,” says Chan. “People turn to us for help, for consolation, and for joy.”

-M. F. C.

Linda Pieczynski
Past president, Call to Action

“There is great unrest in the pews.”

After the 1976 U.S. Bishops’ Call to Action Conference addressed the idea of laity-driven reform in the church, numerous grassroots groups sprouted. Call to Action, founded in Chicago in 1978, is one of the few survivors. With more than 25,000 dues-paying members nationwide, CTA now weighs in as the largest, oldest progressive Catholic group in the country.

“We’re a big tent,” says Linda Pieczynski, 54, who joined CTA in 1991. That’s when the organization leapfrogged from local activism to national advocacy after it ran an ad in The New York Times calling for massive church reform regarding women as priests, mandatory celibacy, and increased laity involvement. Membership soared and CTA’s scope expanded. “Of course, we want church reform, more than ever,” says Pieczynski, a past CTA president who is now the group’s media liaison, “but we are also involved in fighting racism, the death penalty, and the effects of global capitalism on the poor.” At their national conference in November, the progressive theology professor Charles Curran-stripped of his right to teach at Catholic University of America by the Vatican in 1986-will be honored.

While some would rather switch than fight, Pieczynski, a municipal prosecutor in DuPage County, doesn’t consider such an option. “People like me, who were born and raised Catholic, and went to Catholic schools-well, the church made us the critically thinking beings we are today. Why would we walk away from our heritage? You don’t effect fundamental change by walking away.” Pieczynski likens the causes CTA champions to Catherine of Siena standing up against the pope in the 14th century, or the woman’s suffrage movement in this country. “It’s always a small group of people who start creating change,” she says, “but eventually it hits critical mass.”

-M. F. C.

Sheila Adams
Executive director, Office for Black Catholics, Archdiocese of Chicago

Sheila Adams’s father was born in Mississippi and, like many other African Americans of his generation, came to Chicago during the great wave of migration between the world wars. He was nominally a Methodist, but Sheila’s older cousin was getting a good education at the Corpus Christi school in the family’s Bronzeville neighborhood, so he had no objection to sending his daughter there.”

On the day when the other second graders were lined up to make their first Communion, Sheila was not allowed to participate and went home crying. “Sister Ita called my mom and said, ‘I think she would really like to be Catholic.'” Sister Ita was right, and by fourth grade Adams had been baptized, taken her first Communion, and received confirmation-the first important rites of passage in the faith. “I’m not a cradle Catholic,” Adams says, “but I feel like one.”

Adams, now 58, embraced the faith, graduating from DePaul and working as a Catholic elementary school teacher for 11 years, and then being hired as executive director of the archdiocese’s Office for Black Catholics in 1990. Today she oversees the affairs of the 100,000 or so black Catholics in the archdiocese, about 4 percent of the church, a group that includes not only African Americans but also recent immigrants from Africa, Haiti, and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Adams says that 42 of the archdiocese’s 372 parishes are predominantly black, though significant numbers are present all over the archdiocese-as much as 10 percent of the congregation at Holy Name Cathedral downtown, for instance. Services in black Catholic churches often feature gospel music, and Adams says a visitor might notice more subtle features. “The main way the black Catholic churches differ is that they are just more outgoing,” she says.

Adams’s job has a variety of challenges, nearly all of them arising from scarce population. This year, Adams helped oversee the painful consolidation of eight West Side parishes into four. The school at her own parish closed at the end of this past academic year.

Evangelization of younger blacks is one of Adams’s highest hopes, although she says taking care of the existing flock requires plenty of her attention. “The older population doesn’t relish change,” Adams says. “And we want to get young people in a hopeful mode, where they can see a future for themselves in the church.”

-D. Z.