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Sister Joseph Ellen on the needs of the inner-city parish community

This article was originally written for a project by the National Association of Lay Ministry called “Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership.” This version is used with permission of Sister Joseph Ellen Keitzer.

August 2007
A journey of Providence on Chicago’s west side
By Sister Joseph Ellen Keitzer, SP, Pastoral Associate, St. Angela Parish, Chicago, Illinois

Sister Joseph Ellen Keitzer

PARISH PROFILE: During the past 30 years St. Angela Parish on Chicago’s West Side experienced many cultural, economic, social, and ministerial changes. In May of 2005 Saint Angela and nine other parishes were merged into four cluster parishes.

In sharing my experience in pastoral ministry, I would first like to say that this journey is not so much my personal story as it is the experience of God’s Presence and how God has led the people of St. Angela and me through the various phases of these years and our ministry together. It has been a journey of Providence, and God has always provided what was needed and then some. For me, pastoral ministry is an answer to a call to serve, to be present to people in a caring way and to help guide them on their own journey towards God. My role in pastoral ministry was one that gradually evolved. I never had the occasion to apply for a particular ministry position. I tried to answer God’s call as the needs presented themselves.

In 1976 I was assigned by my religious community, the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, to teach music in St. Angela School. I also taught in the religious education program on the weekends. In 1985 our pastor, Fr. James Flynn, asked me to assume the role of director of religious education as an added responsibility. I said “yes,” in spite of what seemed to be a losing battle with lupus. God responded with a miracle in the form of a new doctor and medication. At this time there were five priests in residence. A year later we lost an associate and I was asked to coordinate the Eucharistic Ministers, then Ministers of Care. As the parish continued losing priests, I assumed more parish responsibilities. As I acquired different ministries, I took advantage of opportunities for education and training in those ministries. During a span of 20 years, the parish went from having five priests down to one non-resident pastor.

As parish responsibilities increased, my music ministry decreased so as to concentrate fully in pastoral associate work. Having one foot in school was an advantage, for we were able to coordinate programs as one family. There was no distinction between parishioners in the school and parishioners taking religious education classes outside of the Catholic School. It was also a great opportunity for evangelization. The school was becoming more non-Catholic, so Fr. James Flynn, our pastor, and I went to the classrooms and invited children to join a group to learn more about the Catholic Church. Through the children and new parent religion classes, many adults and children came into the church. During this time, I had the opportunity to welcome new members into the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program. Sharing faith gave me the opportunity to bring forth the gifts of individuals. Many have assumed leadership roles in the parish and archdiocese.

Because we could foresee that the parish was becoming African American, Fr. Flynn encouraged me to attend a certification program at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans and to seek certification as a Pastoral Associate in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1994. My experience at Xavier was a very transforming one for me personally and provided valuable insights toward understanding the African-American culture.

After Fr. Flynn was assigned another parish in 1994, we were without a pastor for a year. During this time it was a challenge to find substitute priests. Then Fr. Dennis Riley arrived but had times of fragile health. We even devised a laminated card with prayers so the Eucharistic minister could finish the Mass depending on whether Father became ill before or after the consecration. Fr. Riley had a stroke in 2000. St. Angela was again without a pastor.

Then a non-resident priest came who was a dean and pastor of two other parishes. In order to fill in for Masses, arrangements were made for resident priests to come from Africa.

Besides the regular pastoral ministries, my journey in pastoral ministry has taken me into places that I would never have imagined. During these years I had the opportunity to become involved with Northwest Austin Council (community organization) in their fight against drug houses, housing discrimination, violence and other peace and justice issues. I went to court with NAC to close prostitution and drug houses, joined them on a smoke out (which is to gather on a corner and cook hot dogs where drug dealers were selling drugs) or a prayer march when someone was shot. I found myself getting involved with prison ministry, drug rehab, prevention of substance abuse, domestic violence situations, public aide, department of human services and many others. I find myself highly energized in doing corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

During these years I witnessed the struggles of a community of believers during the 80’s and 90’s when white flight began. I experienced the racism that exists. As white flight continued, city services diminished. There were problems with housing, real estate managers, banks red-lining, health care, quality of education, jobs, businesses, grocery stores, factories moving, and other basic resources moving from the community. Residents moving into the neighborhood wanted the same quality of life as those moving out. Definitely all wanted a safe place to live.

However, as Christ became present to the parish community through people of different races and cultures; their strong faith, courage, strength, and grace of perseverance were soon recognized as a gifts. The African-American people have a common saying, “Our God makes a way out of no way.”

In May 2005 St. Angela was one of the 10 black west-side parishes that were asked to merge into four. St. Angela School remains open. While the Archdiocesan Research and Planning Committee had a momentous task and they selected the process they felt would create a more vibrant, viable parish, there were a number of things overlooked. The process could have gone much smoother had certain circumstances been taken into consideration. In regard to the merger of St. Angela and Our Lady Help of Christians into St. Martin-de-Porres, these are some brief considerations that would have helped the process go more smoothly:

SPIRITUAL FORMATION: It was most important to form a spiritual relationship and sense of unity before attempting to merge.

LEADERSHIP OF PASTOR: There was no pastor in place at the parish where and when the merger took place. African-Americans look to the pastor for leadership.

INCULTURATION: There was no African- American on the Archdiocesan Planning Committee.

UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS: People were asked if they wanted a full paid staff (director of religious education, pastoral associate, etc.) They said “yes,” but realistically no one could afford the salaries if parishes were combined. This was supposed to constitute a viable, vibrant church. As yet none of this paid staff has happened in any of the parishes. The Research and Planning committee seemed unaware that economically poorer parishes struggle to afford bare necessities, part-time and volunteer help. They can’t afford large staff like the suburbs. Criteria for success were centered on statistics, buildings, and finances.


TRANSPORTATION: There was no planning in regard to transportation to church. Some people would have to take two buses. The neighborhood is not safe to stand on street corners.

OPENNESS TO SUGGESTIONS: People felt their voices were not heard and decisions were already made ahead of time.

INTEGRATION YEAR: Consultants came from the Pastoral Center to discuss buildings and finances, thus creating the impression these were more important than people. No spiritual facilitator was present for reps or parishioners. More attention should have been given to bringing people together as Church.

St. Angela was more than just a Church building in which to worship God. For most parishioners, it was their family, social life, and a place where the blessing of relationships in Christ had been formed. The Church was a sign of stability, a beacon of faith and hope in the midst of the struggles of inner city life. When creating new models of church and pastoral leadership, it is very important to be culturally sensitive to the worship, culture, and lifestyle of the people. The inner city has specific needs and a culture all of its own. There is also a richness and giftedness in the African-American community that needs to be shared with the entire church.

One of my goals has been to try to advocate for ethnic diversity and representation from the inner city on various diocesan boards and councils. In most dioceses, the parishes that need assistance the most cannot afford to hire parish staff, and thus have no voice or representation at conferences or workshops. Somehow, the Church has to find a way to include everyone as we proclaim to be “One Bread, One Body”.

Since the closing of St. Angela two years ago, many of the parishioners have scattered among different churches.

Some went to St. Martin-de-Porres; some are attending other Catholic churches; a few have returned to Baptist churches which are visible on almost every corner. Some are still looking for another church like St. Angela.

Someone in my apartment recently asked me, “Why is it necessary to go so far to buy good meat?” With the closing of so many churches, I wonder if the question now might be “Why is it necessary to go so far to receive the Bread of Life – The Body of Christ?”

Although I am formally retired as Pastoral Associate at St. Angela, I asked my religious community, the Sisters of Providence, if I could continue to work with former parishioners during this time of transition. There are many spiritual, social, and economic needs. This has been a very painful time for most parishioners. Pastoral ministry sometimes involves a loving relationship and caring Providential presence that brings hope and healing. When people ask what I am doing, I usually tell them I am gathering the lost sheep. I am still a certified Pastoral Associate in the Archdiocese of Chicago. At the present time I am on the Archdiocesan Pastoral Associates Commissioning Board representing Vicariate 111 which is mostly inner city. Having been at St. Angela so long, I am blessed to know and have contacts with many local and archdiocesan resources. I try to stay involved with the Pastoral Associates and Office of Lay Ecclesial Ministry so they do not lose the inner-city on their radar screen.

In singing an African- American song that goes: “We’ve Come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord; trusting in His Holy Word,” it brings to mind the words of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence, who once said, “If you lean with all your weight upon Providence, you will find yourself well supported. I hope and pray that someday we may all be one Church with racial equality. That the richness of all cultures will be shared with the entire Church, and that the mission of the Church will not be lost in financial statistics and numbers to the detriment of the poor and oppressed. I long to see the day when there will be no discrepancy between those who have money and those who are struggling to exist; that we are truly one Church in spite of our differences.

My journey in pastoral ministry has been a very transforming and enriching one for me personally. I have had the privilege and opportunity of stepping inside another race, culture, and hearts. I am truly blessed. The African American community has enriched my life with their giftedness, spirituality, deep faith, trust, friendship and love.

Together we have had the opportunity to be a sign of God’s Providence and loving Presence to others. Jesus sent His disciples out on a mission. They went forth in pairs and had the company of one another. They learned to rely on their relationship to Him and to their fellow disciples. The Church began with these relationships, and in the end, they are all that we are assured will exist in the Church in heaven.

(Originally referenced in the Fall 2015 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Joseph Keitzer

After nearly 30 years as a teacher and pastoral associate at the former St. Angela's Parish in Chicago, Sister of Providence Sister Joseph Ellen Keitzer continues her spiritual ministry with the people on Chicago's west side.

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