Catholic New World: Newspaper for the Archdiocese of Chicago

ComPadres offer a ministry of comfort, hope and Xboxes

By Michelle Martin
Assistant Editor

When Father John Barkemeyer left his post as pastor of St. Cajetan Parish in 2003, he thought it would be a leave of absence from the archdiocese. A member of the Army Reserve, he was activated for a tour of duty in Iraq and Kuwait as a chaplain.

After spending months serving the soldiers who put themselves in harm’s way, Barkemeyer knew he had a new calling, and asked to become an active-duty military chaplain. He returned to his parish to break the news in 2005, and returned to Iraq in early 2006.

But that doesn’t mean he has left St. Cajetan behind.

A group of St. Cajetan parishioners, led by Tim Traynor, has become the core of the ComPadres, now incorporated as a not-for-profit providing supplies to the soldiers Barkemeyer ministers to in Al- Anbar province. Augustinian Father Tom McCarthy, president of St. Rita High School, serves as their spiritual director.

The group, which started informally during Barkemeyer’s first tour of duty in Iraq, has grown considerably during his second tour. They send everything from religious supplies (mostly Catholic, but not exclusively. One shipment included stars of David for Jewish soldiers) to toiletries and what for lack of a better term could be called stocking stuffers—playing cards and the like—but also gift cards for the PX, phone cards to allow them to phone home, and Xboxes.

The Xboxes might seem like a misfit for soldiers who are coping with life-threatening situations every day, but, Barkemeyer said they enjoy them.

“Since I am the only Army Catholic priest in the Al Anbar province, I visit a whole lot of soldiers and Marines to say Mass,” Barkemeyer wrote in an e-mail to the Catholic New World. “Many of these guys live in spartan ‘combat outposts.’ They don’t have running water, some barely have electricity. Some places only get hot meals once or twice a week. Since each place is different the guys there have different needs. Almost everybody here (at least the young guys) play video games. They especially love ‘war’ games. They will come off patrol and get five or six guys together and compete via video game. It doesn’t sound like a relaxing way to go from my point of view but then again I’m 20-plus years older than most of the guys. The ComPadres also have sent a number of DVD movies so I go to the places, they see the movie list I have and check the ones they want. The next week I bring what they asked for. That way they don’t have to watch the same set of movies over and over again.

“While it all may sound very secular, it has had an interesting spiritual ‘side effect.’ The week after I gave an outpost an Xbox, the Mass attendance went up about 200 percent. Word spread I was the chaplain who got them the Xbox. Every week since, those Marines have been at Mass. I guess the Xbox meant to them that I really do care.”

Barkemeyer also requested—and received— children’s books and video recording equipment, so that soldiers could record themselves reading aloud and send the videos to their children back home.

When the ComPadres asked what Barkemeyer would like for himself, he asked for some cigars—and then used them putting men who came to see him at ease, making it easier for them to bring up difficult issues. In one case, Barkemeyer shared a cigar with a soldier who, after a while, mentioned that he had been injured, but didn’t want to complain. When Barkemeyer urged him to speak up, the young man ended up being airlifted out of Iraq, first to Germany and then to Walter Reed, because the injury was more severe than he realized.

The idea, said ComPadres member Colette Gurin, is that a chaplain serving combat troops could be much more effective— and better able to respond to whatever needs he saw the troops encountering —if he had a strong support network back home, providing whatever financial, material and promotional support he required.

To provide the goods, ComPadres prefers cash donations, which can then be used to procure whatever Barkemeyer requests as quickly as possible. One very successful fundraiser is “Hearts from Home,” a program run in more than 50 Catholic schools, allowing students who bring a donation to get an out-of-uniform day.

“The needs, and therefore the responses, change dramatically from one stage, one situation or one area of deployment to another.” Gurin said. “Most people send this or that, whatever they think the guys might need. He’s there, and he knows what the guys need.”

Barkemeyer originally joined the Army Reserve in hopes of being of service to some of the many young men and women from St. Cajetan and surrounding communities who had enlisted. Working with the ComPadres allows members to also feel they are aiding those young people, Gurin said.

“We have a spiritual sense of really being able to help the kids,” she said.

In its first year of operation, 2005, the ComPadres— then nearly all South Siders—raised about $30,000, said Gurin, now one of the directors. As the membership grew to include people from all over the archdiocese, especially from Barkemeyer’s home parish of St. Francis Xavier in Wilmette, so did the fundraising effort. So far, the group has raised about $80,000.

As a chaplain, Barkemeyer serves all the troops, but he works especially with the Catholics, offering them the sacraments and saying Mass. He has also attracted more people to the church, with about 15 soldiers, sailors and Marines preparing for either baptism or confirmation in early July.

Next on the list is a commercial popcorn machine and a “slushie” machine, so Barkemeyer can offer a cafétype environment after religious services and at other times for soldiers to relax. If the salty popcorn and cold slushies get them to drink more and stay hydrated, all the better.

“The ComPadres give me the flexibility to respond to whatever need happens to arise at the moment from rosaries and prayer cards to portable DVD players and video games,” Barkemeyer wrote. “They allow me to connect with soldiers and Marines on a level I otherwise would miss. Plus, the need is so great here. Today it was 130 degrees in the sun. Life is hard. Any kind of break you can get is a real bonus. The Compadres have been that bonus to thousands of troops.”

For more information or to make a donation, visit or write to: ComPadres, c/o St. Rita of Cascia High School, 7740 S. Western Ave., Chicago, IL 60620.