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October 14, 2007

Working at grocery put priest through seminary

By Dolores Madlener



Father George E. Koeune, pastor, St. Eugene Church Catholic New World/Karen Callaway

He is: Father George E. Koeune, (pronounced Kaney) pastor, St. Eugene Parish on the Northwest Side of the city. Born May 16, 1966; ordained 12 years ago.

Why he’s outgoing: Grew up the youngest of 13 children in the family home in St. Mary’s Parish, Des Plaines. “I was always surrounded by people, so I’m a people person. As the youngest person, your older brothers and sisters become extra parents at times, watching out for you and caring for you. There was always someone to play with and lots to do.”

School days: He went to public grade school and seventh and eighth at St. Mary. High school was Maine North and, when it closed, Maine West. While priesthood wasn’t in his mind then, going to church was. “As a young child growing up, everyone in my family went to Mass, but in high school it was different.” When some of his siblings and other Catholics stopped going to church, “I wouldn’t think of missing. It was ingrained in my spiritual life.”

After graduation: “I graduated a year early, when I’d just turned 17.” By 18 he had decided on priesthood, but “I needed to make money. The seminary was expensive.” He worked at Jewel as a cashier and with the night crew stocking shelves. “The summer before going to college my brother got me a job as a garbage collector, which paid pretty well.” Entering Niles Seminary College at 21, he still went back and worked at Jewel in the summer.

What made him choose priesthood: “My vocation was influenced by several factors, mainly my mother and Father [Martin] Farrell at St. Mary.” While there was no lightening strike, he sensed “a constant urging that God was calling me to the priesthood. It wasn’t just something I wanted to do, it was God.”

Comfortable before an audience: With a B.A. in communications, he acted in plays in the seminary, a couple written by Father Stanley Rudcki, but most notably in “St. Joan of Arc.” “I got to be the archbishop and yell at St. Joan. Someone had to do it.”

Life’s pluses: “Fulfilling the dream of being able to serve God and his people. Ordination was my big moment.” He’s grateful for the chance to go back to school six years after ordination for his doctorate, “although I don’t ever want to have to write another paper.”

The challenges of being a pastor: “I feel a strong responsibility to get the people to take seriously their baptismal calling.” He thinks one of the things lacking in the church today is the theology surrounding baptism. “Part of my ministry, for instance, is visiting the sick. But it’s also part of the laity’s through baptism, to live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.” He reminds parents that because of baptism, they are the first teachers of the faith to their children. “It’s a pastor’s struggle to get people to take seriously their call to be Christians.”

Life in the rectory: He lives with two other priests. “We’re very compatible; they’re know-ledgeable and holy men. They’ve been priests for over 40 years and they’re a big help. ... It’s a delight to be with them.”

He still enjoys theater: He continues to do some writing. “I’m working on a musical with the parish music director on the theme of St. Dismas, the good thief.” He’s also writing the lyrics and some of the music. Performers will be parishioners of all ages.

Priests and golf: “Maybe twice a year I get out on a golf course with one of my brothers. I’m terrible. It’s very humbling.”

Negative press about priests: “We’ve gotten so much bad publicity, but we’ve got to get the good things out there as well. Just because there are sinful priests doesn’t mean you should leave your faith. They credit St. Francis of Assisi with saying: ‘Preach always, and if necessary, use words.’ Live as a good faithful Christian. Scandals give some people excuses to walk away or not pray. My faith is more important than the sins of another.”

Job evaluation: “It’s very rewarding being pastor here in a great parish, and I’m grateful for God’s presence in my life, helping me do the best I can.”