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November 8, 2009

His mother made a difference

By Dolores Madlener



Father Joseph Curtis, pastor of St. Mary of Vernon Parish in Indian Creek, stands in the church vestibule. Catholic New World/Darrell Harmon

He is: Father Joseph Curtis, pastor of St. Mary of Vernon in Indian Creek, where he once served as associate pastor. Ordained at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, Mundelein, in 1969.

Family life: The second youngest and only boy in his family. “Our age span was 20 years between the oldest and youngest. I was spoiled rotten, I’m sure, by my sisters.” The family moved from Chicago’s North Side out to Maywood when he was three. “Dad was Catholic, and mother a convert at marriage. My dad was a linotype operator downtown. He died when I was eight.”

Growing up: “Mother didn’t work outside the home, but shortly before Dad died they bought a small eight-flat apartment in Forest Park to refurbish and take care of.” His mother later managed that building and the income helped raise the three younger children. “She saw that we attended Catholic grammar school and were raised Catholic.”

School: He was taught by Adrian Dominican Sisters at St. James School in Maywood. “We walked that proverbial mile to school until they got buses the last couple of years.” He loved school and the liturgy. “I was an altar server. Our pastor was somewhat of a curmudgeon, but the associate was nice to us servers, so that was probably the start of my vocation.”

Mother said ‘yes’: “This is kind of a miracle unto itself. I was inspired through the associate priest and sisters to look into Quigley, but nobody else from St. James went to Quigley. My mother, a convert, probably didn’t know what to make of my request. With hindsight it’s even hard to believe she let me go. I was a quiet kid, only 12-13 years old, and I had to take a bus, the elevated train and a subway to get to Quigley on Rush Street.”

Old church /new church: “The Mass was in Latin then. It was a blessing to bridge the old and the new. It served me well in parish life later on. Your vocation came from those roots, but being in the seminary during the Second Vatican Council, you were in the vanguard. Sometimes you were ahead of priests in the parishes. Mother became ‘more Catholic’ when I sang in the choir (Cardinal’s Cathedral Choristers). She came to the cathedral for Midnight Mass or services, so she became more connected to the church. I enjoyed singing in choirs over the years.”

Jobs: “In college seminary days I cut grass at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, riding my bike all the way from Maywood. Somehow one year I got a pipefitter’s apprentice job. It was good money for tuition.”

Parish experiences: “I’ve found over the years no matter what parish one goes to, people are faith-filled, hungry for God’s word, and can put up with a lot of human foibles. Thank God for that.” As an effect of Vatican II, “I found myself working alongside people, learning and growing together, discovering what all this meant, together.”

Present parish: “There’s a mutual ownership the people have in the parish because of their founding pastor. That’s an endearing trait. There’s a sense of service.

“A neighboring community could no longer do PADS [shelter] for the homeless. We wanted to start one, and the deacon asked for volunteers at the Masses one Sunday. We got 200 volunteers. The parishioners’ outreach to the needy is awesome.”

Leisure: “I try to relax and get together with a priest friend or two for movies or theater. I love musicals.” He enjoys reading. “I almost always have some type of escape novel going, espionage or spy story. I rarely watch TV. Last year I was the pharaoh in our parish production of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.’ People enjoyed it. At other parishes we’ve done musical reviews.”

Scripture favorites: “I’ve always remembered the words ‘Caritas Christi urget nos’ — ‘The love of Christ compels us,’ — words over the altar in the Deacon Chapel at Mundelein Seminary. “It capsulizes the fact that it is Christ’s love that gets us out there and motivates us.

“The story of Zacchaeus is a another Scripture favorite. He was a short tax collector. It might have something to do with my own height, five-feet-five and shrinking. The fact he had to climb a tree to see Christ, and then Christ invited him for dinner. It’s an experience of the mercy and all-inclusive love of Jesus. I meditate on how I depend on all those things.

“I once climbed a tree as a kid, playing rocket ship with some old radio tubes. I fell and broke my arm and tried to hide it from my mother. That may also have something to do with liking the Zacchaeus story. He was able to stay in the tree.”