By Nora Kerr
“Are you going to put this in a shell and bury it?”
– Loretta Swiatak
Late January, we interviewed several long-time parishioners of St. Robert Bellarmine to find out how they found our parish, reflect on some of their favorite memories here, and hear why they chose to stay all these years. Some came to SRB because it was the closest church or school. But then they all stuck around. The stories that surfaced deserve more attention than storage in a time capsule.
We know you have a choice in where to celebrate mass and where to call your spiritual home. This is the first installment of stories from “The 5 O’Clockers,” highlighting several of our long time parishioners who also happen to frequent the 5pm Saturday evening mass. This is how they found St. Robert Bellarmine and what has kept them coming back year after year.
“My parents bought a house down the block in 1938,” said Lois Tortorelli. “We started with Father Gillespie and our church was the present school gymnasium. I came from Prussing every Wednesday at 2 o’clock for catechism.”
Almost 80 years later, Lois is still proud to call SRB home. She has enjoyed countless bible studies (now Lectio Divina), St. Patrick’s Day and other parties and fundraising galas over the years.
“This place is enduring,” said Lois.
Loretta Swiatak came to the parish in 1959, moving from Humboldt Park to the quieter Northwest side. Father John Dowling was then Pastor, taking over from Fr. Gillespie in 1955.
“We didn’t know what church to go to, St. Constance or St. Roberts, so Fr. Dowling said, “Come to our church.”
Fr. John Dowling demanded respect from adults and children alike. Many of these long time parishoners have distinct memories of the priest from childhood.
“He was tough. If you talked in church, all he had to do was look at you and that was it.”
Thankfully, most of her memories from St. Roberts are much warmer.
“We love the neighborhood and the people here,” said Loretta, who with her sister Mary Lou, has enjoyed the Women’s Club and singing in the Resurrection Choir.
The welcoming hospitality was a repeated theme among the group when reflecting on first coming to SRB. Lillian Guiffre came here from St. Anthony’s Parish on the far South Side in 1989. She was a recent widow and joined her sister here. Over the years, Lillian has enjoyed singing in the Resurrection Choir and taking part in the SRB Senior Group aptly named the “Happy Club.”
Like Lillian, Sharon Lorenz also followed her sister here from the South Side. Prior to joining, Sharon would come from the suburbs and spend weekends with her sister and 5 young kids, always making time for mass together in the old church.
“About 20 years ago, I finally said maybe I should join the parish. It’s a very welcoming place – nice priests, nice people who reach out –that makes all the difference,” said Sharon. “Everyone is so inclusive here—especially the nuns. They are dolls.”
Sharon cited a perfect example of this inclusive spirit with a story from one of our residing nuns, Sr. Ann Fanella. After mass on day, a woman had asked Sr. Ann if she could call her a cab, saying she had no one to take her home.
“Well guess who started picking her up and driving her home after church?” prompted Sharon.
From that single request for a phone call, Sr. Ann started a sign up list matching up parishioners needing rides with locals offering to drive. (Read more on Sr. Ann here.)
“There are a lot of extraordinary people doing things like that here,” said Sharon.
Other longtime parishioners include Delores Purtell and her daughter Susan, who have been with SRB since 1967.
“It will be 50 years this Memorial Day,” said Delores.
Early on, Delores struggled to find time for parish activities. Her hands were full with family demands of three young children.
“They were a handful,” said Delores, as her now adult daughter Susan sat next to her shaking her head.
But as the Purtell kids grew, so did the importance of SRB in their lives. Many of Delores’s memories of the parish sum up life’s highs and lows, including burying her husband, Gordon, and other relatives, and also celebrating sacraments as a family. Gordon did not grow up Catholic, but something attracted him at St. Roberts. He was Confirmed in the Catholic faith the same year as their son Kevin.
“That’s a very special memory for me,” said Delores.
Her daughter Susan, who attended school at SRB has returned to the area to be a part of the parish once again. She has taught religious education here and has enjoyed many parish events.
“I just love this place,” said Susan.
Mom Delores credits the nuns and other teaching staff at St. Roberts for shaping her children into the adults they are today.
“The sisters and teachers at SRB were all exceptional. It was their influence and inspiration that sent my children to graduate from good universities. This parish has a great spirit of giving. I’m so grateful for the men and women who volunteer their time to keep this church and school going.”
Here’s to keeping it going! Stay tuned for more memories and reflections around SRB past, present and future.