By Fr. Joseph Ferraioli, O.M.I.
Every member of the U.S. Province, and many of the people among whom we do ministry, are aware of the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, IL. For years Oblates there have ministered to the many pilgrims and regulars who come to the Shrine to be spiritually fed. But, tucked away in the hills at the rear of the Shrine property is another place of ministry unknown to many of these same folks. The Shrine’s founder, Rev. Edwin Guild, O.M.I., as part of his dream, also envisioned a retirement facility, a place of peace and comfort for those in their senior years. The close proximity of the Shrine and its beautiful grounds would be a positive in welcoming folks to what has become known as the Apartment Community. For almost 50 years now Oblates have similarly ministered to these residents as to those at the Shrine, and worked with them in building the real community that now exists there. Indeed, over the years the Oblate Province itself has utilized this facility with now seven Oblates in residence.
I was an Oblate veteran of 36 years of parish ministry all over the country when the call came to take an assignment as chaplain at the Apartment Community. In July, 2013, I took up my position in the chaplain’s office together with my Novice Master of some 42 years previously, Father Tom Hayes, O.M.I. This would be a new ministry for me and one that on some levels would actually challenge my Oblate pedigree. To work exclusively among this elderly population was obviously quite different from the varied ministries of a parish priest. But, I learned that this population too desires the sacraments and the expression of God’s Word at daily Mass. Many struggle with the realities of aging and weakening bodies. The priest’s presence becomes their ongoing identification with the Church. And because these folks are of a generation removed from present day, the person of the priest is a very significant and important figure in their lives. So, Father Hayes and I celebrate with them the sacraments of Eucharist, Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick often. It is not unusual for a longtime resident’s family to ask to have that individual’s funeral celebrated at our chapel where their friends in the Apartment Community can gather to say farewell. So ministry to the bereaved is also a big part of our job.
One of my joys has been involvement with a number of the residents in what we refer to as Ongoing Faith Formation. A group of about 25 meet with me every Thursday morning for a discussion about our Catholic faith, the faith they learned as youngsters and have lived their entire lives. We reminisce about the Church of our youth and try to comprehend and understand how that Church has become the Church we now experience. Lively discussions occur which have convinced me of how well the human brain still functions even as we age. Am I working with “the poorest of the poor” as I have in other ministries over the years? Probably not, but I am working among souls that are striving for salvation… people who have always valued their faith and their relationship with Christ. If in our ministry, Father Hayes and I can assist these people to be ready to enter into eternal life, our Oblate ministry has had great meaning. I always tell the folks that God has a plan for each one of them and in my own reflections on my life and ministry, I can see God has a plan for me, one that has taken me from the inner cities of Miami and New Orleans to the hills of Belleville and the Apartment Community. As our Province continues to evaluate our places of ministry, might this one always have a priority. God’s people are served, God’s Oblates fulfill the mission.