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By Sean Gallagher
Nearly 20 years ago when he was a seminarian, Father Michael O’Mara had what might have seemed to have been an ordinary summer ministry assignment at Holy Cross Parish in Indianapolis.
Little did he know then that his experience there planted seeds that have born abundant fruit over the past six years while he has been pastor of St. Mary Parish in Indianapolis, a largely bilingual faith community.
“There were people at Holy Cross Parish in the neighborhood who only spoke Spanish,” Father O’Mara said. “That was a startling revelation. My desire to want to speak with these people started growing.”
That summer experience led Father O’Mara, who had minored in Spanish while a seminarian at Saint Meinrad College, to extend his studies.
Near the end of his theological studies, he spent several months at the Mexican-American Cultural Center in San Antonio, Texas, where he grew in his knowledge of Spanish and learned much about the culture of Hispanic immigrants to the United States.
In his last year in the seminary, he also had an assignment to St. Mary, where he would be pastor, on weekends for several months.
Although he noted that he did not preach in Spanish at the parish, he said that the Hispanic community there at the time adopted him—some of them came to his diaconate ordination and sang at his Mass of Thanksgiving after his priestly ordination.
Despite all of this contact with the Hispanic community during his priestly formation, today Father O’Mara acknowledges that he could have never predicted the significance that ministry to and with them would have in his priestly life.
“I had no idea,” he said. “I never ever would have dreamed that I would be using Spanish in my ministry as my primary language. I never would have believed it.”
And if he had been led solely by his own inclinations, things may have been different.
When Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein asked him to become the pastor of St. Mary Parish in 1998, Father O’Mara was resistant, thinking that he needed more time to prepare for this special assignment.
As it happened, Archbishop Buechlein remained confident in Father O’Mara’s abilities, and he ultimately became the pastor of the downtown Indianapolis parish.
Life as pastor of St. Mary’s has been busy.
Although a relatively small parish—it has 581 registered households—approximately 150 baptisms were celebrated there in a recent three-month period. The number of Masses offered in the parish on a regular basis has also increased.
Through this sacramental ministry as well as in visitation to the sick and in aid to the poor, Father O’Mara, according to St. Mary’s pastoral associate, Franciscan Sister Theresa Wente, has been working hard to create one family of faith among the parish’s diverse members.
“I think that he has done wonderfully well bridging between the English and the Spanish,” she said. “I think he does want to create an atmosphere in which the Hispanic people are welcomed as a family, welcomed into all aspects of Catholic living and the Catholic Church here in the United States.”
Sister Theresa also pointed to parish functions such as festivals and reverse raffles, in which Spanish- and English-speaking members collaborate and have fun together as signs of the growing unity in the parish.
“Everybody knows by now that this is a bilingual parish,” she said. “If you didn’t want to be here, you wouldn’t come here.”
Many are coming, though. Sister Theresa noted that, in the past five years, approximately 70 people have participated in the parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
Two aspects of the Church to which Father O’Mara has sought to welcome the Hispanic community are priestly and religious vocations.
He hosts meetings on a regular basis at the parish for young men and women who are thinking about vocations. And he was instrumental in helping Lupe Ramos and Martin Rodriguez become seminarians for the archdiocese. Both seminarians are now studying at a seminary in Mexico City.
Over the past two summers, Father O’Mara has also opened his home to seminarians from the Archdiocese of Guadalajara. For several weeks over the summers, the young men ministered among the Hispanic community at several parishes in and around Indianapolis.
But more than simply seeking to deepen the Hispanic community’s participation in the Church in the United States, Father O’Mara finds his work in encouraging vocations enriching for himself as well.
“I find it very life-giving ... to be with men who are younger than me who are considering the priesthood,” he said. “I think that I have something to share with them because of my experiences. And they also have something to share with me because of their experiences.”
As busy as his life is at St. Mary’s, working to build a vibrant and diverse parish community, he is fulfilled by it.
“I give thanks to God that the archbishop stuck to his guns,” Father O’Mara said. “He remained insistent. I can’t imagine what my life would be like now had I not had this experience.” †