Rev. Jack Wall is leaving Old St. Pat’s in Chicago after 24 years. He found four people when he arrived, now there are 3,000. It hosts the famed “ass mass,” attended by spouse-seeking young Catholics. It’s solvent and thriving, which is no small thing in our time. Wall is off to the Extension (bishops’ missionary) Society, where his exquisite marketing skills should find an outlet.
Yes, marketing. Wall has not let his light remain under a bushel, to adapt his Leader’s phrase. Not only has he worked hard, beginning by hands-and-knees scrubbing of an encrusted rectory-kitchen floor. He has demonstrated entrepreneurial shrewdness of the first order, finding a niche and filling it.
A, he has ridden the Irish-heritage pony hard. The place reeks of Celtic ambience and draws disaffected or wandering Irish people from far and wide. B, he has made it a hot gathering place for the young, whom he dispatched sometimes to various help-neighbor works such as tutoring kids at nearby, historically all-black St. Malachy’s parish on the West Side — historically not since its start, which was as Irish as St. Pat’s but declared black in the wake of black migration. C, he has raised money and made important political connections, such as with the incumbent Mayor Daley and family.
None of it would matter if he and the other staff did not preach and teach and work hard for their own people, inspiring them to work for others. But neither would this preaching etc. have mattered without the marketing.
His is the first of the Chicago Triumvirate of niche-marketed parishes which have been immensely successful in the last 30 years. St. Sabina on the South Side is a black cathedral. Rev. Michael Pfleger has made of that once-Irish bastion a gathering place for the well-heeled but race-conscious black community. Al Sharpton has “preached” there (scare quotes by me). So has “Minister” Farrakhan, who we presume did not make his crack about what’s under the Pope’s cassock. But believe me, apart from these distractions from The Message, that St. Sabina jumps with Christian-related noise and joy. Solomon in all his glory had not an orchestra like Sabina’s.
The other of the Three is St. John Cantius, whose modern founder and pastor, Rev. Frank Philips, who had been sent there by his Resurrectionist superiors to close the place — farsighted and idealistic they were, indeed — went to Wall for advice. About niche marketing of The Word, to be sure, though Fr. Frank did not use the phrase when he told me about seeing Wall. St. John C. is traditionalist, has had Latin masses (in addition to English) from the start of its renovation by Fr. F. It has become a mecca for Catholics enamored of old-time Catholicism who also like splendid music.
All three churches are grand and old and sparklingly renovated. All three parishes are busting with Catholics. God hath wrought this in part through marketing skills of his ministers.