A Chicago Sun-Times Columnist with a tribute to Fr. Dave Staszak:
Pilsen's Own `Father David' Says Goodbye
September 5, 1997
By Raymond R. Coffey, Chicago Sun Times Columnist
After 40 years of living and working among the hardworking poor of Chicago's Southwest Side Pilsen neighborhood, the Rev. David Staszak confesses quietly to being (ouch) a still-loyal fan of his hometown Green Bay Packers.
That matters not to the struggling-to-make-it-in-America Hispanic community of Pilsen and parishioners at St. Pius V Catholic Church at 19th and Ashland who count Staszak their big city savior and revere him. And who now, after all those years, are about to lose him. Which hurts infinitely more than whatever the Packers might be doing to the Bears.
You walk around the neighborhood with Staszak on a sunny morning and everyone on the street seems to know "Father David," as they all call him. Women kiss his hand. Kids smile happily. Men greet him with obvious respect. And Staszak, a short, husky, white-haired down-to-earth kind of guy who goes about in jeans, a short-sleeved sport shirt, beat-up athletic sneakers and no clerical collar, seems to have time for all of them.
When I went to see him, I waited while he visited with a woman who wanted him to meet her new dog. Staszak bestowed a blessing on the dog. "An Australian shepherd dog," he remarked, "I never saw one of those before."
"The people love him," said Zulma Irvine, who has known "Father David" for more than 30 years, who attended St. Pius School herself, whose kids are enrolled there now. "He is a wonderful man, a very caring man who puts people before himself," Irvine said, "People come here one day and already they know him. He is there for people any time of day or night."
When Staszak arrived in Pilsen as a newly ordained priest of the Dominican Order in 1956, Pilsen and the parishioners of St. Pius were still overwhelmingly Polish, Lithuanian and Czech. Over the years the European immigrants moved out as tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants moved in and Pilsen turned Hispanic. "There was a lot of tension" between the two groups as the neighborhood changed, Staszak recalls.
Staszak, of Polish ancestry, stayed--and made himself fluent in Spanish. Over the years, too, St. Pius, built in 1892, has again become a thriving parish with more than 10,000 Hispanics regularly attending services. Also, as time passed, Staszak refocused his work from St. Pius to a Dominican ministry among the poor, and particularly to the homeless.
In 1981 he opened the San Jose Obrero (St. Joseph the Worker) Mission which now shelters 40 to 50 homeless men a day and serves more than 40,000 meals a year in a building at 19th and Loomis under a contract with the city Department of Human Services. In 1987 he established the San Jose Obrero Family Mission a couple of blocks away that now helps feed, shelter and clothe about a dozen needy women and their children.
It is a tough neighborhood and not easy going for those working at doing good deeds. The neighborhood is bedeviled by street gangs and drug dealers who keep the streets echoing with gunfire. Staszak cheerfully points out a house in which Bugsy Moran, a big-timer in Chicago's gangster history, once lived. More ominously he points out that the heavy metal front door of his nearby men's shelter is pockmarked with bullet dents from far more recent gang shoot-outs in the street.
Staszak works to keep the gangs at bay and their graffiti off neighborhood walls by having religious murals painted on buildings--like the one picturing two angels and the crucified Christ on a street corner just across the street from St. Pius School that used to be a gang hangout.
"I love the Hispanic people," Staszak said, "They're warm people. They're poor. They struggle. They have problems. They're hardworking. They are good people."
But at 71, Staszak, who grew up in Green Bay, is leaving Pilsen and St. Pius later this month and moving on to a new assignment working with the poor in the Madison, Wis., area. "I've reached the point where I think I've reached many of my goals," he said, "Like the governor [Edgar], you reach a point. When it's time to go, it's time to go."
"We are all going to miss him," says Irvine, on the edge of tears. "Everyone has a memory of him. He has done a lot for the community."
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