A Grateful Parish And Community Remember Father Gregory
The death of Benedictine Father Gregory Chamberlin on June 12, 2014, brought a flood of memories from those who were blessed to know him. Students and monks of St. Meinrad; parishioners from Troy, Ind., to Memphis, Tenn.; classmates and family; all have fond and favorite memories of this priest of priests.
Father Gregory was Pastor and Pastor Emeritus of St. Benedict for 23 years – the only pastor many of his parishioners knew, loved and cherished. He enjoyed telling the story of one of his first impressions of St. Benedict before he became pastor. It occurred in 1989 at the ordination and installation of Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger at St. Benedict Parish (yet to become the cathedral). During the ceremony, Father Gregory was in the apse with his brother priests and had a clear view of the enormous size of the church filled to capacity. He remembers saying to himself: “Boy, thank God I am not the pastor of this parish!” We, however, thank God that He did not listen to Father, and instead, graciously sent him our way. Bishop Gettelfinger, commenting on Father Gregory’s death, said, “He was a perfectly wonderful monk, a faithful priest and an excellent pastor. I will miss him greatly.”
“Father Gregory was a priest who loved the people of St. Ben’s, loved being pastor, and absolutely hated having to give it up,” said Father Joseph Ziliak, former editor of The Message and a classmate of Father Gregory. Father Ziliak is a native son of the parish and a retired priest of the Diocese of Evansville who often filled in at St. Ben’s during the last several years of Father Gregory’s illness. Father Ziliak was a member of a priests’ support group with Father Gregory, and knew that pastoring the large parish “was not always an absolutely smooth ride.” But “He was always interested in new initiatives, and he was always able to depend on the people of the parish.”
After 25 years of teaching French at St. Meinrad and handling administrative duties on the hill – and after several years of pastoral duties at St. Michael Parish in Cannelton, St. Pius X Parish in Troy, and St. Louis Parish in Memphis, Tenn. – Father Gregory came to St. Benedict Parish. He made this parish his home; all were invited, and all were welcomed. His ability to call so many people by name meant that he also knew you, your likes, talents and skills. Sooner or later, he would tap you on the shoulder and invite you to share those talents and skills with the parish. This gift to place the right person in the right place and empower them with the freedom to help the parish grow and develop was Father Gregory’s lasting contribution to this parish, his home.
Father Gregory’s life at St. Benedict could start with his “kids.” Every school day morning would find him in the hallway, greeting students with hugs and handshakes. After school, he would be on Lincoln Ave., wearing his Chicago Cubs baseball hat, wishing them well and sending them home with another hug. He knew every eighth-grader who attended the school during his years as pastor and had an exit interview with every one. Father continued this support with his presence at many Memorial High School Masses and helping with their Penance rites by hearing confessions. The love he and the students shared with each other was so real and genuine that the students even “loved” to go to confession with Father Gregory. When he returned home after three weeks in the hospital for treatments, the students lined Lincoln and Harlan Avenues, holding signs and cheering his arrival. Father saw the crowd from the car, wondering what the commotion was all about. When he finally realized who was there, he exclaimed: “Why, those are my kids!” Truth be known, even the adults of the parish were “his kids.” The longest, loudest, thunderous ovation to occur in St. Benedict Church took place when Father Gregory, after a long absence due to his treatments, walked into the sanctuary (unannounced) to concelebrate Mass for the students. They were, indeed, “his kids,” and he was “their Father.”
Father Gregory was a great administrator because he did not administrate. Rather, he surrounded himself with people of enormous talent and gave them the encouragement, the freedom and the desire to act for the good of the parish. While pastor, a new addition was constructed connecting the “old” school and “new” school with classrooms, offices, library and gathering rooms. This addition was not Father’s dream and goal but rather it was the dream of parents, staff and parish leaders. Only then did he give it his full support and energy. This was typical of the way he led the parish; collegiality at its best. He liked to say that the place of everlasting punishment would be like an endless Monday morning meeting.
Although Father Gregory often described himself as an introvert, he was obviously a people person. He loved gatherings, staying long and late at summer socials, chicken dinners, and Friday fish fries, talking with everyone. He also developed a strong and warm relationship with groups outside the parish.
Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America, Father reached out to the Muslims whose house of prayer was adjacent to the parish. The Muslims were invited – and accepted the invitation – to address the parish so that both groups would remain accepting of each other. Upon the death of Father Gregory, Mohammad I. Hussain, MD, said:
“Father Gregory has been such a nice person that it is nearly impossible to say a few words about him as a person as well as a leader of the Catholic Church. As the steward of St. Benedict Church, he was a great neighbor of the Islamic Center on Lincoln Avenue. We were there for over two decades, and I personally came to know him as a good friend. We at the Islamic Center have always appreciated our relationship with St. Benedict under his leadership. He was compassionate, caring and helpful in all kinds of situations. We will always remember the kindness that he showed to us and his thoughtfulness in his dealing with us. His departure is a great lose to the Evansville community and it saddens me that the Islamic Center has lost a trusted friend.
“God Bless his soul!”
Father Gregory was a strong and vocal advocate of Right to Life. This was based on his own precarious birth. He often told the story that his mother was encouraged to have an abortion for health reasons that threatened both her life and/or the life of her unborn baby (Father Gregory), but responded: “We will let God decide that.” He was always quick in prayer to thank God for the gift of life. He did this again with a small group just days before he died.
Father had a soft and generous heart for those in need, often giving from his own personal financial resources. He corresponded with a number of people who were in jail or prison, helping them with counseling, prayer and simply listening. He was always willing to listen and be the priest. So often, with little preparation or time to get ready, Father would lead a gathering in prayer or anointing for someone in great need due to illness or death.
Father, of course, was a great and loyal fan of the Chicago Cubs. His office boasted many Cub memorabilia including a framed certificate designating him an honorary citizen of Wrigleyville. On the 40th Anniversary of his ordination, the parish presented Father with an SUV that was, appropriately, Cubby Blue. The car was presented to him following Sunday Mass, and he wondered how all this could happen without him knowing anything about it – which prompted him to ask about what else is going on in the parish that he does not know about. Father loved to drive and would not hesitate to take a long trip. But his favorite daily trip was to Schnuck’s Market, where he would chose his menu for the evening meal that he would prepare in a gourmet fashion.
While Father Gregory was pastor, St. Benedict became the Cathedral for the Evansville Diocese in 1999. Father recalled that he once answered the door and there was Bishop Gettelfinger. said that two thoughts immediately came to mind – what did I do, and how did he find out so quickly?! Bishop Gettelfinger extended the invitation for the parish to accept the role of being the Cathedral, a decision made at a quickly convened parish council. The parish has embraced the responsibility of hosting numerous diocesan celebrations, and those celebrations have helped the diocese to grow as one.
In the choir loft of the Cathedral, there are three windows depicting St. Benedict, flanked by Pope St. Gregory the Great, who encouraged the development of plainsong or Gregorian Chant, and King David. David, of course, played the lyre and wrote numerous prayerful songs, the Psalms. Father Gregory loved those three windows and, of course, would see them daily from the altar. He felt connected with King David since that was his baptismal name. He also felt close to Gregory the Great, his chosen name as a monk – although he quickly referred to himself as Gregory the Not-so-great. Perhaps all those who come to celebrate at the Cathedral can seek out those windows, recall Father Gregory, and say a prayer for his intentions.
One of the best compliments given to a celibate monk-priest came from a parent who sought his advice concerning one of her children: “Thank you, Father, for helping me raise my children.” To which we can only add: “Thank you, Father, for helping to raise all of us to be closer to God and to one another.”
The Message staff thanks St. Benedict parishioner Pete Werner for meeting with members of St. Benedict Cathedral Parish and the Evansville community, and compiling their memories for this feature.