West Side Story | “I was working as a nurse at Loyola Medical Center in a surgical trauma unit, the ICU,” says the 27-year-old. “I had met Fr. Bob [Lombardo] on a retreat in the summer of 2006, while I was still at Xavier. I started volunteering at his mission one day a week. By 2009, he saw there was this need for a religious community here. There was a need for people to live and work here in the neighborhood (West Humboldt Park).”
A Desperate Neighborhood | Glance at a list of the poorest places in America, and Humboldt Park is often among the most downtrodden pockets. “Cardinal Francis George asked Fr. Bob to come and rebuild and maintain a Catholic presence at Our Lady of the Angels. It had been a huge thriving parish at one time, one of the largest of five parishes in Chicago. Mainly Italian and Irish.”
Two Lives | O’Leary became one of the first aspirants to move into the restored convent at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels. “There were five of us at the time. Because of our interest in religious life, and his seeing the needs, Fr. Bob invited us to move in and spend a year in discernment. I entered in 2009, but I still worked as a nurse for a year.”
Entering the Religious Life | “It’s hard to describe or explain my decision. I think of it as God prompting me, pulling me toward Him. In a moment of peace, I was finally able to notice people in great need, especially kids who are 10 years old and younger. When they are young, we still have a chance to help kids make smart decisions, away from drugs and gangs.”
Growth | “The number of those we serve continues to grow. We now serve 700 families with food and clothing. There are more than 900 kids in the afterschool programs. It’s incredible how much people need basic assistance.”
Mean Streets | The church is surrounded by at-risk youth, violent gangs and drug trafficking. “We try to get them off the streets, to stay out of drugs and the gangs, so maybe we can stop this cycle of violence and crime.”
Horrific Tragedy | For just about anyone from Greater Chicago, the mention of Our Lady also brings a sorrowful memory: A devastating fire at the parish elementary school in 1958 consumed the lives of 55 girls, 37 boys and three nuns. “You mention Our Lady of Angels here in Chicagoland, and everyone still thinks of the fire. Somebody knew somebody who passed away in the fire, or somebody who was injured.” Making sense out of the tragedy, the deaths of 92 children and three religious sisters in mere moments, is part of O’Leary’s mission today.
A Reflective Thought | “It’s really quite humbling to be spearheading a new religious community in the inner city.”