An Interview with Grace Avellana Villamora

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


Dr. Knight: Can you tell us about your call to ministry? How did you decide to become more involved at Holy Name Cathedral?

Grace: When I was growing up I would watch my mother get dressed on weekends in her navy blue uniform for Catholic Women’s League (CWL) meetings. CWL is a religious organization in the Philippines dedicated to spreading the teachings of Christ through womanhood disciples, who safeguard the sanctity of marriage, family values, and serves the youth and the underprivileged. My mother was also committed to the charitable works of Damas de la Caridad (Ladies of Charity) with Vincentian programs to integrate the poor to a community with justice,

love and cultural diversity.


Moving to Chicago from Manila, my husband and I looked for a community with an opportunity to serve and practice our spiritual and cultural heritage. We started at St. Margaret Mary Parish (SMM). My husband was in the school board. I served as Lector; he and I as Eucharistic Minister on Saturday and Sunday Masses. In 1985, our group introduced Simbang Gabi, a Filipino Christmas tradition, at the SMM parish. Simbang Gabi (Night Mass) is a 9-day novena of joyful dawn Masses, celebrated leading to Christmas Eve, in honor of the Blessed Mary, Mother of Jesus. Spanish friars introduced Simbang Gabi in the Philippines in 1669. Back then, Masses were held early dawn for farmers to attend before the hot sun rises in the fields. In Chicago, Simbang Gabi Masses are held in deep prayer and songs in 80 churches, decorated with colorful Parol (Christmas Lanterns) usually in the evening, followed by sumptuous reception of Filipino delicacies. Simbang Gabi is a cherished devotion celebrated by 76 million Catholics in the Philippines and the Filipinos living abroad.


Pope Francis is the first pope to celebrate Simbang Gabi on December 16, 2019 at St Peter’s Basilica. In 2021, the Philippines will celebrate the 500th Year of Christianization in the islands. We look forward to a Papal Visit.


Moving to Holy Name Cathedral was a happenstance. On February 4, 2009 there was an early morning fire from the Cathedral’s attic. I saw the flames coming out of its roofs on my way to a meeting. It was shocking. I felt a great sense of loss. Later in the month, the Cathedral Filipino Network (CFN) managed by the late Francisco “Toti” Juan (from 2000 to 2010) organized a fundraiser. My husband and I joined in to “Raise the Roof” at Holy Name through CFN.


Dr. Knight: You seem to really enjoy your position on the Parish Pastoral Council. What sustains and support you?


Grace: "Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received only what you have given: a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice and courage." ~ St. Francis of Assisi. This beautiful quote is a road map for my ministry.


Parish Pastoral Council (PPC) at Holy Name is the lay advisory group to the Rector. Events are organized to encourage full engagement of all parishioners based on surveys and discernment interviews. It is a privilege to serve a vibrant community that is welcoming, compassionate and supportive. These are experiential attributes that fuel my audacious zest to organize, plan and implement the council’s programs and objectives, with robust blessings from the Rector. Our leadership retreats and holiday events foster deeper fellowship with lay leaders from the various commissions and groups. Collaborations are easily developed and sustained.


Dr. Knight: What are the issues in the Chicago Archdioceses that are primary important at this time in the history of the Catholic Church?


Grace: COVID -19 pandemic upended our world. It has deeply impacted our Church, the practice of our faith and our religious community in the history of the Catholic Church. The abrupt cessation of in-person church attendance and services momentarily leave us emotionally shaken as we quickly shift to mostly virtual online services. Yet we are adaptable and resilient in times of challenge and uncertainty. Thus, we had turn to TV Masses; join in livestreaming holy rosary from all parts of the world, and Masses from YouTube. It appears this pandemic crisis had made us stronger with added measure of concern for neighbors. Many of us reach-out to long-lost relatives and friends by phone, FB, PM, Instagram, text messaging and other digital channels. Jack Soriano’s Holy Rosary on YouTube has been viewed by 5-6 million viewers. Zoom meetings abound replete with collaborative online projects to choir performances, to prayer circles and e-distance learning. However, we are hungry for the Eucharist!


Dr. Knight: What are the outstanding aspects of the Filipino network that you have been an administrator of? Tell us about it.


The Cathedral Filipino Network (CFN) was organized in 2000 through the initiative of Father John P. Boivin, Associate Pastor, Staff Liaison and CFN advisor. The late Francisco “Toti” Juan was the founding CFN chair and president, who had served for 10 years. Toti and his founding group of Filipino parishioners introduced parish-wide Simbang Gabi in December, the Feast of Santo Nino in January, annual Lenten Reflection and Memorial Mass in November for deceased CFN member of the year.


Up until 2017, CFN members subsidized all events at Holy Name, provided honorarium to Holy Mass presiders and deacons, hosted receptions, pilgrimages and fundraising events for Holy Name Cathedral Parish. CFN annually fulfills its mission of sharing and celebrating Filipino spiritual traditions at Holy Name. CFN welcomes everyone who appreciates the religious heritage and culture of Filipinos. We have members with ancestry from Brazil, China, Ireland, Mexico, Philippines, Poland, Taiwan and Tibet. CFN adds a rich tapestry of culture and diversity at Holy Name.


I came on board as CFN chair in July 1, 2018 coming from Parish Life Commission (PLC) where my husband and I were co-chairs for the Pasta Dinner in October (Chicago Marathon) and Lenten Fish Dinner.


On May 19, 2019 CFN presented “An Afternoon of Classical Music” in collaboration with FilAm Music Foundation. The concert honored Very Rev. Greg Sakowicz on his 40th Year Ordination Anniversary. CFN fundraising goal was $10,000 with 200 guests, three world-renowned Filipino artists and musicians, performing at the Cathedral auditorium.

The Cathedral Young Adult Board (YAB) also planned a fundraiser for the Rector’s Breakfast in May 2019. At that time, the Cathedral was feverishly working on parking. It was a hot issue. Additionally, both CFN and YAB were informed to hold off event promotions until May 1, 2019 to allocate bulletin space and pulpit announcements for parking only - the hot issue, and for Father Greg’s Anniversary Mass on May 3, 2019.

How can we sell concert tickets when guests do not know where to park? Parking was resolved later. Meantime, we implemented in full force, our communications plan using social media and press releases. Almost every CFN member fulfilled their ticket quotas and added donors’ contributions to the mix.


By May 19, 2019 CFN received a total of $31,900 from ticket sales and donations. Concert attendance was 287. Restricted donation to Holy Name was $20,900.

In October 2018, CFN hosted the first Filipino Breakfast at Holy Name. It was a fundraiser for Thursday suppers at the Catholic Charities. Donors provided the $600 seed money to purchase catered breakfast. Social media, email and press releases helped sold out pre-sale breakfast tickets. Attendance was 143. CFN donated $1,800 for Thursday suppers for the hungry and homeless.


CFN membership grew from 78 members in June 2018 to 140 members as of February 2020, according to our membership chair. In any given Saturday and Sunday Masses at Holy Name, CFN members are serving as Lector, Eucharistic Minister, Commentator, Usher and with the Schola Choir or the Cathedral Filipino Singers.


In times of corona COVID-19, CFN shall creatively re-think our in-person meetings, the annual Hawaiian-theme picnic in the park, CFN Goes Lyric (as in Lyric Opera), Halo-Halo Bar Summer iced desserts, and the quarterly birthday celebration. I’m pretty sure our camaraderie and spirit for service shall continue on a high note at Holy Name.


Dr. Knight: What part of your past ministry has been meaningful to you?


Grace: Serving at Mass such as proclaiming the Word of God and serving the Eucharist to the faithful are most meaningful and rewarding. I prepare and look forward to serving. However, recent changes in volunteer protocol due to pandemic crisis will change all than.


Dr. Knight: Tell us books you enjoy. Any recommendation for readers.


I’m finishing up “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.” by Sherry Turkle. It’s a compelling book on the adverse effects of technology on our culture and our relationship with each other. Turkle writes how the promise of social media will re-acquaint us in finding the lost art of “making meaningful together” and proper face-to-face conversations.


I have an Audible book titled The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. Translation from John Payne. Boccaccio was an influential Italian writer, a humanist, and one of the founders of the Renaissance. Decameron (meaning ten days in Greek) is a compilation of 100 stories told by ten men and women over a ten-day journey fleeing from plague-infested Florence. Audible books are my respite from screen time and eyes strain.

Another book is, “Salt Fat Acid Heat: Mastering the elements of good cooking” by Samin Nosrat. I love to read and re-read chapters as I dream up savory dishes cooked from my kitchen. It’s my comfort book that’s well crafted, visually enjoyable and comprehensive in breadth.


Dr. Knight: How does your work engage the young people?


Grace: We have an influx of young people with genuine desire to serve the parish. Some have trained as Lector and Eucharistic Ministers. Others take on leadership position as chair and vice chair for key CFN parish-wide events. Many have flourishing careers, married with kids, agile and well traveled. Collaboration and teamwork are their high marks. Their professional outlook and skills enabled us to hold well-attended and more orderly events. Simbang Gabi draws in an average of 500 people at the Church and Feast of Santo Nino brings in 280 with participation from 25 young kids offering flowers at the Liturgy. This year our youngest is 1 ½ years old. Her mother carried her over the altar steps clasping a bunch of pink roses.


Dr. Knight: Tell us about your hopes for the future of the Catholic Church?


Grace: Women should be given opportunity to be ordinated as deacons and pivots to priesthood. Protestant churches have many prominent and influential women priests and deacons with focus on family values, safeguards for children and the youth, and the management of church funds.


Dr. Knight: What movies have you enjoyed.


Grace: Parasite is one movie I thoroughly enjoyed last year. It’s a breathtaking comedy thriller and a satire on the lavish, parasitic life of the wealthy and the economic immobility of impoverish family from the slum area. Parasite is the 2019 Academy Awards best picture and best director awards in addition to numerous accolades from prestigious international cinema organizations.


Movies for sheltering-in includes Korean films such as CLOY (Crash Landing On You) Ang Lee’s Sense & Sensibility, Eat Man Drink Woman and Gabriel Axel ‘s Babette’s Feast.


Dr. Knight: Could you share other aspects of your ministry that most don’t know about?


Grace: Prior to my ministry at Holy Name, I have been engaged in comprehensive immigration reforms. My activities include grassroots lobbying in the U. S. Congress, rallies, Iowa caucus, community workshops, advocacy on sanctuary churches, citizenship workshops for legal immigrants, who are applying for U. S. citizenship, GOTV (get out the vote) on presidential elections, and Filipino participation in the Census 2010, a grant I received from the Asian American Institute (now Asian American Advancing Justice.)


Profiles in Catholicism thanks you for this wonderful interview.Your sharing of your faith life will inspire many of our readers.

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