By Gordon Nary
Gordon: What major did you have when you attended the University of Notre Dame?
Nick: I majored in Business Administration with a concentration in Finance.
Gordon: What were some of your favorite courses?
Nick: My favorite classes were during freshman year before I took any business courses. Most of those classes were humanities oriented. I remember the introduction to Philosophy class especially where the professor, Dr. Tom Morris, was able to make philosophy humorous, a real challenge for college freshman who don’t tend to think very much about life’s big questions.
Gordon: You were on Notre Dame's water polo team. Do you remember how many matches your team won?
Nick: I don’t remember how many matches we won, but Water Polo at Notre Dame wasn’t a varsity sport but only a club. There was a budget for it that we were able to use to go on road trips and participate in weekend tournaments at other schools in the Midwest. It was just as much a social experience as a competitive one. My serious days of playing Water Polo were in high school. But, I had fun playing at ND.
Gordon: When did you join Holy Name Parish and what features of Holy Name do your find most rewarding?
Nick: I've been a member of Holy Name Cathedral parish for over 10 years, ever since I moved to downtown Chicago from the suburbs. I appreciate the diversity of parishioners at Holy Name who come from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds. Also, I appreciate the ministry of the fine priests and lay ministers who serve at Holy Name.
Gordon: You have also been involved with Assumption Church through the River North Knights of Columbus. When did you you join the Mother Cabrini River North Knights of Columbus and become involved with Assumption?
Nick: I joined the Knights of Columbus in 2010 which is when I first got involved and active with Assumption.
Gordon: What are some of the features of Assumption Church that you appreciate the most?
Nick: Assumption is an architectural wonder and very pleasing to the eye! I love the stained glass windows and the beautiful relief of the Last Supper behind the altar. You don’t get lost or feel too small in Assumption because it’s not a huge, cavernous structure. Also, I appreciate the ministry and devotion to Christ exemplified by the Pastor, Fr. Joe Chamblain and the Emeritus Pastor, Fr. Michael Doyle.
Gordon: Could you give us some background on the Mother Cabrini River North Knights of Columbus?
Nick: Mother Cabrini River North Council was founded in December of 2010 by a core group of about 30 men. .
Gordon: What parishes does the Council serve?
Nick: Mother Cabrini River North is a relatively new council and, to date, has only served Assumption parish. But, we are chartered to reach out to other parishes in the area.
Gordon: Some may not know what a significant chartable organization the Knights of Columbus are. It has been praised by many of the popes including Pope Francis. Mother Cabrini River North Knights of Columbus have supported several local charities including the Archdiocese of Chicago's SPRED Ministry Please tell us why SPRED is such an important ministry.
Nick: SPRED stands for Special Religious Education. Our council supports the Archdiocese of Chicago branch of SPRED, which is dedicated to catechesis for those with intellectual and learning disabilities. The Knights of Columbus are very dedicated to serving this special group of the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters (Mt. 25:40). We raised the funds for SPRED during our annual “Tootsie Roll” drives, which take place on the 3rd weekend in September. After our drives in 2012 and 2013, I invited Sr. Suzanne Gallagher of SPRED to Assumption Parish where I presented a check to her after Mass in the amount of funds received. It was a privilege to do so as Grand Knight.
Gordon: Could you tell us why the Knights of Columbus have been so supporting of the McGivney Center of Hope and Healing
Nick: Our council has conducted 3 baby bottle collection programs for the McGivney Center of Hope and Healing, one during each of the last 3 Lenten seasons. The main beneficiary of the McGivney Center (a Knights operated charity) is the Well of Mercy, an independent transitional home on the north side of Chicago for single mothers who chose to give birth in challenging circumstances. Our council and Assumption parishioners have generously contributed to the well being of these mothers and their children. It is a great ministry in Christ’s local Church and we are blessed to be a part of it and help in our own small way. I’ve been to the Well of Mercy several times, including last Christmas. Our Council sponsored a “Night with Santa” for the kids. One of our Knights, Mike Kress, played Santa and the kids had a blast. It was a memorable event. Nick: Our council has conducted 3 baby bottle collection programs for the McGivney Center of Hope and Healing, one during each of the last 3 Lenten seasons. The main beneficiary of the McGivney Center (a Knights operated charity) is the Well of Mercy, an independent transitional home on the north side of Chicago for single mothers who chose to give birth in challenging circumstances. Our council and Assumption parishioners have generously contributed to the well being of these mothers and their children. It is a great ministry in Christ’s local Church and we are blessed to be a part of it and help in our own small way. I’ve been to the Well of Mercy several times, including last Christmas. Our Council sponsored a “Night with Santa” for the kids. One of our Knights, Mike Kress, played Santa and the kids had a blast. It was a memorable event.
Gordon: When did you first learn about the important services of the Well of Mercy?
Nick: I believe it was 3 years ago when representatives for the McGivney Center told us about the Well of Mercy. Then, one of our council members, Michael Kress, went and visited the Well and was very impressed with the mission of the director, Mary Zeien, who put most of her life savings into this ministry for vulnerable new mothers and their children. Michael has been the leader in all our council’s efforts on behalf of Well of Mercy. Mary Zeien is a true inspiration and is doing the Lord’s work at the Well of Mercy.
Gordon: Your personal mission to help the orphans and widows in Nigeria and Cameroon though your organization Home To Enhance African Life (HEAL) is very inspiring. Can you explain why you formed this organization?
Nick: I formed HEAL with my counterpart, Rev. Leo Okonkwo, a Nigerian friend of mine since 1998, when we were seminary classmates together for a year. In the fall of 2013, Rev. Leo visited me in Chicago because the Nigerian government was threatening his mission of educating orphans and legally advocating for widows. He conducted classes for the children in livestock pens in a flimsy thatched roof structure supported by bamboo poles. Rather than offering him help, the government threatened that his mission would be over unless he built a new school. During his visit with me, I introduced him to many people in my circles and we decided to found a not for profit organization to support the work of his mission abroad. HEAL was born in 2013. We built the new school in February of 2014 and have completed several successful projects since then to advance our mission.
Gordon: What are the principal causes of these children losing their parents?
Nick: Some of the children have lost their parents to fatal diseases like AIDS, Malaria, and Cholera, which are easily contracted in rural areas due to poor sanitation and contaminated water. Also, some have lost parents in terrorist attacks by the Islamic group, Boko Haram, which has been wreaking havoc in Northern Nigeria since 2009. Our home has taken in these children as refugees from northern villages that were attacked. Finally, some children have only lost their father and are not true orphans. However, these children, along with their mothers, have been abandoned and pushed out by their fathers’ families and left with nothing. The Compassionate Home has taken in these children with their widowed mothers.
Gordon: African orphans are faced with the challenges of homelessness, sexual abuse, slavery, lack of access to education, increased risks of diseases, etc. How has Home To Enhance African Life (HEAL) addressed these challenges?
Nick: HEAL addresses these challenges by giving orphans and widows both a home and a family, comprised of our religious missionaries, who have dedicated their lives to following Christ. They experience God’s love through daily Mass, prayer, and song in the context of their heritage and culture. We educate the orphans both in the classroom and with practical agricultural skills, including raising livestock and planting crops. For the widows, we advocate for their rights to the property stolen from them by their in-laws. HEAL is a mission of empowerment and hope for the weakest and most marginalized of society in our part of West Africa.
Nick: We assist over 150 children and widows in Nigeria and about 100 children in Cameroon.
Gordon: When you visited the Mission in Nigeria in 2014, your parents were very concerned about the dangers of the trip. Could you explain why?
Nick: Yes. Nigeria has been in the news over the last 5 years due to the terrorist atrocities of Boko Haram in the northern areas. When I drove to my parent’s house on March 1st, 2014 to drop off my car before they took me to the airport, they tried to convince me not to go. I remember how my dad, in an effort to scare me, read out loud an article from the Chicago Tribune about an attack that had taken place in Abuja, Nigeria. My mom looked at me and said, “That’s why I don’t want you to go”! I had to reassure them that I was traveling to the south of Nigeria, which was far removed from the terrorist action and that there were no current travel warnings by the State Department to deter visitors to Nigeria. Still, I understood their concerns, which I also shared. That said, I had to go and see the mission for myself in order to be a credible spokesman for it back here!
Gordon: More and more people are urging everyone supporting the pro-life movement to also support assistance for orphans and other vulnerable children since we need to protect all life from the moment of conception until death. In your opinion, why hasn't the multiple challenges of orphanhood received more attention by the pro-life movement?
Nick: That’s hard to say. I think the need always outpaces the “supply” in any dimension of pro-life ministry. Whatever the cause of inattention, it is my responsibility to draw more attention to the plight of widows and orphans, particularly the ones in our care in Nigeria and Cameroon. I’ve gotten to know many of them personally during my trip to Nigeria last spring. Once you get to know the widows and orphans as persons instead of abstractions, then the motivation to assist comes naturally and, even, supernaturally because this is truly God’s mission. The care of widows and orphans is stressed in Scripture which says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (Jas.1:27).
Gordon: What Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago have agreed to invite you to promote support for Home To Enhance African Life?
Nick: This past August, we completed mission appeals at four Archdiocese of Chicago parishes: St. Peter Damien in Bartlett, St. Norbert and Our Lady of the Brook in Northbrook, and St. Paul Chong Ha Sang in Des Plaines. We are very grateful to the Archdiocese of Chicago Mission Office for giving HEAL the opportunity to appeal in these parishes. Rev. Leo Okonkwo preached the homily at every Mass at each parish over the four weekends. Many people sensed the Holy Spirit in Rev. Leo’s preaching, in which he told his life story as it relates to his current mission work
Gordon: When Christ commanded us to "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven", you may have followed his request through establishing Home To Enhance African Life. I hope that every church in every diocese throughout the world may help promote your work to their parishioners and encourage them to make a donation to your important work, I also encourage everyone to subscribe to the Home To Enhance African Life newsletter.