An Interview with Pam McDonough

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism


Dr. Knight: Could you tell us about your background, how your family is so much a part of that background?


Pam: I grew up in a Catholic family with five kids on the Northwest side of Chicago. We all went to Catholic grammar school and high school. Both of my parents went to DePaul undergrad and my dad went to DePaulLaw School. My older brother went to DePaul also, but my sister and I went to Loyola, me for two years and she only went for one year. My children went to Catholic grammar and high schools in Springfield.


Dad went to church every day in downtown Chicago and the family went to mass on Sundays. My dad was an usher and my mom kept the rest of us in line during the service. This family tradition included going to breakfast/lunch after mass. We always said grace before dinner.


My older brother is five years older than me but the rest of us are between 13 and 22 months apart, so we’re pretty close. I moved away from home when I got married but it has always been important for me to stay connected to my siblings and parents. That also extends to my nieces and nephews.

My dad died in 1989, but for the most part we have kept our social meals as part of our family connection. Until the past few years, when my mom went to a Memory Care facility, we tried to meet at least once every weekend for lunch and whoever was around just showed up. We all made weekly visits to the Memory Care facility and spent some meals with mom until Covid. She hung on until right after her 98th birthday last year. As one of her physical therapists said, “the don’t make them like these 90+ women! They are tough.” She was truly the rock of our family and I think that kept us all connected to each other and still does. We continue the tradition without her but keeping my siblings in my life keeps me sane and lets me feel love.


And the best family connection is not only my children but my grandchildren. They embody the joy and love that raises me up.


Dr. Knight: You have been involved in the Catholic Church in many ways. What stands out for you as meaningful?

Pam: I went to 14 years of Catholic education. I felt that in addition to a spiritual connection, my education truly gave me the foundation for my life. After many years living out of town, when I moved back to Chicago I felt the need to give back to my old high school. It was an all girls school and I met most of my lifelong friends during those four years. It was a very positive experience for me. With some of my disappointment in some of the things going on with the Church, I thought that connecting to my old school and contributing was a good way to rekindle that positive feeling. I spent 6 years in that role, during some very difficult times for the school and its brother school on the same campus. Enrollment was down and finances weren’t great. The process by which the boys school closed was sad. The Holy Cross Brothers decided in April of the school year that they weren’t funding the school anymore so Mother Guerin became a co-ed school. Lots of hard feelings and difficult leadership changes.


Dr. Knight: You seem to have a great love for the future Church and the best way to direct people what would be a meaningful direction? Could you tell us about that?

Pam: The future of the Church depends on a great deal of listening and frankly apologizing for some of the many sins of the past stealing the childhoods of so many. The Catholic Church is one of the oldest political organizations in modern history and as such there seems to be a challenge in making any significant change. The teachings and actions of Jesus were not conditioned on an “institution” but rather on the belief that all were welcome. Jesus did not discriminate and helped the lowest as well as challenging the highest. Until the Church embraces all people, respects them and accepts who they are, we will not achieve the message of love Jesus taught. I believe that Pope Francis has attempted to move us closer to the message of love and acceptance but he has had to retreat somewhat which is sad and likely due to the need for consensus of those around him.


Additionally, for centuries the church has disenfranchised women and their role in the church. This too needs new eyes and action.


Dr. Knight: As a woman involved in business how do you bring your faith to your work place?

Pam: The best way to bring my faith and spirituality to my workplace is to respect everyone around me. Never ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t do. Bring a sense of fairness and openness to the daily routine. Praise people often and show appreciation. The Golden Rule is probably the best guide for these actions.


Dr. Knight: Do societal changes effect/affect what your faith means to you?

Pam: Yes they do. The Church has spent a great deal of time disenfranchising various groups, women, divorcees, LGBTQ community – all God’s children. When people do not feel welcome, they leave those places behind. It’s time to include everyone in our message and actions.


Dr. Knight: In what ways do you try to focus on bringing your deep faith or spirituality to all?

Pam: One person, one day at a time. I find that I have been very good at helping people through tough times – divorce, family conflicts, friction/harassment in the workplace by being there for them. I can’t physically bring my help to all, but I can help people that are troubled get through their tough spots.


Dr. Knight: How is the Catholic Church helping young people to stay connected to Christ and His Church?


Pam: The opportunity for the Catholic Church is to create a safe sense of community to appeal to our young people. It does seem to me that the Catholic Church is getting out of the education business. Controversy, diversion of assets for lawsuits and a financially unsound business model has been a problem. In the beginning, the teachers at Catholic schools were mostly nuns, who were required to take the vow of poverty and therefore worked for free as teachers. The lack of new novices becoming nuns severely reduced the number of “free” teachers and the business model had to change. Even with that the salaries for non-religious are extremely low compared to public school salaries.


So unfortunately, the infrastructure to create this community for young people has eroded. But it can exist. Old St. Pat’s is a business model that has worked and grown while others fail. They have a sense of an ecumenical approach and connect their community through education, networking and creating communities of interest. It has become a destination for Catholics near and far. Others should follow this model.


Dr. Knight: Do you think that the focus of our worship should be on the Word and the Eucharist? As well as on Evangelization?


Pam: I think our focus should be on the Word and spreading kindness and love. Growth will occur if people feel wanted, noticed and loved. Proactively evangelizing to me is not the answer.


Dr. Knight: What seems to be the hardest aspect of raising a family in light of your faith?


Pam: My kids are adults, but they grew up going to Catholic grammar and high schools. Friendships they have from those times stay with them today. I believe that one of the most effective programs my kids participated in was the Kairos retreat. It was a highly emotional and beautiful experience. Having letters sent to them from family and friends supporting them and sharing their love is with them today. My younger daughter was a leader of Kairos in her senior year and both my daughters are very spiritual people.


Dr. Knight: What are the most difficult responsibilities you have had In your work? What are some of the most pleasant responsibilities?


Pam: Some of my most difficult responsibilities were also some of the most rewarding. As the first female head of economic development for Illinois there were lots of challenges and opportunities. Luckily, I had spent most of my career in the Legislative and Government Relations area so knowing how to get things done was not a problem. The breath of issues I needed to understand and connect to economic development was vast. Fortunately again, I had done two tours in the Governor’s legislative office, one tour in the legislature and tours in several state agencies, owned two lobbying firms and was a lobbyist for the Illinois Bankers Association. So in four years I was able to move Illinois from 6th place nationally to first place in the last two years of my position. The two most complicated projects we got done were attracting Boeing’s national headquarters to Illinois and converting the former Joliet Arsenal into the country’s largest intermodal facility. In both cases it was necessary to finesse relations with multiple state, local and federal agencies, passing legislation and project appropriations and dealing with lots of political egos. Luckily the Governor trusted me as I had no personal agenda and he supported my negotiation skills.


I always tell women, if you aren’t worried about getting credit for what you do, you can accomplish great things. In that vein, I spend my career perfecting the bank shot – getting other people to think that what you want done is their idea! On the successful Boeing corporate relocation there were many fathers as is true for most successful enterprises. As they say failure is an orphan. For me, I knew who choreographed this successful business deal and that was enough for me.


Dr. Knight: What mantra do you have about your Church that you would like people to remember?

Pam: I guess my mantra is show respect, love widely and offer comfort to those in need.


Dr. Knight: What other issues would you like to bring up in regard to being a woman in a male world today?


Pam: I have spent the last 30+ years advocating for inclusion of women and minorities in construction (a very male dominated field). Unfortunately, even though we have made some progress, it seems like we are “Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill only to have it fall and we have to start all over again. I am hopeful that some of the dialogue around BLM and anti-hate efforts, people will finally listen and create more competitive and inclusive approaches for success for women and any disenfranchised groups.