Father Matt O’Donnell (Class of 2012) has been named as the winner of the 2018 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award, sponsored by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the anti-poverty program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“The Catholic Campaign for Human Development has been an important part of my life since 2005 when I served as the CCHD intern for the Archdiocese of Chicago. I recall visiting housing projects with Cardinal Francis George, sitting with residents at kitchen tables and listening to their stories. I remember reviewing grant applications and visiting community organizations committed to justice. I was inspired to be a part of a cohort of other young Catholics who desired to spread the message and work of CCHD as interns, and It was during my time as a CCHD intern that I discerned my vocation to the priesthood,” said Father Matt.
As a seminarian at Mundelein, Father Matt was a part of the Peace and Justice/Gospel of Life Apostolate, which exists to spread the Good News of God’s love for all mankind by promoting human life in all stages, especially for the most vulnerable, poor, and marginalized. He also volunteered with Kolbe House Jail Ministry, spending time visiting the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. His dedication to the poor as a seminarian even took him to the Archdiocese of Jos in Nigeria, where he lived for one month with the Our Lady of Apostle Sisters in the village of Zawan, volunteering at the orphanage and hospital there.
Currently, Father Matt serves as pastor of St. Columbanus Parish on the South Side of Chicago. He has helped the parish food pantry become the one of the city’s largest, distributing 2.5 million pounds of food to neighbors, and implemented numerous efforts to address the systemic causes of poverty.
“At St. Columbanus, Fr. Matt O’Donnell has built a living example of Pope Francis’ vision of a field hospital church that exists to serve humankind and spread the Gospel of a loving God. By his caring presence, his limitless energy for good works and his compassionate ministry, he has made St. Columbanus a beacon of hope in its community and an example of faith in action far beyond its borders,” said Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago.
The newly-created parish Community Service Center offers GED prep, employment readiness, job and hospitality training, and career counseling. With the help of a CCHD grant, the center will also be opening a café (which they plan to name “Holy Grounds”), that will be a place of hospitality used for community meetings and programming.
Father Matt also works to counter neighborhood violence through parish efforts to console loved ones and lead prayers for peace after local shootings, and by regularly hosting events at the parish that bring together community members and law enforcement officers.
“We know all too well the stories of our people who experience the pain and trauma from domestic violence, economic disparities, racism, unemployment and underemployment, underperforming school systems, lack of affordable housing, and the increasing hostility to the sacredness of life. The life and story of each victim of violence in our country is far more than the act of violence that either harmed them or ended their life. They are men, women, and children that come from every part of our country. They are our parishioners and neighbors, they are the people that come from our dioceses and communities, they are the ones entrusted to our pastoral care,” Father Matt said during his acceptance remarks.
Many current and former Auxiliary Bishops of Chicago – Bishop Joseph Perry, Bishop Francis Kane, Bishop Alberto Rojas, Bishop Placido Rodriguez, and Bishop George Rassas – were present as Father Matt accepted his award and thanked them for their support. Some fellow Mundelein alumni were also in attendance to congratulate their brother priest, including Father Francis Bitterman (St. Josaphat Parish), Father Lou Tylka (St. Julie Billiart), and Father Brad Zamora (Director of Liturgy for Mundelein).
Father Matt concluded his remarks by saying, “I believe that a Gospel commitment to the poor can only come from authentic encounters with the poor. Such encounters require our presence and commitment to remain present with those who are hurting… There are so many in the dioceses across our country who work tirelessly to show that every human person is created in the image and likeness of God. It is when we work together, following faithfully the call to holiness that God places upon each of our lives, that we have the power to eradicate injustice and build the Beloved Community that God desires us to be…May we all be reminded that sowing peace all around us is holiness.”