Parish supporters rally around ‘living saint’ they say is being pushed to retire
BY KIM JANSSEN Staff Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org September 26, 2012 8:30PM
Rev. Daniel Mallette, pastor of St. Margaret of Scotland Parish, 9837 S. Troop Street, Wednesday, September 26, 2012 . | John H. White~Sun-Times
Updated: October 29, 2012 6:33AM
He’s a gritty old white Catholic priest who cusses like a sailor, marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King and is hailed as a “living saint” by many in his majority black Southwest Side parish.
But nine months after he was brutally beaten to within an inch of death by burglars, Father Dan Mallette and his supporters say he’s being disrespectfully nudged towards a retirement home — and out of the St. Margaret of Scotland parish where he’s fought violence and poverty for 35 years.
It’s an emotional battle that has the proud but physically frail 80-year-old priest — and supporters including Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart — squaring off against the Archdiocese and the man Cardinal Francis George last month appointed to take over at St. Margaret’s.
Mallette dismisses his successor, Father Bill O’Donnell, as “a genius at being a pain in the ass.”
Both sides say they have Mallette’s safety and best interests at heart. But the conflict has come to a head, with O’Donnell due to be officially installed Sunday as pastor at a service honoring Mallette’s retirement and new title of “Pastor Emeritus,” and the archdiocese ordering Mallette out of his church-owned home on the 9800 block of South Throop by Monday.
The archdiocese says the building is unsafe and needs to be repaired. Mallette must leave the parish for six months so that O’Donnell can establish himself, it insists.
“B-------,” says Mallette, who’s turned down offers to move to homes in Lemont and Lincoln Park, miles from the parish. He claims George previously promised him “You and your dog have a home here at St. Margaret’s for the rest of your life.”
“I love it here and I love the people,” Mallette said.
Battled prejudice and alcoholism
Like Father Michael Pfleger — whose long stay at the nearby St. Sabina’s has caused similar, well-publicized arguments with the cardinal — Mallette has remained in his parish far beyond the 12 years priests are typically allowed.
Appointed in 1977, just as white flight was turning the Longwood Manor neighborhood black, Mallette’s charisma and hard work for decades kept generations of white worshippers coming back from further afield, helping to build one of the city’s most diverse congregations even as Catholic churches in other black areas closed, parishioners say.
With his civil rights background, successful fight with alcoholism and friendships with powerful Southwest Side politicians, boxers and entertainers, Mallette has helped countless troubled youths get their lives on track.
But the violence plaguing their neighborhood was never far away. Gang violence has claimed lives just yards from the church steps, and in 1998 four men were shot inside the church during a fund-raiser.
In 2002, Mallette was attacked by two men who broke into his rectory bedroom as he slept. He fought them off, but wasn’t so lucky last December, when burglars again broke in, leaving him with black eyes and busted ribs.
Though he eventually returned to work and is mentally sharp, Mallette still needs regular medical attention, walks with a cane and is assisted by round-the-clock caregivers. The injuries hastened a search for Mallette’s replacement — a transition that hasn’t gone smoothly.
‘Father Dan needs to let go’
O’Donnell, brought in from Dayton, Ohio, knows he has a tough act to follow. He declined to discuss his dispute with Mallette in detail, but said, “There are very serious issues with his health and his safety. ... The bottom line is that Father Dan needs to let go.”
The pair clashed inside the church within days of O’Donnell’s appointment last month, according to Mallette, who says O’Donnell banned him from offering mass and cut off his phone lines.
Since then, while the rest of the congregation meets at the church next door, a handful of close friends have been attending mass in Mallette’s bedroom every Sunday. That group includes Dart and his family, according to the sheriff’s spokesman Frank Bilecki, who said the sheriff is “upset” at how Mallette is being treated.
“I’ve hardly spoken 10 words with Father Bill since he came,” Mallette said. “What I don’t understand is why he has to be so mean ... he’s a genius at being a pain in the ass.”
‘Not a conventional priest’
Mallette is hardly averse to a fight himself, according to parish council chairman Pat Catania, who laughed when he added, “he has friction with everyone ... that’s one of the reasons we all love him.”
Catania said he’s hopeful that three priests from the Archdiocese who had an unproductive meeting with Mallette on Tuesday can broker a deal. Those priests continue to work for an acceptable solution, Archdiocese spokeswoman Colleen Dolan said. She questioned Mallette’s claim that the Cardinal promised him he could remain at St. Margaret’s, adding “his safety has not been assured there in recent years.”
In the meantime, Mallette’s supporters, including Muhammad Ali’s son-in-law Mike Joyce, are trying to find him housing closer to the church before Monday — a deadline that could theoretically require Dart’s deputies to evict Mallette.
One supporter, Ethel Brown, summed up why many don’t want the veteran priest to leave.
“To send him out is a death sentence,” she said. “I think they don’t understand a saint. He’s not a conventional priest — he’s a street priest. Maybe they’re afraid of the street?”