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April 26, 2009

Music, theater and his life as a miracle play

By Dolores Madlener

STAFF WRITER

Interviewee

Father Kenneth Baker, associate pastor, St. John of the Cross, Western Springs, trained as an actor in college.Catholic New World/Brian J. Morowczynski

He is: Father Kenneth Baker, associate pastor at St. John of the Cross Parish, Western Springs. Ordained 1984, St. Mary of the Lake Seminary.

Home life: He has a younger sister. Dad worked for B.F. Goodrich for 25 years. Father purchased one of the stores and operated it as a dealership. After retirement, he became business manager at St. Clotilde for 14 years. Mom clerked for Chicago Public Schools for 39 years.

St. Clotilde Parish: “We had great priests: Msgr. Dan Cantwell was pastor, Father (now Bishop) Jerry Kicanas; and Fathers Jack Wall and Paul Burak were deacons there. I think of Msgr. Cantwell at every sprinkling rite. I was serving his Easter Mass once. As we left the altar, he handed me the holy water bucket and said, ‘Let’s go and get these Easter clothes wet!’ I’m the same way, ‘That’s the element, and let’s use it!’”

Friendships: “Many lifelong. A group of moms were close and started a club called the Merry Makers. They also took us kids to activities like the ‘Nutcracker’ ballet.”

Let me entertain you: “My grandmother was a piano teacher. I took lessons and I always sang. At six or seven I was doing plays in the backyard, rounding up all the kids and charging admission. The swing set was the proscenium arch for the stage with a blanket for a curtain. My mom would make Kool-Aid. In fifth or sixth grade I started thinking of being a priest.”

Education: After Quigley South he attended Loyola University. “Probably by the end of the first semester I thought it was time to go to Niles Seminary.” But he stuck by his choice to take a full year to decide. “I was a theater major. During my second semester I applied at Niles without saying anything to my folks until I’d been accepted.” He transferred sophomore year, majored in speech communications, minored in theater and philosophy.

Exit stage right: “My class was the first ordained to both the diaconate and the priesthood by Cardinal Bernardin. He got to know us. After I was ordained six years, I took a leave from active ministry for six months and it lasted more than seven years. During that time I became a professional actor. One day it became crystal clear that it was time to come back, and I returned.” It is a story he doesn’t mind telling.

Then enter stage left: He was ending a theater job in Michigan when he heard the cardinal’s cancer had returned. “I was so sad. It was Labor Day weekend. I was coming back to Chicago. I bought him a Christmas ornament, planning to leave it at the residence with a note. A nun insisted I come in.” He did.

“The cardinal said, ‘I suppose you’ve heard my news. I’m OK. I’ve accepted this as my friend. Sister told me you have a gift for me. What is it?’ I had no idea he loved Christmas ornaments. He said, ‘Let’s go in and say Mass. I pray for you often, but now I’m going to pray for you in a special way that the Lord will show you where you should be.’ We celebrated Mass.”

Reprise: “Just before his funeral, a friend invited me to the prayer service with all the priests of the archdiocese. I sat in the last row. It was the first time I realized how I missed this body.” About a year later, he met with then-just arrived Archbishop George to have paperwork signed to return to ministry. Their meeting took place in a little parlor at the residence, “with a portrait of Cardinal Bernardin looking down at me. I thought, ‘I guess you got what you prayed for.’” That was 12 years ago.

Theater: He was interim director of theater at Niles College after ordination for several years. He has directed shows at every parish assignment. He has staged opera concerts and directed a friend’s Carnegie Hall concert debut. “Those concerts and ‘Padres Plus on Parade’ [see story on Page 12] require more of my coordination at a computer than anything else. My rehearsal time is minimal, which is the only way I’m really able to do them.”

Scripture verse: “I have a lot of favorites. I love John’s Gospel from top to bottom.”