Prognosticators tell us that young adults, just starting out in the work force, can expect to change not just their jobs but their careers three or four times before retiring. In that regard Audree Catalano, the new pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, has been something of a pioneer.
Catalano has been a Franciscan nun, a teacher, a social worker, a wife and mother, a Cook County deputy sheriff, a bishop’s assistant and a pastor. Throughout all the changes though, her sense of service to God remained constant.
And with each new phase of her life that sensation is something like falling in love with God all over again, Catalano said.
It was Catalano’s grandmother, a first generation immigrant with a heavy Italian accent, who first introduced her to God. She read the lives of the saints and then told her granddaughter the stories. She brought little Audree to Mass every Sunday, sometimes at cathedrals and basilicas, and convinced her daughter and son-in-law to send their daughter to a Catholic school.
“It was seeing God through her eyes and through her heart,” Catalano said. “That’s how I learned about Jesus.”
Catalano fell in love with God a second time through the Franciscan sisters who taught her at St. Benedict’s School near the corner of Oakley and Addison. To her, the nuns were “angelic,” strict disciplinarians who advocated educational excellence. She found herself following them around, asking to be included in tasks like getting the Sunday bulletin ready.
“I fell in love with the Franciscan sisters and fell in love with God through them,” Catalano said. “I was certain at the age of five or six that I was called to work for God in the church.”
Catalano’s parents, however, did not approve of their daughter’s sense of vocation at all, preferring that she get married and give them grandchildren. In fact, as she continued her education at Alvernia High School at the corner of Irving Park and Elston, Ill., the only folks who supported her goal of becoming a sister were her Franciscan teachers.
“It makes me wonder now how I could be so defiant and yet strong in faith that that’s what I was called to do,” Catalano said. “Otherwise I was a fairly compliant child.”
Catalano entered St. Theresa’s College for women in Winona, Minn., where she made the decision to become a postulant on her 18th birthday during her freshman year.
Her parents refused to speak to her for a year because of her decision.
“I think it was a strong faith that if God had planted something that strong, it was my goal to follow God’s will for me,” Catalano said “I wasn’t sure what that would ask of me, but I knew that if I strongly believed in this call, God would give me the grace and the strength to pursue it.”
After a two year novitiate at the mother house of the order in Rochester, Catalano began a career in pre-school and primary teaching that would span a total of 13 years. Once again, she had the experience of being loved by God and that she was on the right track.
After teaching for six years, Catalano’s career in education was interrupted by an assignment to do social work in Charleston, S.C. Those were the post-Vatican II years in the 1960s when nuns and priests were exchanging their habits and clerical garb for civilian clothes, experimenting with non-institutional living and trying to move out into the world.
Again, Catalano felt this was the place God wanted her to be: living simply, serving the poor and meeting God through “these, the least of my brothers and sisters.”
But she became disillusioned by some of the sisters in her group who were not living according to the vision of religious life she had been presented. So, she got in touch with her spiritual director, Father John Jacobs, and scheduled a meeting with him. After a retreat and much prayer, she decided to take a leave of absence and live with her parents in Chicago until she could sort things out.
For two and a half months, Catalano lived in a state of emotional and spiritual turmoil.
“I had taken my religious vows as permanent,” she said. “I had made my vows as a permanent commitment. Taking a leave of absence was terribly frightening to me.”
It was while she was in this slough of despond, that Catalano got a call from Fr. Jacobs. Her former spiritual advisor told her he too, had taken a leave of absence from the priesthood and was living in Chicago. They talked on the phone, went out together, started dating and fell in love.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Catalano said. “Maybe God was calling us to a life together. Were we willing to do something so unknown? I guess love does that to you.”
They went through the long process of petitioning-in Jacob’s case the Vatican-to be released from their vows because they wanted to be married in the Catholic Church. After a year, both petitions were granted and Audree Catalano became Mrs. John Jacobs. Although there were bumps in the road, the first 15 years of marriage were good, and again Catalano said she was where she was supposed to be. Being a wife and mother of three daughters was one more set of relationships in which she experienced God’s love and a way to live out her call.
After 15 years though, the marriage began to deteriorate, and in 1989 a diagnosis of cancer became the occasion for Catalano to make a decision. Believing that negative things in a person’s life can enhance disease, she confronted her husband. The result was a two year separation that ultimately led to a divorce.
It was during this period that a newspaper ad prompted Catalano to visit the sheriff’s office. She perceived him to be a genuinely nice man and before she knew it, was participating in an eight week course at the police academy in Champagne, Ill.
“Even while serving as a deputy sheriff, I still felt a strong ministry in that job,” Catalano said. “I looked at it as a vocation from the work it involved. It was just a new way to serve God.”
Added to the stress of police work was the agony of ending the marriage and her pursuit of a master’s degree in pastoral studies at Loyola. During all of this change, she met a Lutheran pastor in Woodstock, Ill., named John Clark. Clark told her she could be ordained as a pastor in the Lutheran Church.
Catalano again took the risk of paying attention to her heart and following her sense of call. She entered seminary as a newly divorced woman on her sixth career and was ordained in 1997. She served as the pastor of a rural congregation in Minnesota for three and a half years and as an assistant to the ELCA bishop in Rochester for five years before accepting the call to be St. Paul’s pastor.
She led worship for the first time at St. Paul’s on Oct. 1.
“I consider my life a series of falling in love,” she said. “Falling in love with God through my grandmother, through the sisters, the people I worked with and the children I taught. They were all images of God to me.”