A year and a half ago, many members of St. Bernardine Catholic Church in Forest Park were anxious, and maybe even skeptical, about the “arranged marriage” they were entering with St. Luke Catholic Church in River Forest, a union mandated by the Chicago Archdiocese.

Deb Michalak, a St. Bernardine member, was on the committee charged with facilitating the “unification,” as it was called, and remembers how committee members attempted to frame the big change in positive ways, one of which was the creation of a cookbook.

Titled Renew My Kitchen, a take-off on the name of the parish unification process, Renew My Church, this collection of recipes became not only part of the process of creating a new parish but also a metaphor for successful merging.

Michalak, co-chaired the cookbook committee with Sarina Butler, a St. Luke member.  Both were also on the unification committee. 

“The idea of the cookbook began,” Michalak explained, “as we were considering ways to underscore the goal of parish unification by developing engaging activities and projects that involve large numbers of parishioners.” 

Butler added, “Drawing on the parish vision, to which all parishioners had been invited to provide concepts and language, the cookbook and other unification activities focus on building a parish that is ‘Welcoming, Inclusive, Vibrant and Joyful.’”

According to the two co-chairs, the 359 recipes in the collection, expected to become available around Christmas, can serve as a metaphor for how the two formerly separate congregations, each with their own unique identities and traditions, are attempting to become a single unified parish, not just on paper but in reality.  

Right from the start, the two co-chairs, each with experience managing people, worked hard at communication. A website was created, and the call for recipes was made through posters, fliers, the parish newsletter and by announcements made by the priest at the end of each Mass. 

As in a healthy marriage, good communication is vital.

When the committee received only 170 recipes by the deadline of Sept. 30, they extended the deadline. Following the precedent set by the unification committee, if something doesn’t work as expected, figure out why and move to Plan B.

The Catholic Church has the reputation of being a top-down organization, but in the case of the creation of the cookbook, and the unification process in general, an attempt was made to involve everyone.

All members were invited to submit recipes and none, as long as they were written legibly, were rejected. In fact the committee received five recipes for Irish soda bread but all were accepted because each differed slightly.

Rev. Stan Kuca, who was named pastor of the new St. Luke and St. Bernardine Parish, was involved in the whole process. He didn’t just delegate the task to the committee but received briefings from them and responded where appropriate.

“Feisty” might be too strong a word for Butler, Michalak and the other committee members, but they definitely asserted themselves in an organization that still places a great deal of authority in ordained leaders.

For example, in Oak Park the two newly combined parishes were told that in picking a name for the new arrangement, they could not use the names of the predecessor parishes.

Michalak, Butler and other committee members, however, begged to differ with that direction from on high, and with carefully worded and respectful but at the same time assertive language, they gave notice to those at the top of the hierarchy that they wanted to respect the heritage and independent identities of the two churches by naming the new parish St. Luke and St. Bernardine.

What made it work, according to Michalak and Butler, is that the bishop and Cardinal not only listened but granted the request and even held up the new union as an “exemplar” to the other parishes going through the same process.

Butler said that in the Italian culture she comes from, food is central to the life of a family, not only for the sake of nutrition but as an occasion for maintaining relationships, so it makes sense to her that a cookbook would be a key element in the process of unification in a church where the focal point of the liturgy is on a meal of bread and wine called the Eucharist.

“We don’t fight it,” said Butler to explain why the unification leaders resist forcing uniformity. “If you have been worshipping at a particular location, we’re not asking you to give that up. Go where you are comfortable, but in your head, understand that as of last year you are in the St. Luke and St. Bernardine Parish no matter which building you attend Mass in.”  

Cookbooks are like that. No one expects you to try all 359 recipes. There are choices.

“Publishing this cookbook,” Butler and Michalak concluded, “is a single action that supports the larger strategy of helping parishioners realize that the act of sharing and the relationships that grow from doing so is fundamental to sustaining our unified parish. While all who worked on this project enjoyed the experience, everyone understood that the larger purpose was directly linked to helping build a solid foundation for our new parish culture.”