All because of God

By Heidi Schlumpf Franciscan friar Bob Lombardo knows whom to thank for his flourishing urban ministry.

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Image: Father Robert Lombardo directs volunteers ready to help with the Mobile Food Pantry, which serves some 250 families on the West Side of Chicago once a month.

Father Robert Lombardo, C.F.R.
is not one to talk much about himself. The 54-year-old priest quietly acknowledges in a few words that his parents still live in Connecticut, that the Ursuline Sisters taught him in grade school, and that he is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.

O.K., maybe he has a few extra things to say about the sorry state of Fighting Irish football.

What Lombardo really likes to talk about is his ministry in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods and the new religious order he is mentoring. But even then he is reluctant to mention much about his role in either of these major accomplishments. Lombardo is clear: It’s not about him.

“This is not my doing; it’s God’s doing,” he says, even eschewing the term “successful” to describe the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. “I prefer to say we have been blessed by God with what is going on here,” he says. “But we have an awful lot of work to do.”

LOMBARDO and some winter-hardy volunteers take a break from hauling the old damaged stove out of the rectory to make way for a new one.
LOMBARDO and some winter-hardy volunteers take a break from hauling the old damaged stove out of the rectory to make way for a new one.
Telling it like it is
He’s done a lot already. In five short years Lombardo has taken several uninhabitable buildings and created a ministry that serves 700 families a month with food, clothing, tutoring, after-school activities, Bible study, and retreats. The church, which had been rented to a Protestant denomination, is nearly renovated and will open soon for 24-hour eucharistic adoration.

Lombardo gives all the credit to the “Notre Dame network” of alumni and friends who provided the funds, to the hundreds of volunteers who help out, and to partnerships with the YMCA and the Greater Chicago Food Depository—and to God, of course.

The Divine also is responsible for the five young women and men who have joined or are in discernment to join the Franciscans of the Eucharist, a new community to which Lombardo serves as an advisor. “I don’t attract anybody,” he says. “God calls them.”

LOMBARDO escorts a guest into a benefit concert to raise funds for the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels.
LOMBARDO escorts a guest into a benefit concert to raise funds for the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels.
His unassuming nature nonetheless garners respect in the predominantly African American neighborhood. Wearing a simple grey Franciscan habit topped with an N.D. windbreaker while hurrying to a Bible study for seniors, Lombardo stops to thank two men who are cleaning up trash from the yard of an abandoned building.

The women of the Bible study likewise appreciate his wisdom, as he explains how Jesus stressed the importance of serving others. “You know this as moms better than anybody,” he says, bifocals perched on the end of his nose so he can read from his Bible.

One woman launches into a story about how a neighbor has used an extension cord to steal electricity from her. When this leads to warnings from others in the circle about “giving too much,” Lombardo gently leads them back to Luke’s gospel. “We have to learn to strengthen one another,” he says, citing Jesus’ words. Heads nod.

Father Bob Lombardo discusses the church’s renovations with a worker.
Father Bob Lombardo discusses the church’s renovations with a worker.
“Father Bob is very authentic,” says Sister Alicia Torres, a novice in the Franciscans of the Eucharist. “He says things exactly as they are. It’s all about the Lord. It’s not about us and what we want to do.”

In the footsteps of Francis
Preaching, living simply, and service to the poor are Lombardo’s goals, ones he adopted from his inspiration, Saint Francis of Assisi. “To Saint Francis, Christianity was not a philosophy but a way of life,” he says. “The bottom line is he actually lived it. He practiced what he preached. And he was known for being very kind.”

Like Saint Francis, Lombardo also traded a life of relative ease for one of service to those with very little. As a senior at Notre Dame, he was working as an R.A. in the dorms, planned to get married, and was preparing for a career in accounting. Then one day he was called to the infirmary because a student from his floor had come down with spinal meningitis. Lombardo was with the young man when he died.

“When something like that happens, it gets you thinking,” he says. What it got Lombardo thinking about was serving the poor as a priest. After two years as an auditor for Price Waterhouse in New York, Lombardo realized the pull toward the priesthood wasn’t going away.

Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., archbishop of Chicago, seated with the members of the Franciscans of the Eucharist. With men’s and women’s sections, this new religious community is part of the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels. Lombardo (standing) has served as an advisor to the young adults who founded the order.
Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., archbishop of Chicago, seated with the members of the Franciscans of the Eucharist. With men’s and women’s sections, this new religious community is part of the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels. Lombardo (standing) has served as an advisor to the young adults who founded the order.
He chose the Capuchin Franciscans because they were “down to earth” and “stable,” he says, and began studies at Maryknoll Seminary. In 1987 Lombardo and seven other Capuchins, including Benedict Groeschel, decided to create their own branch of Franciscans that would continue Saint Francis’ tradition of serving the poor and preaching rather than staffing parishes. The Franciscan Friars (and Sisters) of the Renewal consider themselves part of the “new evangelization” called for by Pope John Paul II.

Present in the city
After his ordination in 1990 Lombardo did missionary work in Bolivia and Honduras with orphaned street kids, organized youth programs on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and directed the Padre Pio Shelter for the Homeless for 18 years.

The rectory patio before and after renovations.In 2006 Lombardo moved to the Midwest at the invitation of Chicago Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., who wanted to maintain a Catholic presence in inner-city neighborhoods where parishes and schools had been closed. This particular school on the West Side was especially important because it was the site of a terrible fire in 1958 that killed 95 students and religious sisters. Our Lady of the Angels Parish closed in 1990; the school is now a public charter school.

Lombardo never thought twice about leaving New York, though he had served in ministry to homeless people there for almost two decades. Such a long-term assignment is rare, he concedes.

Lombardo admits he loves a challenge, but it’s hard to imagine him getting too upset about anything. “I don’t have time to worry; that’s above my pay grade,” he says. “The older you get, the more you realize it’s not my problem, it’s God’s problem.”

Instead, he focuses on the work ahead of him. “I’m here to take care of people in need and to faithfully preach the gospel,” Lombardo says. “When I’m done with that at the end of the day, my head hits the pillow and I sleep well knowing God is in charge.”

Heidi Schlumpf Heidi Schlumpf is an associate professor of communication at Aurora University in the Chicago suburbs and the author of While We Wait: Spiritual and Practical Advice for Those Trying to Adopt (ACTA).



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