One of the first things Father Tom May needed to learn when saying Mass at St. Mary Church in Riverside was that he didn’t need to shout.
Coming from St. John Brebeuf Parish in Niles, May was used to a congregation larger than the entire village of Riverside and Masses with hundreds of people worshipping. The scale is a little smaller at St. Mary’s.
“I was used to a big church and used to talking louder and slowly,” said May. “But St. Mary’s is a wonderful church to say Mass in. It’s a very intimate setting where you can make eye contact. Participation is very good; they pray well together.”
Intimacy, or at least those kinds of personal connections, appear important to May, who took over as pastor at St. Mary on July 1 after 13 years as the pastor of St. John Brebeuf in northwest suburban Niles.
Asked how he would be described by his former parishioners, May said, “I hope I would be considered collaborative. I would hope they would say I listened, was collaborative and made decisions that were good for the parish.”
May comes to the parish following the departure of Monsignor R. George Sarauskas, who was pastor of St. Mary for seven years. Sarauskas did not have a reputation in the parish as being particularly collaborative, and his last couple of years here were marked by some degree of controversy.
Starting in 2007, Sarauskas led a failed effort to build a new rectory for priests at the parish. Sarauskas did not live in the rectory, choosing a condo elsewhere in the village. His predecessor, Father Jerry Gunderson, also lived off campus in a condo.
As a result, it probably comes across as some measure of good will that May has chosen to live in the St. Mary rectory, a modern brick split-level across the street from the church.
“It was a conscious decision on my part to live here,” said May during an interview in the rectory’s large first-floor living room. “It wasn’t a big deal to me. I’m used to it, love it. I’m always engaged with the company around here. I find it to be a pleasant experience.”
May knows about and understands the hullabaloo over the proposed new rectory, and said he doesn’t have plans to move forward with them.
“There were a lot of hurt feelings, and there needs to be time to heal,” May said. “I have no plans to build a new rectory. There’s time to see what the community wants to do in the future.”
May was ordained a priest in 1983. He grew up in Divine Savior Parish in Norridge, the second oldest of five kids. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and attended DePaul University, where he got a degree in business management and embarked on a career in the newspaper business in the circulation department of the Chicago Tribune.
But after a year, he acted on a calling that had been forming for some years and joined the seminary.
“It was hard in that it was unexpected by a lot of people; even my family was surprised that I made the change,” May said.
In 1983, he said his first Mass at Divine Savior.
“It was an emotional moment,” May said. “Looking back, it was very affirming, a good experience, kind of a coming home.”
After stints at St. Benjamin and St. Priscilla on Chicago’s North Side, May spent three years on the South Side in Beverly at St. John Fisher before being named pastor at St. John Brebeuf in Niles.
The Niles parish had a large Polish population and held two Polish Masses each week. The tension between the newer Polish parishioners and the older English-speaking congregation was something May learned to navigate.
“I was surprised about that,” May said. “Ultimately it’s the language.”
While St. Mary doesn’t have that overt division within its congregation, the parish and school populations are diverse. May said he wants the parish to be welcoming of everyone.
“I got a warm welcome,” he said. “I’m hoping to be welcoming to people and responsive to their needs as pastor.”