Diverse St Cyril Parish gets bilingual pastor
Arizona Daily Star
March 10, 2008

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By Stephanie Innes

Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/228890

Rhode Island native Ron Oakham, a bilingual Carmelite, is the new pastor of the bustling and ethnically diverse St. Cyril of Alexandria Roman Catholic Church in Midtown.

Oakham was installed over the weekend as the 14th pastor of the church by Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson.

The church, at 4725 E. Pima St., has about 6,000 members and operates a school for 400 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

It has Masses in English, Spanish and Polish, and members include refugees from the Sudan, Burundi and Iraq, among other places.

Oakham, 58, speaks Spanish, which he learned in Guadalajara, Mexico.

He lived in Tucson once before: during the late 1990s, when he was regional superior for the Carmelites in the West. He left to become pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Houston for the last seven years.

The Star visited with Oakham on Friday for this interview:

What are you most looking forward to in leading St. Cyril's?

"Developing a community of communities. I like it when there is a mix of groups working within a parish. I think they enrich each other."

What do you see as the biggest challenge in leading this church?

"How we maintain our own sense of our identity while at the same time being enriched by other cultures. It's a challenge for a church community, because the Catholic Church has always been most attentive and responsive to the immigrant communities. It's always been a place of refuge for them. . . . But the old standard was: You set up separate churches. In a new milieu, we don't separate out. We are one community of different languages and cultures."

Is there anything that makes this church unique?

"While the parish itself has a small community of people who are Polish, it is also the locus for the Polish community in Tucson. They become the base of welcome for a group at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. At the base is a training for pilots of the Polish air force. There's an ongoing group of Polish families living in Tucson. They train for two years, and they become a part of this community. It's an interesting dynamic. They very much contribute to the life of the parish."

You work six days a week your only day off is Thursday. Would you say priests are busier now than they were 10 or 15 years ago?

"We have a few more hats that we wear. . . . There's more to my plate than the parish, and I think that's true for a lot of guys. The one thing I try to say, though, is that you can get into this sort of negativity you know, the declining number of priests and take it as there being something wrong with the church, with faith life, with religion. But we're part of a bigger milieu school districts can't get teachers; hospitals can't get nurses and surgeons; everybody is having trouble because the baby boomer bubble is bursting. It's just exacerbated for us, because you have to be male, unmarried, celibate."

A recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that one-third of Americans who grow up in Catholic homes leave the faith. Does this sound true, and if so, is it something Catholic leaders should be concerned about?

"It sounds true. Concerned about? Yes, in terms of how one responds. But we're in a secular society, and secularism is gaining its strengths. . . . When in the past you could rely on the home society, the civic society and the religious society all sharing the same value system, that has changed."

Has Tucson changed since you last lived here?

"Downtown never seems to change. What I have noticed is the population expansion. . . . I was really happy to be able to come back. The thing I enjoy about Tucson is it's an easy city to get around in. I love the natural beauty and that the city offers a lot of the arts."

● Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or at sinnes@azstarnet.com.

DID YOU KNOW . . .

St. Cyril is one of 75 parishes in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, which comprises about 350,000 Catholics in Southern Arizona. About 27 percent of Tucson's population is Catholic.

St. Cyril's leaders:

St. Cyril's has not had a pastor since 2006, when priests from the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle order the Paulists left after 31 years of ministering there. Their departure was a way for the order to consolidate in the face of a priest shortage.

Since then, the Rev. Fred Tillotson was administrator of the church, in combination with his duties as head of Salpointe Catholic High School. Tillotson had shared ministries with other members of his order.

St. Cyril's new pastor, the Rev. Ron Oakham, is a member of the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance, like Tillotson. Oakham is one of 15 Carmelite priests from his order living and working in Tucson at St. Cyril as well as at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and Salpointe.

His order is not to be confused with members of the Discalced Carmelite Friars, a reform order whose members live and work locally at Santa Cruz and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque Catholic churches.

Helping Oakham to lead St. Cyril will be the Rev. Glenn Snow, a fellow Carmelite who is the church's parochial vicar. Oakham, who has been at St. Cyril since Jan. 1, also has help from the Revs. Ivan Marsh, a retired Carmelite, and Ed Pietrucha, who continues to lead the church's Polish services.