St. Margaret Mary Parish members stand by one another
Seven years ago LesLee Hacker was distraught. Her daughter Lauren had just been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Having worked in a hospital’s pathology department, she knew the seriousness of the often fatal disease.
She knew she had to be there for Lauren, but who then would help care for the rest of her family?
That’s when her parish, St. Margaret Mary in Omaha, stepped in. Through the support of countless parishioners helping in many ways, she and her family found the strength to endure their difficult journey through surgeries, treatments, relapse and finally, remission.
As St. Margaret Mary celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, Hacker and other parishioners reflected on their relationship with the parish, and why it has played such an important role in so many lives over its century of faith.
Hacker and her family first joined the parish in 1999. Her husband Phil’s military assignment took them away, but when he retired from the military in 2003, they returned.
“We decided to come back to raise our kids in the parish,” she said. “We kept feeling pulled in toward it.”
And that proved providential, as the Hackers experienced the loving, embracing spirit of St. Margaret Mary during Lauren’s years long battle with her disease.
TO THE RESCUE
Through two long bouts of the disease, the parish rallied for them. Lauren’s classmates at the parish school used a stuffed monkey, called Lolo, Lauren’s nickname, to save her seat in the classroom while she was hospitalized.
In January of 2013, Hacker looked down from the sixth floor of Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, where Lauren was undergoing treatment, to see those same children making snow angels for her on the ground outside the hospital.
When Lauren’s cancer returned again in 2016, about 200 parish members came to stand outside the hospital and pray the rosary.
“I don’t know how I’d have survived without that support,” Hacker said. “We had no family here at that time. Two families took my son in, fed him, got him to school when I couldn’t leave my daughter’s side. The entire parish prayed and sent messages of support. All these little kids knew to ‘pray for Lolo,’ and Lauren was able to recover.”
Today, Lauren is in remission and a senior at Marian High School.
“In a nutshell,” Hacker said, “I love this parish so much.”
Parishioners celebrated that love and the parish’s history during several anniversary events during 2019, including a Mass with Archbishop George J. Lucas followed by a dinner and dance Sept. 21 and a parish festival Sept. 22.
“It’s a wonderful faith family,” said Father Gregory Baxter, St. Margaret Mary pastor for 13 years and now pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Gretna.
“There’s a wonderful family atmosphere for myself and all those who are part of the parish, whether they are young or some of our older parishioners.”
Madeline Begley has been a member of St. Margaret Mary for almost her entire life, moving with her family to the parish 83 years ago. She attended grade school there, baptized her children there, held funeral services for family members there.
And like the Hackers, she too has seen the parish coalesce in a time of hardship to support its own.
“I lost a brother when I was 14,” she said. “The arms you feel embracing you at times like that are always there. For me, the people of St. Margaret Mary are the nicest, best people.”
Unofficial parish historian Nick Manhart, who just completed a book on the parish, pointed to a succession of committed, caring leaders who first built and then grew the parish community.
“There have been only seven pastors in the parish’s 100 years, and these were dedicated priests,” he said. “They all took their vocation seriously.”
Begley still remembers Father Joseph Suneg, the pastor whose 46-year tenure at St. Margaret Mary, in Manhart’s words, established “the permanent footprint of the parish.”
“Father Suneg was a very unique and inspired priest,” she said. “He gave many subtle messages for life.”
“It’s been a blessed parish, and a lot of that was Father Suneg – his mannerisms, his ways,” she said. “People wanted to do a lot (for the parish). He asked, and he received – and he never really had to ask.”
Asked to pinpoint other things that have kept the parish vibrant for 100 years, Manhart offered several thoughts.
“Part of the reason is that the school is thriving, so families join the parish to send children to school,” he said, calling the school the lifeblood of the parish. “It’s always bringing in new, young families.
“But also, there is a nice blend of young families and older parishioners, who may have raised their children and stay in the parish. I think St. Margaret Mary is somewhat unique in that there are many people in the parish who are second-, third- and maybe even fourth-generation parishioners – even if someone was a kid in
the parish and moved away, they will come back to raise their own kids in the parish.”
“I’ve seen a lot of good times, certainly, wonderful times,” Begley said. “And there are always new people coming along and different people getting involved.”
Like Hacker, whose family created “Lolo’s Angels,” a nonprofit dedicated to raising funds for research to fight acute myeloid leukemia. The group has raised more than $90,000, sponsors blood and bone marrow drives, raises awareness for pediatric cancer, and serves kids and families through their cancer journey.
Begley said, “St. Margaret Mary is a comforting place, a good place, and a great example of ‘doing.’
“There’s not a lot of ‘sit back,’’ she added. “You do.”
Assistant editor Mike May contributed to this report.