An Irish priest who attended the bedsides of the injured and comforted the families of those killed in the Berkeley balcony tragedy last year has been commended for the “loving, welcoming community” he has built around his church.
Aidan McAleenan, 53, moved to St. Columba Catholic Church in Oakland in August 2008. Ever since he has worked to create a home within his church for his mostly African-American congregation.
Taking inspiration from a local Irish church that celebrates the culture of its community, McAleenan redecorated St. Columba to reflect the history of those who walk through its doors. When he learned he had been assigned to St Columba he signed up for a summer class on African-American spirituality at Xavier University in New Orleans.
"If you go to St. Patrick Church on Mission Street in San Francisco, it's all Irish," McAleenan told the East Bay Times.
"It has Connemara marble from Ireland and 32 windows, one for each Irish county. The Irish built it, and they wanted it to reflect them. That's what I wanted with this church, for the people who worship here to feel it's their home."
In an attempt to duplicate this Irish church, the 53-year old priest ensured that Jesus, Mary and Joseph statues were black, introduced glass front doors featuring African symbols for God and peace. He crafted further African symbols for God in wood himself and those now hang in the church.
The Stations of the Cross have been relocated behind the altar and in their stead hang images of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day – people who fought for social justice and represent it to this day.
A large “Black Live Matters” banner hangs near the front door, while white wooden crosses stand outside to symbolise each of Oakland’s homicide victims.
Not only has McAleenan made incredible changes to how the church looks but the means by which he effected the changes are remarkable too. He donned his boxing gloves and entered the ring for several months on a challenge from a local resident who wished to make a donation.
Wishing to renovate the 1960s structure two years ago (the original church was constructed in 1898), the Irish priest realized he would need $600,000 and set out fundraising.
When a local lawyer heard of the charity work in St Columba, he promised to donate $4,000 to the funds if the priest would attend a boxing boot camp, which McAleenan, of course, completed.
Michelle Batista has been attending the church for the past ten years. She said: "The work that Father Aidan did to transform the space inside the church was truly amazing."
"This is the most loving, welcoming community that we have ever been a part of," said Rich Laufenberg, who also travels to St. Columba each Sunday.
"Everyone participates. It's not like other churches."
Despite his commitment to his parish now, McAleenan almost didn’t become a priest and left his studies for the priesthood in Ireland in 1987 when he acquired a visa to come to the US.
Remaining undocumented in San Francisco for five years when this visa expired, he found himself still eager to help others, working in homeless housing and opening San Francisco’s first AIDS hospice.
In 2003, McAleenan decided that he now felt ready to be a priest and was soon attending St. Patrick's Seminary and University in Menlo Park, CA. He was ordained in 2005, the same year his father committed suicide, his mother died from a stroke and his brother died from a heart attack.
"It was a difficult time," McAleenan told the East Bay Times. "But at that stage, I had more life experience, and I like to think that I was able to bring all of that to the priesthood."
Just last year, McAleenan faced another huge tragedy, however, when he received word of the death of six Irish and Irish-American students in a balcony collapse in Berkeley.
In the days and nights following the accident, he spent time with the families and friends of those injured and killed, comforting them before their journey back to Ireland.
"I have never felt as heavy a room, of the anticipation of what they were about to see," McAleenan said.
"(But) you do what you need to do. You find yourself that you have a strength, and you get through all of the things."