Pastor: Franciscans ‘don’t retire, we start to taper off’

Fr. Cirignani bids ‘adios’ to flourishing bilingual parish

GREEN BAY — Ministry in multicultural parishes has been one of Franciscan Fr. Tony Cirignani’s cherished experiences as a priest. When he retires from active ministry on Aug. 2, Fr. Cirignani will say goodbye to one of the most successful multicultural parishes in the diocese.

Franciscan Fr. Tony Cirignani is pictured inside SS. Peter and Paul Church in Green Bay, where he has served as pastor since 2010. He retires from active ministry on Aug. 2. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“Every time that I get out of a ministry, I have to really let go, and so it’s bittersweet,” Fr. Cirignani, pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Parish since 2010, told The Compass. “So I’m feeling, yes, a little sad. But at the same time I feel that my part is complete. As a Franciscan, we don’t retire, but we do start to taper off.”

Fr. Cirignani was born Aug. 14, 1946, to Joseph and Anne Cirignani in Chicago, the second of three children who grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood. He graduated from Holy Trinity High School in 1965 and attended two years of college. He then did clerical and office work in downtown Chicago.

“From there I trained as a respiratory therapist at a hospital and went into health care for a while,” he said. In January 1975 he entered the Franciscan Province of the Assumption of the BVM in Pulaski.

“I never entered to become a priest,” he said. “I liked the family atmosphere, the fraternity — and that it had an outward thrust to work for the common people. … It wasn’t until after I made my first vows (that) I went to the provincial and he asked if I would think about ordination.”

He earned a bachelor’s degree from Holy Redeemer College in Waterford, Wis., studied theology at Aquinas Institute in Dubuque, Iowa, for one year, then to the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where he received a master’s of divinity degree in 1983.

Fr. Cirignani was ordained to the priesthood on June 4, 1983, in Sturtevant, Wis., by Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee. His first assignment was as co-chaplain at St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay. “I was there for one year and then I wanted to get some experience in parish life,” he said. He was assigned as assistant pastor at Assumption BVM Parish in Pulaski, where he served from 1984 to 1988.

After his mother passed away in 1988 (his father had died in 1985), Fr. Cirignani decided to take a sabbatical from parish work and moved to the Franciscan provincial house in Albuquerque, N.M. “That’s where I started to think about Hispanic ministry,” he said.

“I started to study Spanish in Guadalajara (Mexico) with the friars and a language school there,” he said. “I always had an interest in multicultural ministry.”

He returned to Chicago in 1993 and first served as assistant pastor at a bilingual parish, before becomingwhich served English, Spanish and Polish-speaking communities. “I was there for six years,” he said. “That was a real eye-opener for me. It was an interesting and colorful neighborhood.”

In 2000, after taking a few months off, he was named director of the Franciscan Retreat Center in Burlington, Wis. Two years later, he returned to parish ministry, serving as pastor of St. Anthony Parish on Milwaukee’s south side, which included Vietnamese, Spanish and English-speaking members.

Fr. Cirignani celebrated his 25th anniversary of priesthood in 2008, the same year he stepped down as pastor of St. Anthony. After a semester on sabbatical in Collegeville, Minn., he moved to Manitowoc to temporarily serve as chaplain for the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. He was then appointed associate pastor of St. Philip and St. Bernard parishes in Green Bay, where he served until his appointment at SS. Peter and Paul Parish in July 2000.

One of the satisfactions Fr. Cirignani has found in ministering to the Latino community is their welcoming and hospitable manner. “They are very open to change, especially an openness to moving with the Holy Spirit,” he said.

When he arrived at SS. Peter and Paul, the parish was in the midst of a transition, he said. “There were a lot of challenges,” he said. “The amazing thing is, my second year is when the parish pastoral council leader said that we need to welcome our Hispanic neighbors. … They are all around the church here and we need help to welcome them.”

With his emphatic approval, parish volunteers began an organized outreach. “So it came from them, but I had it in the back of my mind — and (Bishop David Ricken) saw it as an outreach,” he said.

The parish began making one-on-one home visits to invite people to church. “We started visiting many of the first Hispanic members who live just north of us in large trailer courts off Baird Street,” said Fr. Cirignani. “Our pastoral council named our evangelization committee ‘Catholic missionary disciples of Jesus Christ.’”

Fr. Cirignani said devotion to saints, and especially to Our Lady of Guadalupe, was one way he and the parish welcomed Latinos to the parish.

“Ever since my theology days, there was this whole idea of devotionalism” as an introduction to the Gospel and church teachings, he said.

“Taking a person from just a mere surface devotion to a deepening of their desire to know Christ more deeply,” was his approach to welcoming all Catholics, whatever their background, who had fallen away from the church, he said. “So we use something that they are familiar with, say the Virgin of Guadalupe, and then, OK, what did she do? There was always a learning curve to any kind of devotion the people were comfortable with or something that I brought up. I may not have been totally excited about it, but I used it as a springboard for the new evangelization.”

Michael Lee, who is faith formation and communications coordinator at SS. Peter and Paul, said Fr. Cirignani will be remembered for welcoming Latinos to the parish and creating a harmonious atmosphere between cultures. He also credits the Franciscan priest for “re-energizing the rich Catholic devotional life of our parish.”

“He has promoted the devotion to the Divine Mercy (and) our diocesan division of the World Apostolate of Fatima, which is based here at SS. Peter and Paul,” said Lee. “He has also been a strong supporter and promoter of ongoing adult Catholic formation.”

Following his final weekend at the parish Aug. 1 and 2, Fr. Cirignani plans to take a break, then spend a month studying the spirituality of St. Maximilian Kolbe with Franciscan friars in Libertyville, Ill.

“This pastorate was a good experience for me. It helped ground me in my own spirituality,” he said. “But at the same time, with all of the things that a pastor has to do nowadays. I think for us as Franciscans, as we get into our 70s — I will be 74 in August — it’s time for me to move in a new direction.”