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Rev. Jim Colleran, ‘worker-priest’ beloved by Pilsen parishioners, dead at 80

Rev. Jim Colleran, who blistered immigration sweeps 42 years ago and organized pickets and boycotts to help his Pilsen parishioners, has died at 80.

Rev. Jim Colleran, who blistered immigration sweeps 42 years ago and organized pickets and boycotts to help his Pilsen parishioners, has died at 80. | Provided photo

Rev. Jim Colleran never backed down from a fight.

Forty-two years ago, he blistered government immigration sweeps, saying they amounted to “hunting people down like dogs.”

He organized pickets and boycotts of the CTA, the Postal Service, hospitals and businesses to help parishioners at St. Vitus — his heavily Latino parish in Pilsen — get jobs, justice and better service.

At Christmastime in 1976, Rev. Colleran consoled his community after 14 children and three adults died in two apartment fires, presiding over funerals for the victims.

The following Good Friday, he helped coordinate the Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, in which participants re-enact the Stations of the Cross and Crucifixion of Jesus. Thousands took part in the “collective remembrance of the people who had died in the fires and a moment of consciousness-raising about conditions in Pilsen,” according to the book “Horizons of the Sacred: Mexican Traditions in U.S. Catholicism.”

“He was our moral leader,” said Ramiro Borja, a former St. Vitus parishioner.

Rev. Colleran, who had Parkinson’s disease, died last month at the Admiral at the Lake nursing home on the North Side. He was 80.

When the city fell behind on garbage pickups in Pilsen, “We used to do actions like literally pulling out all the garbage containers and putting them out on 18th Street,” Borja said. “That caught the attention of the local ward people.”

Rev. Colleran “loved Jesus Christ, regarded him not with the boyish face and the halo but as a tough guy on a rough mission,” said his brother Bern Colleran.

During four years the priest was posted in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, he sometimes had to navigate perilous hilltop roads on a donkey.

But he had to be even braver when a young woman was abducted and held in nearby mountains, and the authorities looked the other way. Rev. Colleran demanded the town police rescue her.

“This girl has been kidnapped,” he told them, according to his brother. “We want you to go up there and bring her back.”

The police didn’t do anything at first. But, over a span of weeks, “Jim went back regularly, would not back down,” Bern Colleran said in his eulogy.

He finally got some action, his brother said, when he “started hinting at deficiencies of manhood” among the officers. After negotiating with the priest for “expenses,” the police rescued the woman.

Rev. Colleran believed in the “worker-priest” tradition — a movement that flowered in France after World War II. The clergy would connect with their congregations by working the same jobs they did. So he loaded butter and milk onto trucks, operated an elevator at the old Continental Bank building and pumped gas.

At night, “People would come by and say, ‘Where’s Jim?’ And you’d send them over to the gas station,” said Ed Sunshine, a former priest at St. Vitus. “Jim was at the gas station, pumping gas.”

Rev. Colleran introduced young people in his parish to Cesar Chavez, who helped start the United Farm Workers of America and was visiting Chicago.

Martha Obregon says she’ll never forget the priest bringing her and other kids to meet Chavez, known for organizing boycotts of non-union-picked lettuce and grapes.

“I was stunned,” said Obregon, now 58. “My aunts and uncles all were farm workers, and just knowing that he came from the same life, the same struggle, it just made you want to get more involved.”

In 1983, when Chicago activist and labor organizer Rudy Lozano was gunned down, Rev. Colleran gave the sermon at his funeral. He’d married Rudy and Lupe Lozano.

“He worked with Rudy,” Lupe Lozano said. “Rudy had him going to different strikes. Whatever Rudy needed, Father Jim was there. . . . He spoke better Spanish than Rudy did at that time.”

Jim Colleran grew up in the 6500 block of North Bosworth. At 9, he rode the CTA to the School of the Art Institute to take painting classes. He attended St. Ignatius grade school and Quigley Preparatory Seminary and studied for the priesthood at St. Mary of the Lake seminary in Mundelein.

His first parish assignment was at St. Bonaventure. Once he polished his Spanish during studies in Puerto Rico, he served more than 12 years at St. Vitus. Later, he was at Our Lady of Lourdes parish and in Mexico for four years. His last assignment was at St. Mary of the Lake Church.

His father Bernard was from near Curry in County Sligo, Ireland. His mother Elizabeth was a granddaughter of Michael Brennan, chief of police in Chicago in the 1890s.

After retiring 10 years ago, he enjoyed painting watercolors and spending time on a farm in Rockville, Indiana, he owned with his brother Philip.

Rev. Colleran also is survived by his sister Sheila Clerkin, brother Paul and many nieces and nephews. Services have been held.