Just over a decade into his priesthood, Kevin Vann, the future bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, served as pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in the central Illinois city of Decatur, a mere 40-minute drive from his hometown of Springfield.
He was a local boy, yes.
But Fr. Kevin W. Vann, who became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1992, already had worldly experience as a priest, spending four years in Italy to earn, in 1985, his doctor of canon law degree at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.
It was early on during Fr. Vann’s nine-year tenure at Our Lady of Lourdes when the future archbishop of Omaha, Fr. George Lucas, met him. Fr. Lucas recognized back then Fr. Vann’s talent for growing a congregation and his desire to be as inclusive as possible in ministering to his parishioners.
“He realized a number of Spanish- speaking immigrants were moving into the Decatur area,” recalled Archbishop Lucas, a St. Louis, Mo.-bred prelate who is in his 12th year overseeing some 240,000 Catholics in 130 parishes in Nebraska.
“He met some of them at a restaurant and began teaching himself Spanish,” Archbishop Lucas recalled. “Their work schedule was such that many of them were not able to attend Mass on Sunday. He celebrated Mass with them in Spanish in a way that was convenient for them.”
That story, Archbishop Lucas said, is typical of Bishop Vann’s 40 years in the priesthood.
“He is very friendly and outgoing, with a real heart for the needs of his people,” Archbishop Lucas said.
As Bishop Vann celebrates this year the 40th anniversary of his ordination as a priest, close associates like Archbishop Lucas praise his soft touch with his diverse flock of 1.6 million Catholics and skills at running a diocese during one of its most transformative periods.
Milestones under Bishop Vann’s leadership include the renovation and dedication of the Christ Cathedral on July 17, 2019, and the Diocese’s latest jewel, St. Michael’s Abbey, whose Church of Our Lady of the Assumption was dedicated in Silverado Canyon on May 4, 2021.
“He really sees Christ Cathedral as a point of both welcoming and outreach for the diverse communities that gather there,” said Archbishop Lucas, who served as co-consecrator when Bishop Van was installed as bishop of Fort Worth, Texas, on July 13, 2005.
“I admire him for rising to the occasion to meet the pastoral needs in front of him and to do that joyfully and generously.”
A KNOCK AT THE DOOR
Gabriel Ferrucci, a leading contributor to the Catholic Church in Orange County and beyond, recalls meeting Bishop Vann the day after it was announced he would succeed retiring Bishop Tod Brown.
On Sept. 12, 2012, Bishops Brown and Vann visited Ferrucci and his wife, Maria, at their home.
“The moment he walked in, he started speaking Italian,” recalled Ferrucci, who rose from a modest life as a working- class Italian immigrant to the U.S. in 1957 to a successful businessman.
“He showed a sincere and significant appreciation for our Italian culture.”
Ferrucci has worked closely with Bishop Vann on the restoration of the Christ Cathedral’s famed Hazel Wright Organ and various other diocesan activities. He recognizes Bishop Vann’s gifts at building bridges with a variety of constituents.
“He’s a very hard-working person who learns things quickly and who is not afraid of making tough decisions,” said Ferrucci, who also praises Bishop Vann as a person – a loyal friend to him and Maria, who passed away this March.
“We saw him as a caring and gentle family person more than as a bishop, and that’s how I continue to view him today,” he says. “I treat him as a family member.”
A CURIOUS LEARNER
Bishop Jaime Soto, an Orange County-bred prelate who has overseen the Diocese of Sacramento since 2008, has known Bishop Vann since Bishop Vann’s days in Fort Worth as a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Bishop Vann has become very close to Bishop Soto’s family and regularly visits Bishop Soto’s mother, Gloria.
“He probably sees her more than I do,” said Bishop Soto, who praised Bishop Vann’s desire to learn different languages and cultures, and his willingness, as an active leader of the California Catholic Conference, “to engage in some of the most challenging moral issues we face as a church here.”
“He’s a quick learner,” Bishop Soto added. “He exhibits a certain curiosity and eagerness to learn, and that keeps a person young.”