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For those at O'Hare airport seeking solace from above, there's Father Mike

The Rev. Michael Zaniolo leads Mass and offers confessions at O'Hare, attending to a flock including anxious airport employees and nervous fliers.

July 03, 2009|P.J. Huffstutter

In a small room above the crowds of Terminal 2, the Rev. Michael G. Zaniolo prepared to deliver his airport version of Mass.

In other churches it can take an hour or more. But as an American Airlines pilot strode into the chapel with his luggage, Zaniolo was ready to deliver it a bit quicker -- 30 minutes or less. His homily, a thoughtful sermon with messages of hope, was whittled to 1 minute, 46 seconds.

"People have to rock and roll," said Zaniolo, a 50-year-old Catholic priest. "Every second counts."

For the last nine years, Zaniolo has been hearing confessions and offering Mass to workers and travelers at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. It is a community bigger than most Chicago suburbs. Thirty-nine thousand people work there. Nearly 71 million passengers crossed its concourses last year.

Along a quiet stretch of the mezzanine level, Zaniolo deals with a ministry of the moment: reassuring nervous fliers, praying with anxious workers, helping flight crews whose friends died in plane crashes.

When it comes to flying, Zaniolo said, "there are few atheists in the air."

O'Hare is one of 32 airports in the U.S. with places set aside for worship, meditation or prayer.

The interfaith chapel, which some call St. O'Hare, was opened in 1960. Protestant ministers hold Sunday services here. Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams meet with families waiting to receive a loved one's remains.

Between services, the chapel is kept bare of religious iconography. When Catholics come for daily Mass, the priests bring out a silver cross and a golden banner. When Muslims arrive for prayer, the imam pulls out prayer rugs and the Koran.

The mainstay of the chapel is Zaniolo, president of the National Conference of Catholic Airport Chaplains. He and a team of local volunteer priests offer Mass at O'Hare once each weekday, twice on Saturdays and four times on Sundays.

Their chapel is a small room, no bigger than a two-car garage. Rows of brown-cloth chairs sit before a low stage and a pair of flickering oil lamps. A glass wall looks out onto parked planes and luggage carts zooming across the tarmac.

O'Hare has always been a part of Zaniolo's life. He grew up in northwest Chicago, in the airport's flight path, and would lie in the grass, watching planes crisscross the sky.

He worked as an electrical engineer for four years, before entering the seminary in 1984. By 1988, he had graduated with a degree in theology and served as an associate pastor on Chicago's northwest side. After a dozen years of working in different churches, he asked to become O'Hare's chaplain.

He'd become fascinated by the airport and the people in it after his predecessor led him and a church youth group on a tour.

"I'm thinking, this is a cool job to have: to be a part of people's lives in the place where they're working, and to be a significant presence for the travelers," Zaniolo said.

Now, he makes a walking tour of the airport every day. "If they don't come to the chapel, it's up to me to go to them," said Zaniolo, a short, gray-haired man with a quick wit and a patient attitude. O'Hare is so big it takes him a month to visit every location.

Assaulted by the scent of stale coffee, the priest skirted around the crowds preparing for their flights.

"How's life, Father Mike?" asked a janitor emptying a trash can. Security guards at the X-ray machine smiled and wished him a good morning. So did a pair of businessmen waiting to have their luggage screened.

Fear of flying rarely comes up in conversation these days. Instead, Zaniolo listens to worries about jobs, the economy and city budget cuts.

Mike McGraw, 54, an airport custodian who has attended services at the chapel for 33 years, passed by Zaniolo, slowing down long enough to shake hands and share the latest gossip about city layoffs.

McGraw said he's often more comfortable talking with Zaniolo than his local priest. "He understands what we're going through, because he's part of the community, too," he said.

McGraw's neighborhood has shifted over the years from an Irish community to one that is dominated by Polish and other Eastern European immigrants. The new priest speaks Polish; McGraw doesn't.

"See you upstairs?" Zaniolo asked.

McGraw nodded. He won't have trouble finding a seat. Though churches across the country report a surge in attendance since the economic downturn, O'Hare's chapel has emptied.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the chapel's attendance grew thin. Now, Zaniolo said, things are worse.

There are fewer pilots stopping by, fewer shopkeepers taking a break, and a dwindling number of passengers seeking solace. The collection plate donations have thinned by at least 10%.

But it makes little difference to Father Mike that there are fewer people. He has a flock to attend to.

Zaniolo glanced at his cellphone to check the time. Overhead, the airport intercom speakers crackled.

"May I have your attention please," a woman said. "Mass will begin in 15 minutes. . . . Everyone is welcome to attend."

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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