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updated: 11/13/2012 5:14 PM

Wheeling pastor, Family Fest leader, dies at 82

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  • The Rev. James O'Malley

    The Rev. James O'Malley

By Eileen O. Daday
Daily Herald correspondent

A former Wheeling pastor, who guided the growth of Family Fest from a parish picnic into one of the Northwest suburbs' largest summer festivals, has died.

The Rev. James O'Malley, who led St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church, passed away on Thursday. He was 82.

At the time of his passing, O'Malley had been pastor emeritus of St. James Parish in Highwood, which serves residents of Highwood, Highland Park and the town of Ft. Sheridan.

Over the course of his 56-year ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago, he had served as an assistant pastor at St. Giles Parish in Oak Park, before serving in a variety of churches on Chicago's South and Southwest sides.

His longest assignment was in Wheeling, where he served as pastor from 1982 to 1994. Family Fest ran during those same years, on the parish's 15 acres of open land that bordered Heritage Park and Wheeling's municipal complex.

The parish took over the July Fourth picnic after the Wheeling Jaycees discontinued their longtime summer celebration. Parish members combined with members of various civic groups to add tents, booths and games to the festival, as well as a carnival, helicopter rides and fireworks.

They also began to feature big name entertainment, including Three Dog Night, Roy Orbison, Sha Na Na, Marshall Tucker, the Buckinghams, and the popular Irish folk singers, Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy.

Parish members estimate that in the festival's final year, 1994, 500 volunteers and some 240,000 people attended.

But through the festival's growth, parishioners and colleagues say that O'Malley never lost sight of his role as a priest and spiritual adviser to his congregation, which took in residents of Wheeling and Lincolnshire.

The Rev. Edward Fialkowski, pastor at Our Lady of the Wayside Catholic Church in Arlington Heights, remembers the advice O'Malley gave him when he was assigned as pastor for the first time at St. Isaac Jogues in Niles.

"He thought one of the many privileges of priesthood was the responsibly to pastor a parish, to guide and direct its spiritual growth and to give parishioners effective ways to live out their faith," Fialkowski said.

"He said this with such conviction and humility that I still remember it."

A funeral Mass will take place at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. James Parish, 134 N. Avenue in Highwood. Retired Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Goedert will be the main celebrant.

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