'A gentle giant': Carpentersville priest remembered for compassion, positivity
Tall in stature and full of life, the Rev. Manuel Gomez always found powerful ways to share his faith with others, loved ones say.
Sometimes it was through his Masses, or his conversations with parishioners, or his patience as he explained a lesson to a child. Other times, it was simply through his actions -- his humble demeanor, his selflessness, his desire to connect with people.
Family and friends could share countless stories of the positivity and compassion that exemplified Gomez, a parochial vicar at St. Monica Catholic Church in Carpentersville. But they say one of the most quintessential "Father Manny" moments occurred Dec. 2 -- his 36th birthday -- when he announced on social media that he was starting cancer treatment.
His message wasn't woeful, nor did it seek pity. Instead, he called his diagnosis a "gift from God in an ugly wrapping."
"That's just who he was -- so unassuming and so focused on, 'How can I take this trial, this challenge of mine, and how can others benefit from my experience?'" said Scott Tarson, a close friend and former parishioner. "That will stay with me for the rest of my life."
Gomez died Thursday, less than a month after he entered the hospital on Thanksgiving Day. But even as his condition declined rapidly, his optimism and strength never faltered, said his cousin, Adriana Gomez-Martinez.
"He was a big guy with a big heart," she said. "Everywhere he went, everybody loved him. He left a seed in everyone. This not only affected the family, but communities all over the world."
A native of Durango, Mexico, Gomez entered the seminary as a teenager and received a degree in philosophy in 2008, according to his obituary. He came to the United States in 2010 to attend the St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota and was ordained to the priesthood three years later.
The Diocese of Rockford first assigned Gomez to St. Mary Catholic Church in Huntley, where he was a "quick learner and showed great care for people of the parish," said Msgr. Steve Knox, a pastor there at the time.
Known by parishioners and fellow priests for his kindness and sense of humor, Gomez went on to serve at St. Rita of Cascia in Aurora before being assigned to St. Monica. He also was an associate vocation director and assistant diocesan master of ceremonies for the diocese.
"Having grown up in Mexico, he brought with him an appreciation of the multicultural nature of the Church," Knox said in an email. "His bilingual ability to communicate the gospel message was one of the great gifts he brought to the parishes he served in."
Tarson said his family's friendship with Gomez quickly "transcended cultural divides" after they met at St. Mary Parish and invited him to dinner. Gomez spent much of the evening learning how to play hockey from their twin boys -- a "fantastic" memory for the whole family, he said.
Even after they moved out of state years ago, the Tarsons remained in close contact with Gomez, whom they called a "gentle giant." After learning of his cancer diagnosis, Tarson and his wife, Heather, started a GoFundMe page to raise money for him and his family, most of whom still live in Mexico.
"We wanted to honor him in a fitting way," Tarson said. "We wanted to be able to give a little something back to his family, which was only a fraction of the love, mercy and compassion he showed us."
Despite the distance and his busy schedule, Gomez remained close to his family in Mexico and enjoyed visiting, said his sister, Angelica Gomez Reza. He was dedicated to helping his parents, she said, and loved playing with his 14 nieces and nephews.
All but two of Gomez's immediate family members were able to visit before he died. The Tarsons said they hope the GoFundMe donations will help cover travel, funeral and any other expenses, including transporting Gomez's body to his final resting place in his hometown.
As his only relative in the Chicago area, Gomez-Martinez said she formed a strong relationship with her cousin when he moved to the United States. He baptized two of her children and never missed family gatherings, she said. When her daughter turned 15, he stepped in as her dance partner during a traditional celebration, even though he never particularly liked dancing.
"My kids adored him. They always knew he was someone they could turn to," Gomez-Martinez said. "We all loved him. He's going to be truly missed."
Gomez is survived by his parents, Manuel Gomez Fernandez and Julia Reza Serrato, as well as four sisters, a brother, and several other relatives.
Visitation will take place from 3-9 p.m. Thursday at St. Monica Parish, 90 N. John F. Kennedy Drive, Carpentersville. Visitation will continue 9-10:45 a.m. Friday, followed by 11 a.m. Mass.
A private burial will take place at a later date in Suchil, Durango, Mexico.