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Monsignor Prendergast leaves a legacy in Streator

A former Army chaplain; Prendergast founded St. Michael

The Rev. Monsignor John Prendergast stands in front of the altar in St. Stephen Church, the parish church of St. Michael the Archangel, in May 2011. Prendergast helped push the vision in 2004 to unify Streator's four Catholic parishes into one.
The Rev. Monsignor John Prendergast stands in front of the altar in St. Stephen Church, the parish church of St. Michael the Archangel, in May 2011. Prendergast helped push the vision in 2004 to unify Streator's four Catholic parishes into one.

Monsignor John Prendergast felt a close tie with the Rev. Henry A. O'Kelly.

O'Kelly was the last pastor of the original St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Streator and the first at Immaculate Conception.

Prendergast, who became the first pastor at the new St. Michael parish, was Immaculate Conception's last pastor.

O'Kelly is buried at St. Mary's Cemetery in Streator, and Prendergast will be buried beside him.

"I think it's fascinating," Prendergast said before he was reassigned in 2011 from Streator to Washington, Ill. "We will be the only two priests to say we have served both Immaculate Conception and St. Michael's parish, just in reverse order."

Prendergast died March 18, leaving a legacy in Streator as the founding pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish, which united Streator's four Catholic parishes into one.

But that accomplishment was just one part of Prendergast's story.

Prendergast loved his hometown of Streator.

He was born in 1946, baptized at Immaculate Conception Church and attended St. Anthony Church.

His father owned Prendergast Cigar Shop, which was formerly located at Teke's Bar and Lounge. He worked jobs at the Times-Press newspaper and Super Dairy out of high school, then he joined the military as a pastor. He was ordained at his home parish Immaculate Conception in 1976.

He shared fond memories of the guys talking at his father's cigar shop and playing pool.

Steve Broadus, a Streator resident who served as a trustee in the parish during Prendergast's time as pastor, said Prendergast's love for his hometown is what made the task of unifying the parishes in 2010 all the more difficult. Several parishioners opposed the merging of the four parishes.

"He was given this task by the bishop, and it was a very difficult task," Broadus said. " ... It had to be one of the most difficult things to deal with, particularly people who he'd known his whole life."

Monsignor Philip Halfacre, who succeeded Prendergast as pastor of St. Michael, said he is grateful for Prendergast's hard work, because it created the St. Michael community the city has today.

"He could see that the parishes had to combine in some fashion in as much as they were not sustainable for the long haul," Halfacre said. "He knew that he could, so to speak, 'kick the can down the road' for 10 years or so — and leave that difficult task to someone else. But instead of that, he willingly undertook the extremely difficult, stressful and thankless job of combining parishes."

Starting with town hall meetings in 2004 proposing one church, one school, one vision, Prendergast administered the merger of St. Casimir, St. Anthony, Immaculate Conception and St. Stephen churches on Sept. 29, 2010.

Two years prior to the first planning meetings, he returned to his boyhood home on Sixth Street to be with his ailing mother.

"I retired so I could come home and be with my mother; I didn't know how long she would live," Prendergast told The Times in a previous interview. "She only lived 10 months, but it was actually very satisfying to be back with her."

Before returning to Streator, Prendergast served as a U.S. Army chaplain from 1980 until his military retirement in 2002.

Broadus said Prendergast had an influence on his life and helped him grow his faith. Over many hours-long conversations, the two developed a friendship. Broadus recalls Prendergast telling stories from his time in the military.

The monsignor's last assignment was with the 82nd Airborne, meaning Prendergast became a master paratrooper to serve as their chaplain.

"He parachuted to Grenada," Broadus said. "He was in Desert Storm."

Prendergast ministered in hazardous duty and combat operations during Operation Just Cause (Panama), Operation Desert Shield (Saudi Arabia), Operation Desert Storm (Kuwait, Iraq) and the Kosovo War (Macedonia/Kosovo).

While serving as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, he earned the Master Parachutist Badge with one Combat Star (Operation Just Cause, Panama). Prendergast received many military awards, including the Legion of Merit.

On top of traveling across the world on military assignment, Prendergast made frequent trips to Germany and Hawaii.

"He was worldly," Broadus said.

Halfacre said the first time he met Prendergast was when he was a seminarian and Prendergast came to the seminary to recruit men to serve as military chaplains. 

"Our chaplains are an integral part of the armed forces, providing pastoral care to our servicemen and servicewomen," Halfacre said. "Monsignor Prendergast ministered in hazardous duty and combat operations multiple times during his 22 years of active duty. He served so well in that capacity that he rose to the rank of colonel. That says a lot about him as a man — one does not become a colonel by being a coward."

When the Rev. Deo Gratias died in January 2002, it left a vacancy at Immaculate Conception. Prendergast had said he was "very fortunate" to get the chance to return to Streator. Parishioners have vivid memories of Prendergast during his time in Streator, and not too far behind him would be his white poodle Charlie.

"He was very happy to accept the assignment to return to Streator," Halfacre said. "He was born in this city and grew up here. So in coming to Streator, Monsignor Prendergast was coming home."

By bringing Streator's parishes together into one, he left an impact not only on those who knew him as their pastor, but also for future generations of parishioners.

"He was quite a guy," Broadus said. "I'm glad I got to know him."

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