Former Crime Fighter Turns to Church Work

7/9/2009 12:00:00 PM Email this articlePrint this article
E. Michael McCann prepares to lead the graduating class for the conferral of Certificates in Lay Ministries on Tuesday, May 12 at Cardinal Stritch University. Carrying candles behind him are Mary Foley, left, the administrative coordinator for the class and Yanelis Picado, the administrative assistant. McCann and 11 others were part of the center’s first graduating class. The cross carried by McCann is an image of the cross in the church at San Damiano in Assisi, Italy. (Catholic Herald photo by Ernie Mastroianni)
For more information on lay programs:
Cardinal Stritch University

Dan Scholz, Coordinator of Intellectual Formation, Chair of Religious Studies Department

(414) 410-4162

6801 N. Yates Road

Milwaukee, WI 53217


Former crime fighter turns to church work

E. Michael McCann earns certificate in lay ministry

By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald

MILWAUKEE – Born more than 71 years ago and a product of Catholic school education from elementary school through law school, E. Michael McCann remembers the Latin Mass and incense. He occasionally thumbs through his pre-Vatican II missal.

So why, after serving as Milwaukee County’s district attorney longer than anyone else in the country and prosecuting such high profile cases such as that of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmar, did he decide to spend two more years in Catholic school?

McCann and 11 others graduated May 12, with a certificate in lay ministry from the St. Clare Center for Ministry Formation at Cardinal Stritch University.

“When I finished college in 1959, it was before the explosion in theology, and when it did start growing in the ’60s, it grew into a liberation theology. I was always interested in learning more about theology and my faith, but I never had the courage to jump in on my own,” he said. “I wanted the guidance of a teacher. I loved the church and have been a frequent communicant for a long time.”

Center met lay

ministry needs

Originally, McCann looked into the now defunct lay ministry program at Saint Francis Seminary. It was terminated in 2006 when academic formation for seminarians was moved from the archdiocesan seminary to Sacred Heart School of Theology, Hales Corners.

“I started looking around and then found the Cardinal Stritch program, which was academically based, and decided it was for me,” he said. “It was much more than I thought and was grateful for the opportunity to do it.”

Approved by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan in June 2007, the St. Clare Center was an answer to bringing back lay formation and educational programs, while creating its mission around the 2005 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document, “Co-workers in the Vineyard of the Lord.”

As director of the St. Clare Center, and chair of religious studies at Cardinal Stritch University, Dan Scholz said the church does a great job with the academic formation of priests and deacons, but Stritch’s programming addresses the needs of the laity.

“The archdiocese meets the needs with four elements and is set up to deliver spiritual, pastoral, and human formation departments, and now we deliver the intellectual,” he said. “We offer the certificate program and a master’s program.”

The St. Clare Center also offers a no commitment Pentecost Mission that consists of a series of eight Saturday morning meetings.

“We have professional speakers with instant name recognition and credibility, such as Fr. Andy Nelson, Bishop (Richard J.) Sklba and others,” said Scholz. “We offer breakfast, and a speaker on a different topic each week. This is wildly popular and the archdiocese offers basic religious education spirituality credit for the class, but there are no pre-requisites. You can go to as many as you want.”

Twelve apostles met weekly

Affectionately referred to by staff as “the 12 apostles,” the dozen students met Tuesday evenings and every other Saturday for four semesters. The program’s goal is to educate and form people who are already active in their parishes. While the master’s program prepares students for paid leadership, the semi-professional certificate program prepares its students to be better volunteers in their parishes.

Participants must be Catholic, must have a letter of endorsement from their pastor, and a desire to become involved in the parish in some way. The program is a confirmation to Scholz that Catholics strongly desire to learn more about their faith. The 2010 graduating class will consist of 40 students and 80 have registered for the upcoming two-year commitment.

Noting that next year, classes in both the English and Spanish will graduate, he said, “I am so excited about this and it keeps growing. This is good news after losing the program at the seminary – but more and better growth is coming out of this. It’s wonderful.”

Classes were spirit-lifting

For McCann, enrolling in the lay ministry program was an abrupt change from dealing with crime, and it offered him the freedom to experience a new vision, love and appreciation for his Catholic faith.

“I was the oldest in the group; the next was a retired teacher in her 60s. We had a couple of converts who had very good command of the Scriptures and as a cradle Catholic, I was quite impressed by it,” he said. “It was terribly interesting and I appreciated the scriptural studies and how focused on Christ the classes were. It was, of course, a lot of time and commitment but it was something I had wanted to do for a long time.”

While his personal reasons for taking the course were to learn more about his faith, and to be challenged, McCann did not expect the classes to lift his spirits as they did. In his profession dealing with hatred and depravity, walking into the dismal prisons often derided his soul to the core.

“When I would walk into the prisons my spirits would just drop; they were so filled with despair,” he admitted. “But when I went to school, something about the teachers, the classes and the people just lifted my spirits. I could feel them soar.”

Besides Harvard, McCann spent most of his life involved in Jesuit spirituality. He graduated from Marquette University High School, the University of Detroit and Georgetown University, and is a member of Gesu Church in Milwaukee. The contrast between Ignation spirituality and Franciscan is significant, and one that he quickly learned to appreciate.

“I had never been exposed to Franciscan spirituality and they are quite different than the steely organized Jesuits,” he said. “In fact, the St. Ignatius Prayer for Generosity says, ‘Lord, teach me the courage to fight and not to heed the wounds,’ and the Prayer of St Francis is such a contrast, ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.’ It’s quite fun to see the contrast between the two.”

Students learned, grew together

Besides accolades for the instructors, McCann praised the students who often came together helping each other to understand and succeed.

“The students were all wonderful and we participated together in faith-sharing and trying to ensure we all grew together. It was far different than my college experiences where students would often undermine another in order to get ahead,” he said.

While he isn’t planning to use his certification for a personal agenda or to earn any type of position in the parish, he feels the education will bolster his knowledge of the Catholic faith.

“I am more committed to my faith than ever,” he said. “I have attended daily Mass since I was a teen and I thought I knew everything about liturgy. But now I know a lot more and it has given me a keen desire to learn more. For example, I know nothing about music; I enjoy it, but if I knew more about it, I would enjoy it more. This is how I feel after taking the course. I know more about the Mass and it makes it more of a joy to attend.”

Already involved in the endowment committee at Gesu, McCann volunteers with Birthright, an organization assisting women in troubled circumstances who choose to keep their children, the Salvation Army’s adult rehabilitation center, Children’s Village, and St. Vincent de Paul Society; McCann also assists with Gesu’s twin parish in Haiti and looks forward to other volunteer opportunities.

“My wife, Barbara, and I have been to Haiti several times and enjoy assisting over there,” he said. “She has been wonderful and tolerant these past two years while I have been gone so many Saturdays. She often jokingly refers to me as ‘Reverend’ now – but I am not that and not a deacon; I am just Mike.”

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