Pat Kmak, who retired June 30 after nearly five decades as religious formation director at St. Julie Billiart Catholic Church in Tinley Park, was known for her dedication to her faith and instilling that into others.
“She dedicated her life to forming people into disciples of Jesus,” said the Rev. Tirso Villaverde, pastor at St. Julie Billiards. “Her job for many years has been running the program for school-age children, but forming disciples was the main thing that was at the heart of everything she did. That was her biggest legacy.”
Kmak, 84, died unexpectedly July 23 — the day before a parish celebration expected to draw about 200 people to honor the Orland Park resident for her decades of service.
“Pat unselfishly and so generously gave of her time, talent and treasure to advance the parish’s mission to teach the faith. This weekend we take the time to honor her, her life, her contribution and her witness to the faith,” Villaverde said July 20 in a recorded speech leading up to the event.
He added that in so many ways, Kmak “exemplified for us the joy and dedication of our patron St. Julie Billiards. Like St. Julie, Pat has always had a joyful attitude, constantly grateful to God for everything, and a passion for passing on the faith.”
Villaverde noted in an interview days after her death that Kmak “was pretty much the partner to the first pastor in establishing the parish.”
“She was instrumental as well in choosing St. Julie as the patron saint of the parish,” he said. “I think it was because St. Julie was into forming people into disciples.”
St. Julie Billiart, an obscure saint, was elevated to sainthood in the last 100 years.
“Her saying is ‘How good is a good God.’ Those were words that really exemplified Pat’s life as well. She always tried to see how good God was, and she recognized that and constantly acknowledged it.”
The priest, who has been at the parish for about two years, called Kmak committed and dedicated and said she had worked with four other pastors.
“My impression was she is here for the parish, for the mission, to advance God’s kingdom on Earth. All other things were inconsequential,” he said. “When I got here, the parish was facing a lot of challenges. Pat stepped up and made it very clear that she was willing to make any adjustment necessary because her focus was the mission and she was not in it for personal gain.”
Although Kmak’s retirement celebration was cancelled, the parish will continue with its plan to honor her by renaming a portion of the building the Pat Kmak Center for Faith Formation, and by renaming a scholarship fund the Pat Kmak Faith Formation Fund.
“I’m still waiting on a quote from a sign company to add the sign on the exterior and we’re planning some interior renovations, so that might take us a while,” Villaverde said July 27. “When we are ready, there will be a ceremony.”
Kmak’s children are inspired by her faith and proud of her years of service.
“I am so incredibly proud of our mom and her role in not only sharing the faith with literally generations of children, but also hearing the stories of the profound effects her life had on people due to simple gestures of kindness that she had extended to them in her daily life,” daughter Ruth Kmak shared.
“I know I was looking forward to her celebration far more than she was, because she really didn’t want the recognition or the fuss. I treasure the stories I have heard about my mom and was looking forward to celebrating her with her friends and family together.”
“I always looked up to her, but much more so as an adult and parent,” said son Edward Kmak. “She always saw the good in every person she met, or saw the good in every situation presented to her. She had a grace about her, a calm.
“I learned from her that I could talk with God any time, and anywhere. She also made me realize that life is a prayer — how we live and interact with others as Jesus would is daily prayer. Many times I was in awe of her closeness to God, and her peace with life.”
“My mom’s prayers were very powerful,” son Christopher Kmak said. “When times were tough for me, often I would ask her to pray for me rather than praying for myself because of her close relationship with and service to Jesus.”
He said her prayers worked.
The siblings remember helping their mother with the religious formation program and how their father, the late Leonard Kmak, supported her and even taught for a few years when the church needed an eighth grade teacher.
“Faith and service to others were extremely important to our family life,” Ruth Kmak said, adding that all of them went to Catholic school “from our earliest days with Sister Albina at the Benedictine kindergarten” through Marian Catholic High School.
Ruth Kmak, who had lived with her mother since her father died 20 years ago, said she loved having travel adventures “and especially her daily notes of gratitude to me and our daily dinners together that always began with her saying the blessing.”
Deacon Ed Pluchar, who worked with Pat for 28 years, especially for eighth grade confirmation, described her as “very faith-filled and very open about sharing her faith” during an interview before her death.
“She was the first hire for the parish. We’ve officially turned over the staff after the first 48 years,” he said.
His wife, Sheila, said it was “mind-blowing” and “awe-inspiring” when thinking of someone having that position for that long, although Sheila taught religious education herself for more than 30 years, including serving as youth minister for 20 years .
“She’s worked with five pastors, and that alone is a feat in itself,” she said during an interview before Kmak’s death. “She’s always put the good of the parish and the children above everything.”
She said when Kmak started at St. Julie Billiart, about 2,000 kids were in the program. Nowadays, that number is closer to 350.
Mercy Nolan, who taught or coordinated the kindergarten program at the church for more than 30 years, called Kmak “a great leader” who “did everything she could to encourage all of us.”
Nolan spoke with Kmak on July 19 when the Tinley Park Village Board honored Kmak with a proclamation for her dedication to St. July.
“We just had this conversation (Tuesday) night. She’s a very humble person and tries to turn attention on her back to other people she’s with. I just let her know how much we always appreciated her,” Nolan said during an interview before Kmak’s death.
“She made all of us feel very appreciated, which is not always something you see in a leader,” she added. “We all felt like she got to know us as people, not just as teachers or coordinators. And she was always very interested in our families — genuine caring. She touched many people’s lives.”
Melinda Moore is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.