Full circle

It was like coming home for the Rev. Cleo Milano when he took over as pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in July. He was officially installed by Bishop Robert Muench Aug. 18 during the 10:30 a.m. Mass.

Father Cleo, as he’s affectionately called by everyone, not just parishioners, served as associate pastor of OLOM 26 years ago. It was his second posting after serving three years as associate pastor at St. Mary of False River Catholic Church in New Roads.

“I’m very excited to be back; I do feel like I’ve come full circle,” says Milano, who comes to OLOM from St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Plaquemine.

“It’s hard to leave some place you love,” he continues. “I was there for 11 years. Priests in the Baton Rouge Diocese are limited to a 12-year term, and I think that’s a very wise thing. It’s easy to become complacent … that change is good.”

But it’s a serendipitous change. “I followed Father Miles (Walsh) as associate pastor at St. Mary’s and then as pastor here,” says Milano, proudly.

Milano has served the churches of St. Anne in Morganza, four years, and Immaculate Conception in Denham Springs, eight years, eventually becoming one of the diocese’s most popular priests.

While there was no major epiphany, Milano always knew in some way that he wanted to be a priest. “I always felt God had a hand on my shoulder,” he says. “I talked about being a priest as a young boy. I was enthralled with the beauty of Ascension Catholic Church (in Donaldsonville, where he grew up) and the nuns with their habits with the big wings. That made a big impression.”

He also has “wonderful” memories of his grandparents and their “really deep faith.” His paternal grandmother, Emily Milano, lived to be 94.

“My grandfather (Joe Casso) was a widower and I would spend Saturday nights with him,” recalls Milano, son of Jackie Milano and the late Cleo Sr. “We’d get up for 6 a.m. Mass, then go to the cemetery and visit my grandmother’s grave.”

A priest for 30 years, Milano finds it a fulfilling career. “I genuinely love people and being able to share in the lives of people, both their joys and sorrows, and hopefully be a conduit of God’s peace is quite special.”

With 3,000 registered families, OLOM is the largest parish in the diocese. It also has one of the largest Mass and confession schedules.

That makes for a long day not only for its pastor but for the rest of its staff. “We have a wonderful staff here — a permanent deacon, professional office staff,” says Milano. “Good help makes the transition easier. I couldn’t do it without all these people.”

Even so, he recognizes that transition is always hard, “even under the best of circumstances.”

“I’m inheriting a wonderful parish … a dynamic parish,” says Milano. “It functions like a shrine. Mercy is a place of peace and prayer. There’s an overwhelming presence of the Blessed Mother here; it’s a place with a strong Catholic identity.”

OLOM is also a parish with strong traditions. In fact, Milano is resurrecting one from his first tour of duty here — with a little change.

“When I was an associate pastor here 26 years ago, I used a duck puppet in my children’s sermons. Somewhere in all the moves it got lost,” he explains as he picks up a rooster puppet a parishioner gave him as a welcome gift. “The rooster is actually more biblical than a duck … I’m going to have a contest with the children to name it.”

Another tradition at OLOM is service both locally and reaching out into the world. It also has one of the largest kindergarten through eighth-grade Catholic schools.

“My biggest challenge is to keep Mercy vibrant. Keep the traditions but also determine where the Lord is calling us to move forward in the future … mainly just don’t screw it up,” Milano says with a chuckle.