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Long-serving SLO priest will retire to the pews

Father Mike Cicinato has a been a priest of the Catholic parish Nativity of Our Lady at 221 Daly Ave. since 1984. He’s retiring after 27 years.
Father Mike Cicinato has a been a priest of the Catholic parish Nativity of Our Lady at 221 Daly Ave. since 1984. He’s retiring after 27 years. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

I was on my way to an interview last week, driving up Patricia Drive toward Bishop Peak when I came to a stop sign. On an adjacent corner three youngsters, probably 9 or 10 in age, had set up a lemonade stand and were hawking their product with high-pitched gusto.

Not wanting to keep my interviewee — The Rev. Mike Cicinato of the Nativity of Our Lady — waiting, I yelled to the boys that I’d be back. Almost as one they called back, “We’ll be heeeere!”

Toodling another couple of blocks through neighborhoods of small post-World War II tract homes, I found the church next to a sea of striped asphalt, which only adds weight to the parish’s bumper sticker: “Nativity of Our Lady (a) parish with a parking lot.” Take that, downtown Sunday parking meters.

Talking with Father Mike is not unlike taking a long, cool drink on a spiritually thirsty day. He talks in soothing tones, gestures easily while offering a colorful anecdote, parable or parish policy. Lord help me if his eyes don’t crinkle and winkle when he laughs, which is often and easily.

A compact man of 70 who looks 20 years younger (probably through good genes, he says; his mother is in her early 90s and looks and acts 60), this shepherd of the parish for the past 271⁄2 years is hanging up his vestments as of Saturday. The following day, he’ll be a guest in the parish’s nave, listening to Catholic Mass delivered by the church’s new pastor, The Rev. Matt Pennington, who is relocating from Capitola. (You can find his homilies by Googling Father Matt Pennington.)

“He has a master’s in divinity, is musical with extroverted dynamics,” said Father Mike of his successor. “He’ll be a good fit and will lead in new ways.”

And that’s just fine with the pastor, who easily and readily admits that Our Lady is more than one person.

“It’s not the Father Mike Show; it’s a family. We hug a lot,” he said with an expansive gesture. “Our parish is known for welcoming gays, lesbians, transgenders, the political right and left. The Gospel is really for all.”

Born in Stockton and raised in Modesto, Father Mike says he came from a spiritual home life. He entered a seminary in Santa Cruz, took his vows, taught for a number of years and eventually became the first person to be ordained in the Old Mission in 1976. “That’s how I got to know San Luis Obispo and found Our Lady.”

He took over the parish on Nov. 2, 1984, which happened to be All Soul’s Day in the Catholic Church, and thinks it was a fitting beginning to a lifetime love of his church and flock.

Not that the flock was healthy, numbers wise, when he arrived. In fact, only about 65 parishioners shared the football field-sized parking lot at the time. As the parish grew to some 300-plus members, Bishop Rich Garcia of the Diocese of Monterey, which oversees this area, wanted to know what Father Mike’s secret was to growing the flock.

“I told him I bought a coffee pot. ‘And ?’ ” the bishop wanted to know, perhaps sensing miracles in such a coffee pot. “I told him I bought a coffee pot, doughnuts and smiled a lot and people wanted to stay after the Mass and talk,” he laughs at the memory.

In short, he built a community on principles of forgiveness, the Gospels, parables and spiritual healing. And people wanted to stay after Mass to have a cup of coffee while talking with friends and fellow parishioners about those principles.

As for the future, his stepping down as the parish’s priest has unsettled some members of the church, most notably those who don’t like change and youngsters who, by his observation, are innately spiritual. But he needs surgery on his shoulder and wants a couple of months to rest. He has no plans for moving from the area and, as he adds with yet another laugh, “You’ll be able to find me every morning at the Budget Café” on South Higuera Street.

He says he’ll mainly use his time to explore and apply the healing power of meditation and spiritual rituals similar to those of Native Americans.

Toward that end, and as a devout pacifist, he’s dedicating his life to helping returning soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Forty percent (of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan) are addicted in one form or another, the suicide rate is higher than the (death rate) of these wars. Through spiritual meditation, I will be dealing with healing and transition back to civilian life. They’ve been asked to move their souls aside so they can kill, and then are abandoned when they return. This is the sin of our nation.”

Father Mike is one of the “last pastors for life,” a situation where a priest tends only one parish during a career. Church doctrine now calls for a priest to serve six years in one place and then petition the diocese for another six years.

He says he’ll most miss the Masses, his staff and board, the sense of community in his flock, the children deeply understanding the parables of sharing and forgiveness. And, not the least, he will miss his hospital ministry at Sierra Vista, visiting the ill and administering last rites when necessary.

It’s been in this role that he’s witnessed miracles: Cal Poly students involved in brain injury accidents that should have left them severely impaired, if not dead, only to see them recover so miraculously they graduated with their classes through the power of prayer. It’s a matter of faith that miracles happen all the time; it’s a matter of degree.

I left the “parish with a parking lot” and retraced my drive back to the office. Sure enough, there were the three boys sitting behind their Patricia Street card table, so I pulled over and asked for a lemonade, only to be told that they’d run out about an hour earlier.

“And you’re still here?” I asked. “Why?”

“Because we told you we’d be here when you came back,” said one of the boys. And for that they got a dollar and an “atta boy” for keeping their word and business ethics intact.

It was a miracle of sorts, the degree being only as profound as one wants to believe.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.