DeKALB – It's clear to the Rev. Dean Russell that leading St. Mary Parish in DeKalb is what he's meant to do.
After eight years as the pastor of St. James Parish in Rockford, Russell was selected as the pastor of St. Mary, a role he stepped into July 1.
“I fell to peace before I came,” said Russell, 45. “This is what God is calling me to do. This is what I'm ordained and promised to do. So I'm excited about what God will do here.”
The Bishop and the Vicar of the Diocese of Rockford in June selected Russell to be the lead pastor of St. Mary Parish in DeKalb. He started serving the church on July 1, replacing the Rev. James Parker, who served as head pastor for the past year. Parker was chosen to lead Holy Cross Parish in Batavia.
Russell's previous church, St. James Parish in Rockford, served 800 families, about 500 less than the number of families that attend St. Mary.
“Father Russell is a very talented priest and he brings a lot of parish and school experience,” said Penny Wiegert, the director of communications for the Diocese.
Russell became Catholic while he was attending Western Illinois University where he earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy with a minor in religious studies. At 22, he felt compelled to go into priesthood, but first consulted the late Rev. Jim Murphy from St. Edward in Rockford.
“He told me one way to discern is to go to seminary,” Russell said.
So at 22, he entered St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein. However, Russell wasn't ready to commit to being a priest and left after three years. He worked for four years at various jobs until he decided to return to seminary following three hours of silent prayer.
“Everything has its challenges and its joys no matter what we choose, but once that choice was made it brings a certain freedom and peace and strength to my life,” Russell said.
Russell was ordained in 2000 after finishing his theology studies at Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
From 2000 to 2002 Russell served as the parochial vicar at Holy Angels Parish in Aurora. He became administrator of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Aurora in 2002 and pastor at that parish in 2003, where he worked until 2006 when he became the pastor of St. James Parish in Rockford.
Russell said he brings with him a love for liturgy, scripture and catechism. He said other priorities as lead pastor will be to continue to support the various groups that are active in the church and to work one-on-one with people. He also sees himself supporting the school and the various charitable efforts of the church.
“It's very clear to me that it's God's work,” Russell said. “I try not to get in the way.”
He said the first two weeks in DeKalb have been filled with graciousness, hospitality and food from members of the parish.
Joan Metzger, a member of the pastoral council, spoke to Russell when he visited a women's Bible study group one morning. As the group discussed the story of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, the discussion turned to how women without children used to be treated.
Rather than puzzling through the question as they usually would, the dozen or so women turned to Russell for his interpretation.
“He didn't try to lead us, but he was responsive,” Metzger said. “He's got a very good way of empathizing with people.
Metzger said she's also impressed by the sincerity and celebrations she sees in Russell during Mass.
“He does have a good amount of awe,” Metzger said. “You can feel that it's not just something he has to do.”