A convert to Catholicism, Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, restaurant critic, and cookbook author, who is passionate about every aspect of the food world—from interviewing chefs to supporting local farmers and to making the connection between food and faith
Raised in a devout Catholic family in Mundelein, Illinois, Father John McNamara with his siblings and parents attended church regularly. As he noted, Sunday Mass was a large part of his life growing up. But, apparently, so was cooking.
“What really attracted me to the food world,” he said, “was a love for food and the experiences I had cooking with my family at gatherings. It was mainly my dad’s mom and my aunt that always welcomed my assistance in the kitchen. I learned a lot from them in my early years and that sparked an interest in taking food classes in high school and college.” He also worked at a Pizza Hut and a local ice cream and burger place.
After high school, he attended a community college to learn all about restaurants, hotels, cooking and restaurant management. When he graduated, Father McNamara got an internship with Elegante Cuisine in the Chicago suburbs. “That was the big start for me,” he said. “This is where I learned a ton about food, cooking and catering, after that I went into corporate dining with Aramark.”
There he had the responsibility of feeding all the employees and working with 15 to 20 cooks in the kitchen. “We fed from 1500 to 2000 people every day for lunch. We had different stations too, with someone making Italian food, or someone cooking Chinese food, someone running the grill, and someone making all the salads.” In addition to feeding the lunch crowds, the kitchen staff was responsible for catering meals for meetings throughout the building.
Almost a decade later, Father McNamara was invited by a previous owner of Elegante Cuisine to join him in a new venture — an opportunity to cook for famous musicians around the country. “I did that for about two years with different stints,” he said “We went to every state and to Canada, except Alaska and Hawaii. It was a lot of work. The food industry is tough to begin with,” adding that “the staff woke at 5 a.m. daily and worked until 10 p.m., always on our feet, and grabbing a chocolate chip cookie now and then for energy.”
The problem for Father McNamara, it turned out, was that he fell away from his faith and he and his colleagues did not go to Sunday Mass. But the Holy Spirit and caring people touched his heart, he said, urging him to focus on the most important part of his life, his Catholic faith. “I went to confession,” he said, “and one thing led to the next, inspiring me to get back home.”
Although he entered into another cooking project by partnering to run a small Italian restaurant in northern Wisconsin, Father McNamara felt a calling to the priesthood. “I went to the local Adoration chapel,” he said, “and I was convinced the Lord was calling me to the priesthood.” Fortunately, his business partner understood, and Father McNamara applied for the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois. He was accepted, and attended Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, where he got a Master’s in Theology and was ordained a priest in 2015.
Now a parochial vicar at his parish at St. Bridget Parish in Rockford, Father McNamara certainly fulfills all his priestly duties. But, not surprisingly, he also cooks on occasion and experiments with different ingredients. “I do fundraisers for the school and for the Knights of Columbus events,” he said, “and I am chaplain for them and cook for them. They love the recipe for Father John’s Meatballs … and I cook with other priests in the rectory on average once a week.”
Both his passion for Catholicism and for cooking he describes as an amazing gift and an amazing journey. “In the past, I focused on serving people and feeding bellies,” he said. “Now I am feeding souls more and helping people on their spiritual journey.”
And, he noted, his very devout parents and family members have been very supportive of his life choices. “I am truly grateful,” he said.