A few days after the big parade, the reigning St. Patrick's Day parade queen, a pretty (it goes without saying) young woman named Sarah Gorecki (I will get to that name shortly), said, "Yes, there are no more parades, but this is a lot more than about parades. You are representing your Irish heritage. I visited a hospital yesterday and spent time with all these wonderful children."
Chicago has been selecting St. Patrick's Day parade queens for nearly four decades, and the process has always been intense, with more than 100 women of Irish ancestry between the ages of 17 and 27 judged, according to the rules, on such qualities as "grace, sincerity, beauty, poise, personality and wit."
"It is a contest, but there's no jealousy," said Gorecki. "All the girls become your friends."
You can gather insight into the process by getting a copy (available at skinnyhouli.com) of "Her Majesty, 'da Queen," an hourlong documentary by Mike Houlihan, shot on selection days in 2009 and 2010 and filled with interviews with labor leaders (the parade is sponsored by Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union 130 United Association), contestants and their family members, and some of the judges.
Catherine O'Connell was the parade queen in 1976.
"My mom and her friend signed me up in 1975, and I made it into the queen's court, and I got a watch," she said.
"At a party later at our house, somebody stole the watch. So next year I said, 'I'm signing myself up for the next contest. I need a watch.'"
She got a watch and the crown and has since made annual appearances at a St. Patrick's Day luncheon gathering of all former queens and the current one.
"It is a great kind of a sorority," said O'Connell. "I feel like a den mother. We have so much fun together."
Gorecki said, "I probably didn't realize it until the luncheon, but this honor and these women who came before me are part of me forever."
The 21-year-old Gorecki — "Polish on my dad's side and Irish on my mom's side," she said — is a freshman at DePaul University majoring in international studies, having taken a break after high school to explore a musical career on the West Coast. But she is determined that music stay a part of her life.
If she needs a role model, there is not far to look. O'Connell has made a fine career as a singer, first in taverns and cabarets before quitting to start a family. For the last decade or so she has been drawn to more intimate and less raucous spaces, such as churches, cathedrals and theaters.
O'Connell will be performing with longtime pals Kathleen Keane and Jimmy Moore on April 16 at the Skokie Theatre.
She used to characterize her career by saying, "I marry 'em, and I bury 'em" but since expanding her realm to include performing at baptisms, she said playfully, "I'm hatchin', matchin' and dispatchin'." She has also made five wonderful CDs, survived a horrific car crash, raised three fine young boys and still proudly wears, but once a year, the yellow sash she received long ago when she was a queen.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun