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Singer Natalie Cole’s unforgettable connection to a Richmond church, pastor

Singer Natalie Cole and the Rev. James Sichko in 2009 during her second visit to Saint Mark Catholic Church in Richmond.
Singer Natalie Cole and the Rev. James Sichko in 2009 during her second visit to Saint Mark Catholic Church in Richmond. Photo courtesy Rev. James W. Sichko

News of the death of Grammy winner Natalie Cole, singer of This Will Be and Our Love, has affected her fans across the world.

But for some at Saint Mark Catholic Church in Richmond, Cole’s death feels more personal.

“When these celebrities come to St. Mark we don’t treat them any differently,” the Rev. James Sichko said. “We treat them as if they are any other parishioners.”

Cole died Thursday evening at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles due to complications from ongoing health issues, her family said in a statement. She was 65. The daughter of jazz legend Nat King Cole had her greatest success in 1991 when she re-recorded her father’s classic hits — with him on the track — for the album Unforgettable … With Love. It became a multiplatinum smash and garnered her multiple Grammy Awards, including album of the year.

Cole came to Richmond to perform in 2007 and in 2009, as part of a celebrity concert series coordinated by the church.

Sichko said the pair hit it off almost immediately at baggage claim in the Blue Grass Airport in ’07, when Sichko asked why Cole was traveling with five or seven huge trunks of clothing.

“I said, ‘You’re here one day, doing two shows,’” Sichko said. Cole replied, “But Father Jim, a woman has to have choices.”

He said Cole’s first concert at times moved the audience to tears, including a performance of Unforgettable, which he said Cole dedicated to him.

After her visit, the pair maintained a relationship, one so personal that Sichko said he secretly contacted Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles to see it were possible for him to donate a kidney to an ailing Cole. She later got a match from a different donor.

“Our parish really rallied around her, supporting her through prayer,” he said, during Cole’s illness and 2009 transplant.

Sichko said Cole’s challenges in her life such as divorce or past intravenous drug use never deterred the church from supporting her.

“She didn’t give up and God didn’t give up on her,” he said.

Michael McKay: 859-231-1324, @MichaelMcKay716

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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