Cardinal Bonzano kneeling before the outdoor
altar at Soldier Field during the 1926 Eucharistic
Mundelein was named Archbishop of Chicago in December 1915 and installed the following February. At that time he was the youngest American Archbishop, but also one of the most capable administrators. Despite the restrictions of war-time economy (World War I) he was able to lay the foundations of economic administration that would permit a tremendous expansion of the Archdiocese even during the years of the great depression which lay ahead. In 1924 Pius XI named Mundelein to the College of Cardinals—the first American Cardinal west of the Alleghany Mountains. Returning from Rome with his red hat, Mundelein was given an exceptional civic reception in Chicago. Arriving by special train from New York, the new Cardinal was greeted by the Mayor and members of the city council who escorted him to his cathedral in a parade with marching bands. The cardinal’s limousine was emblazoned with his Coat of Arms and escorted by Chicago’s finest walking alongside. At the Cathedral the Cardinal presided at a service of thanksgiving before proceeding to a reception for five thousand guests.
Mundelein did everything on this scale and his magnificence made quite an impression on Chicago, but his crowning achievement was the construction of an opulent campus for his new seminary and as a site for an international gathering of Catholic prelates and laity planned for 1926.
In 1844 the State of Illinois had chartered a Catholic College at the request of Bishop William J. Quarter. The school was meant primarily for the education of future clergy but the financial burden proved insupportable and the school closed in 1866. Mundelein revived it in 1921 and situated it on the campus of a failed experimental educational institution in Area, Il—a village whose name was changed in 1925 to Mundelein in honor of the Cardinal. Cardinal Mundelein spared no expense in building the campus of his new seminary. A magnificent chapel—larger than many parish churches and built in a distinctly American Architectural style—was flanked by a huge library to the one side and a matching administration building and faculty residence on the other. The philosophy wing stretched out the campus to one end, the theology to the other, all in perfect symmetry around the central chapel. The campus also contains a gymnasium and theatre as well as a golf course. Running down from the chapel to an artificial lake are flights of stairs. The lake is the center point of the campus. Three large piers reach out into the lake, the larger center one directly below the chapel with the two smaller ones flanking it. The entire campus was designed as the location for the 1926 Eucharistic Congress Mundelein hosted in Chicago.
Nothing bespeaks Mundelein’s princely tastes like the 1926 Eucharistic Congress. Mundelein met Cardinal Bonzano, the papal legate, in New York and escorted him and Cardinals O’Donnell of Armagh (Ireland), Hayes of New York, Charost of Rennes, Reig y Casanova of Toledo (Spain), Du Bois of Paris, von Faulhaber of Munich, Piffl of Vienna, and Czernoch of Esztergom (Hungary) back to Chicago. Each of the Cardinals had his own private Pullman car for himself and his entourage, painted Cardinal red and decorated with his coat of arms. The train made a grand sweep of the Catholic Northeast—Utica, Syaracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo where it was greeted by throngs of devout Catholics. On the morning of Thursday, June 17th, The train arrived at Chicago’s Park Row station on Michigan Avenue from which the Cardinals were taken in parade to Soldier Field for a Mass with over a half-million people present.
Mundelein’s triumph was resented by Cardinal O’Connell of Boston who, though he had to be present, refused a place on the Cardinal’s train and instead came from Boston by steamer across the great lakes. In full Cardinal’s regalia, he led 500 pilgrims from Boston off the ship to the celebrations.
The entire Congress was a meant to be—and was—a triumph of Catholicism over the dominant American Democratic Protestant culture. For a week, Chicago was flooded with the scarlets and purples and magentas of Cardinals, bishops, and monsignors in their finery. The final ceremony, held at Mundelein’s new seminary with a procession around the lake and Solemn Benediction being given to the crowd of one million from the central pier below the seminary chapel was perhaps the most outrageously extravagant piece of liturgical theater in this country’s history—a sort of Catholic precursor to the dramatic Nuremburg rallies of the third Reich. The cost of the entire event will never be known and certainly today could never be duplicated. I am not sure what Jesus would have thought of this, but in many ways Mundelein, while over the top by today’s standards, was, in his own time, an effective evangelist. First of all it must be remembered that he built Chicago’s Catholic Charities, the largest charitable institution in the City of Chicago. He had a Saint Vincent de Paul association established in every parish. He built a Catholic School system that provided both immigrant and American children a quality education that afforded them a chance to break out of poverty and into the Middle Class. He built a network of Catholic hospitals and health-care institutions that ministered to all Chicagoans, regardless of religious affiliation.
Mundelein was a political liberal and strong supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. He was a good balance to the autocratic Cardinal O’Connell of Boston—with whom he had a rivalry and contest for power that was anything but friendly. Mundelein took on the infamous Father Coughlin when Coughlin began using his radio pulpit to push anti-semitism. And Mundelein famously referred to Adolph Hitler as “an Austrian paper-hanger, and not a good one at that.” To a great extent his princely style enhanced his public presence and enabled him to wield the sort of power he needed to accomplish the good that he did. He created a mystique of power around himself that awed Catholic and non-Catholic alike. It would not work today, indeed today would be a scandal, but we cannot judge people in the past by today’s standards. In the end, I am a bit nonplussed by George Mundelein. I find that I can’t respect him for his style, but neither can I judge him for his accomplishments. He is a curiosity from an age that I am glad has passed but have to acknowledge for the successes of its own day.