His kind of town: Blase Cupich becomes part of a colorful history

That toddlin' town...

Few recent episcopal appointments have attracted as much public attention as that in Chicago this week. The media have had a great time contrasting the supposedly arch-conservative Cardinal Francis George with his surprise successor, the barely known but arguably liberal former bishop of Spokane, Blase Cupich. But dramatic turnovers in the American church have a long and colorful history, and Chicago may have the most colorful of all.

We’re coming up on the centenary of the most dramatic of all these transitions, that attending the nomination of George William Mundelein in 1915. But to understand the drama of that appointment, we need to start first with the case of Dennis J. Dougherty.

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In 1915 Dougherty became bishop of Buffalo. He had served in the Philippines following the Filipino-American war and was made a bishop there in 1903. In 1915 when Archbishop James Edward Quigley of Chicago died, Dougherty made clear his interest in succeeding Quigley, but somehow a war intervened. The Great War had begun in August the previous year, Britain was fully engaged with the French in opposing the Kaiser, Wilson’s America was neutral and the British were doing everything possible to get the United States to commit, including finding out what U.S. appointments the Vatican might make at this delicate time.

The U.S. Catholic community was then largely dominated by the two ethnic groups that gave the British Foreign Office greatest concern, the Germans and the Irish. The Germans for the obvious reasons of loyalty to the homeland, even if many of them had come to this country to escape Bismarck’s persecution; the Irish for the long-standing belief that England’s problem was Ireland’s opportunity. The Fenian Brotherhood was active in many parts of the United States; the Easter Rising was just a year away.

Historians claim that the Foreign Office learned that a young German-American, actually German-Irish just to make things worse, was to be named to succeed the just-deceased Bishop Colton of Buffalo. Somehow, the story goes, the British persuaded the Vatican not to send to a diocese abutting the empire—Canada!—someone with this pedigree and with uncertain views about the war in Europe. So Brooklyn’s auxiliary bishop, George Mundelein, was instead sent to Chicago where he reigned for 30 years, dying in his sleep in 1939. He had cut a huge swath in American public life, was an intimate friend and frequent guest of FDR, and was only 67 when he died.

The story of his initiation to Chicago bears retelling. The 20th century saw anarchists active in many parts of the world—think of McKinley’s assassination in Buffalo in 1901 when Quigley was bishop there; Quigley had inveighed against anarchists both in Buffalo and later in Chicago. At the welcoming banquet for Archbishop Mundelein, an anarchist chef managed to mix arsenic in the chicken soup that was served to the nearly 300 guests, most of whom were wretchedly sick, although none died and the archbishop, who apparently delayed touching his soup until all had been served, was unaffected. A rough start but this indefatigable churchman was to put his mark on Chicago like no one since, with the possible exceptions of Cardinal Bernardin and now, perhaps, the retiring Cardinal George.

So if Mundelein wasn’t to go to Buffalo, who would? Dennis Dougherty was more than ready to come home and was thus persuaded to accept the see of Buffalo on the sole proviso that the next time a cardinalatial see was open, it was his. And so it was that, in 1918 when Philadelphia’s Archbishop Prendergast died, the soon-to-be Cardinal Dougherty left Buffalo after three years and became the eighth bishop of Philadelphia. (Among his less endearing traits, he, together with Boston’s William Henry O’Connell, favored suppressing the nascent National Catholic War Council, the later National Catholic Welfare Conference.)

The story of how Quigley went from Buffalo to Chicago is still more fascinating. And it involves the sad conclusion to the career of one of America’s most brilliant and promising churchmen, John Lancaster Spalding.

The sixth bishop of Chicago was the truly beloved Patrick A. Feehan, remembered favorably by many with the sole blot on his escutcheon being the construction of the great mansion that Archbishop-elect Cupich will soon inhabit (or not, turns out he prefers to live in the rectory). In those days, the United States was still a “mission” land, under Propaganda Fide. Feehan was nominated for Nashville but, because his aged mother was invalid, he declined. The “offer” (which is how today’s phone call from the nuncio was then described) was made again after his mother’s death and he accepted. Made bishop of Nashville in 1865 and in 1880, just as Chicago was elevated to an archdiocese, Feehan was appointed its first archbishop.

When Feehan was 70 and his health failing, he asked Rome for an episcopal assistant and so Alexander McGavick became his auxiliary. His consecration sermon was preached by the famous Lancaster Spalding, but McGavick soon took ill, so Feehan asked for another and in 1901, Peter Muldoon became Chicago’s auxiliary bishop.

Both Muldoon and Spalding were to become major issues at the time of Feehan’s succession; indeed they were the first two names on the terna that the Chicago pastors sent to the papal delegate.

It’s worth noting here that it was the pastors, typically “irremovable” pastors, who prepared the list of three names to submit to Propaganda, and Chicago’s pastors, overwhelmingly Irish at that time, submitted the names of Peoria’s John Lancaster Spalding, no Irishman he, and their local auxiliary, Peter Muldoon. So sure were they that Rome would name Spalding, a seeming shoo-in, that they added just for good measure and to give him a leg up for the also open see of New York, Buffalo’s feisty friend of labor, James Edward Quigley.

We would today see Spalding as a great choice, as did virtually everyone at that time, except for some pesky skeletons in his closet, of which more presently. Ditto Muldoon, an exceptionally fine bishop, but one caught up in the ethnic rivalries of the era. The Irish pastors were said to be divided between those who would favor a U.S.-born priest (though almost certainly of Irish parentage) and an Irish-born one. Muldoon’s parents were from the other side but he, poor Patrick, was not born in Chicago, but in that very foreign country of California.

So, Propaganda passed over the two choices and reached into Buffalo to make Quigley the second archbishop of Chicago. But if the Chicago pastors had had their way, Quigley, not John Murphy Farley, might have gone to the Big Apple to replace Michael Corrigan. Corrigan, who, like Feehan, died in 1902, was the only New York archbishop following John McCloskey not made cardinal.

What then was in Lancaster Spalding’s closet? Quite simply, the Caldwell sisters. The short version is that, having been brought up as pious Catholics, daughters of a self-made multi-millionaire, the sisters were for a time the most generous benefactors of the newly-created Catholic University of America but, later in their short lives, abandoned the church and denounced their one-time guardian and administrator of their funds, John Lancaster Spalding.

Their denunciation of Spalding included charges that each had been intimately involved with the priest—Mary Gwendolin asserting to her sister in 1901 that she had been sexually involved with Spalding for 20 years, thus beginning when she was 19, and Mary Elizabeth calling him “a whited sepulcher” and “a very atheist and infidel” and offering to come to Rome to testify about her own intimate relations with him.

These would be sensational revelations at any time, but one can only imagine their explosive effect during those Victorian years. In addition to heightened sensitivity about sexual misconduct, this was also a time of intense anti-Catholicism in much of the country. Immigration was as major a political issue then as it is now and was freighted with the organized hostility to Catholics from such as the American Protective Association (the “No Nothings”) and the Ku Klux Klan. (A widespread APA rumor was that the pope would soon absolve Catholics from all oaths of allegiance to the U.S.)

Major hierarchs quietly investigated the charges. Archbishop Riordan of San Francisco traveled to Europe to meet with Mary Elizabeth who had threatened to inform the Vatican; he returned convinced that Spalding must not be promoted. “I had hoped,” he wrote, “he was innocent but I am now satisfied that he is guilty… I feel bound in conscience to prevent his promotion to the See of Chicago … the Baroness threatens to make it public if he is promoted. If he is left where he is, she will be kept quiet … If this affair should be made public it will be the greatest scandal that ever occurred in the American Church.”

Riordan was later to change his view and today, there is general consensus that the sisters’ stories about Spalding bore little relation to the facts, that their tragic marriages and psychic illnesses, plus Spalding’s unwillingness to arrange an annulment for Mary Elizabeth, contributed to their turning against the church, which they both eventually renounced; each died in her mid-40s. Spalding remained bishop of Peoria. He resigned in 1908 at the age of 68 and died in 1916.

Chicago’s earlier bishops wrote fascinating chapters of their own although none quite as dramatic as those of a century ago. The Chicago diocese was originally part of the Province of St. Louis and all the early bishops came through that diocese. The second bishop, the Belgian Jesuit James Van de Velde, found the Chicago winters too harsh for his rheumatic condition and asked to be transferred to a warmer clime and became the bishop of Natchez.

His successor, Anthony O’Regan, returned the papal document appointing him to Chicago, “alleging his unfitness as a man of bookish and retired habits for the strenuous duties of an American bishopric.” He was appointed a second time with a papal mandate to accept, was consecrated in 1854 and in 1858, while in Rome, urged acceptance of his resignation.

When James Duggan, coadjutor to St. Louis, was made bishop of Chicago in 1859 he was only 34 and was in poor health throughout his turbulent time there. There were problems with the German Catholics unhappy with the Irish bishop and the Irish-born priests opposed his stand against the Fenian Brotherhood. After returning from the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1866, he began to change—moodiness, erratic behavior, signs of stress. Some priests asked the Vatican to investigate and so, in 1880, he was removed and spent the next two decades at a sanatorium of the Sisters of Charity in St. Louis. He did at least have the distinction of receiving Stephen Douglas into the Church.

More recently in 2001, at the instance of Cardinal George, Bishop Duggan’s remains were disinterred from Evanston’s Calvary Cemetery and brought to the mausoleum at Mt. Carmel Cemetery that was built in 1912 for the leaders of the Chicago church. It was to right a historical wrong, said Cardinal George. “I hope we can make visible the silent suffering of mental illness and that we will never leave anyone behind as we left Bishop Duggan behind.”

So Thomas Foley, Baltimore born, was coadjutor with right of succession to Bishop Duggan. He was not made archbishop but effectively ran the diocese from 1870 to 1879. He led the diocese through the ravages of the Great Fire of 1871 and rebuilt many of the destroyed buildings and was said to have “laid the foundation for its [the diocese’s] restoration.” He died in 1879 and is buried in Baltimore. Cardinal George has also spoken of moving Bishop Foley, little known since he never became archbishop, to the mausoleum at Mt. Carmel.

Back to the first two archbishops, Feehan and Quigley, who had the distinction (apart from being Tipperary men and also the last not to be made cardinals) of pioneering the American church’s ethnic outreach. Their time, Quigley’s especially, was one of rampant racist hostility to the hordes of eastern and southern Europeans who were pouring into cities like Chicago and they made the conscious decision to allow for, even encourage, the “national” parishes. With so much in their new society seemingly against the newly arrived, the bishops reasoned that they needed time to adjust to the American culture. The comfort of gathering on a Sunday with their fellow Slavs or Bohemians or Sicilians, singing the hymns in the old language, establishing parochial schools where English was taught as a second language was all part of a plan to allow for a gradual assimilation.

That practice put Feehan and Quigley, as well as McQuaid, Ryan, Elder, etc., among the “conservative” bishops, while the liberals, the “Americanizers” like Gibbons, Keene, Martin Spalding, etc. held that the immigrants needed to become Americans as quickly as possible, thus underscoring the compatibility of the Catholic faith with American values.

Who is to say which approach was the better? The national parishes may have preserved the faith for many at that time, but they also accentuated the differences among what Michael Novak was to call the unmeltable ethnics. Andrew Greeley credited Quigley with recognizing the values of ethnic pride, but Mundelein’s biographer was surely right in noting the episcopal headaches of the new archbishop as he sought to merge parishes that could no longer be sustained.

A final note on Chicago’s ethnicity as the first Croatian bishop takes the helm. In the first years of the last century, Chicago’s Germans were the special care of Quigley’s German vicar general; Quigley handled the Irish and had a special love for the Italians; he created more Italian parishes than any other. And while the Resurrectionist Fathers pretty much controlled the Polish parishes, Quigley petitioned Rome to grant him a Polish auxiliary bishop. Paul Rhode, the nation’s very first Polish bishop was consecrated on July 26, 1909. Six years later, a very ill, in fact dying archbishop was resting at the house of his brother, the chief of police of Rochester, N.Y. Hearing that Quigley’s death was near, much of Chicago’s Polonia was in joyful expectation that Rhode might be named to succeed. It was not to be. On July 10, 1915 Archbishop Quigley died; five days earlier, Bishop Rhode was named bishop of Green Bay. And thus began the Mundelein era.

Few cities better expressed the ethnic strengths and weaknesses that typified much of late 19th and early 20th century life in America than did Chicago, and especially Catholic Chicago. Even today, Chicagoans meeting others in distant cities will identify the neighborhood in which they grew up as St. Mel’s or St. Kilian’s, but ethnic Chicago has gradually diminished. Slavs, Germans and Irish each now make up less than 8 percent of the city’s 2.7 million population, even if the Chicago River is still turned Kelly green on St. Patrick’s Day.

The Irish-German hegemony in the episcopate, which is where this tale began, is now permanently changed. For generations the archbishops alternated between Irish and German, from Quigley to Mundelein to Stritch to Meyer to Cody, then blissfully broken by the Italian Bernardin and finally merged by the German-Irish George. Now a brand new and ever more hopeful era approaches, with an Argentine pope and a Croatian archbishop of Chicago.

Tom Quigley is a former foreign policy advisor at the bishops' conference and a cousin of Chicago's Archbishop Quigley.

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