Vintage Chicago Tribune: What to know about Mundelein, a century after his elevation as Chicago’s first Cardinal

One hundred years ago, Chicago Catholics were given a gift from Pope Pius XI — the city’s first cardinal. Archbishop George W. Mundelein, who arrived in Chicago nine years earlier as the church’s youngest archbishop, was told in early March 1924 to drop his plans and sail for Rome immediately.

Many speculated Mundelein and Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes of New York would become the first native-born Americans to be elevated to the high office, which would allow them to one day select a new pope with their counterparts from around the world. The Vatican confirmed this suspicion, saying this action was to thank the American people for two reasons — their loyalty to the Roman Catholic church and for alleviating the suffering of the world after World War I.

Chicago’s first cardinal not afraid to lead in city — and the world

Floyd Gibbons, the Tribune’s dashing war correspondent, covered the pomp and circumstance and obtained the first public statement made by Cardinal Mundelein after his elevation.

“I have reached the topmost rung of the ladder for an ecclesiastic — the highest honor for a churchman — while still in the prime of life. I have no other ambition,” he said. “There is but one thing more for me to do, and that is to labor as efficiently as I can for God and for my fellow men and to try to save my soul.”

An estimated 1 million Chicagoans lined the streets when Mundelein returned from Rome on Mother’s Day with his cardinal’s hat. Today, a suburban village and seminary are named in his honor and his hat hangs from the ceiling of Holy Name Cathedral.

July 10, 1915: Archbishop Quigley dies in New York

The Roman Catholic Church in Chicago lost its leader when the Canadian-born, Rochester-raised priest died. Quigley, who turned down a cadetship at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in order to become a man of the cloth, had taken ill during a trip to the East Coast three months prior and remained there.

Previously the head of the Buffalo diocese, Quigley gained a national reputation for rooting out “socialism” in trade unions. Yet his appointment as archbishop in Chicago a dozen years earlier had been a surprise — as would the appointment of his successor.

Mundelein would later open a seminary named for Quigley.

Nov. 29, 1915: Selection of Mundelein to lead Chicago Catholics ‘a complete surprise’

The 43-year-old bishop, who had led the Diocese of Brooklyn since 1909, wasn’t well known here — so much so that several clergymen who were informed of the coming appointment told the Tribune that the dispatch may have been made in error. But the Vatican confirmed the decision days later.

To Mundelein, too, the announcement was a shock: “The appointment, which was a personal one from the holy father, came like a bolt from a clear sky,” he told reporters. “When I read the message I had to look again because I thought it must be a mistake.”

Mundelein, who was born to a poor German family in a Lower East Side tenement in New York, could trace his heritage to the early days of this country. His great-grandfather’s father helped build the first German Catholic church in the United States in 1834, and his maternal grandfather fell in battle as a Union soldier in the Civil War.

Feb. 9, 1916: Becomes Chicago’s third archbishop

Just one day after arriving in Chicago for the first time, Mundelein was installed as archbishop of Chicago in a ceremony before thousands at Holy Name Cathedral.

“The last thought that leaves me at night and the first that comes to me in the morning, since I received this appointment, has been the importance of it and whether it was too big,” Mundelein told the congregation. “I can do all things if you help me. I am willing to take the burden and give up my life, if necessary. You must be generous in your sympathy, generous in your devotion; stay with me always, good times and bad.”

Feb. 10, 1916: ‘Groans and sounds of distress’ signs of poisoning at Mundelein’s banquet

One of the cooks at the gala affair attended by about 200 people, an atheist named Jean Crones, had deliberately poisoned the soup. Mundelein passed up the concoction because he was dieting; other guests who did partake fell violently ill, and three, including banker Andrew J. Graham, died.

A frantic search of the kitchen at the University Club of Chicago revealed that Crones, an anarchist who held anti-religious beliefs, was missing. The reason more did not die was because another cook, who did not like the looks of four other cans of poisoned stock Crones had prepared, poured them down the drain, thus diluting the fatal brew.

After fleeing, Crones wrote a letter explaining, “I am sorry that not all or at least a 100 got killed.” The would-be mass murderer was indicted but never captured.

March 24, 1924: Elevated to cardinal — the first west of the Allegheny Mountains

Weeks after receiving notice to sail for Rome at once, Mundelein arrived in Vatican City for a private meeting with Pope Pius XI, who gave a blessing for all the people — Catholic and non — of Chicago.

He and Archbishop Hayes of New York became “princes of the church” during an elaborate ceremony in Vatican City where their skull caps were exchanged for crimson-colored wide-brimmed hats denoting their promotions.

June 20-24, 1926: Presides over 28th International Eucharistic Congress

Mundelein promised Pope Pius XI that if he allowed the event to take place in Chicago, then “a great spiritual banquet” of 1 million communions would open the festivities. In all, 6,000 Masses took place on the event’s first day at the archdiocese’s more than 360 churches, the Tribune reported.

Nearly 1 million Catholics from around the world joined the almost 1 million local Catholics during the four-day gathering. Almost 200,000 people flooded into Soldier Field each day (despite rain and hail the last day) and venerated the consecrated bread and wine of the eucharist — a triumphant celebration of Catholicism’s central sacrament.

Closing the event in the village that had been named for him, Mundelein thanked the crowd of Catholics and non-Catholics assembled, “Irrespective of creed or station in life, I believe every one will agree with me that the days of the Eucharistic Congress were a time of much grace and many blessings and that at this time the Lord surely walked again among his people.”

May 18, 1937: Criticizes Hitler

In a speech before 500 priests and bishops at Quigley Seminary, Mundelein spoke against Nazi propaganda that targeted German Catholics — especially schoolchildren.

In what’s known today as the “Paperhanger” speech, Mundelein warned that there was no guarantee that the battle front would not stretch some day into the U.S. and he belittled the regime’s leader, Adolph Hitler, as “an Austrian paperhanger, and a poor one at that.”

Nov. 13, 1938: Participates in beatification rites for Mother Cabrini

Mundelein, who officiated the funeral Mass for Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini in 1917, presided over the Vatican City ceremony that brought her one step closer to sainthood. She was canonized on July 7, 1946, becoming the first American named a saint.

March 2, 1939: Picks new pope

Mundelein became the first Chicago cardinal to participate in the election of a pope, Pius XII, who was chosen on the College of Cardinals’ third ballot.

The new pope, then known as Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, joined Mundelein and students for a Thanksgiving feast at University of St. Mary of the Lake, which is home to Mundelein Seminary, in 1936. The Tribune reported that Pacelli loved the taste of dressing and had a second helping of white meat before exclaiming the meal “would be an excellent repast for any occasion.”

Oct. 2, 1939: Death

After serving 24 years as the Catholic Archbishop of Chicago, Mundelein died in his sleep at age 67 at his country villa. So many people walked by his body in a final, silent farewell in Holy Name Cathedral that they wore out the blue carpet in the nave where his body rested.

Mundelein was buried beneath the altar of Immaculate Conception Church at University of St. Mary of the Lake.

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