In the long and storied history of the Catholic Church in Chicago, few, if any, have had as profound an impact on the people of the city's churches and the city as a whole as Cardinal George Mundelein. Mundelein was famous not only for his liberal views and expansion and unification of the Church in Chicago, but also for his brave stand against radicals spreading hate, including the Rev. Charles Coughlin and Adolf Hitler.
Mundelein, born in 1872, grew up in a New York tenement with eight siblings. To escape from the poverty of his family, Mundelein dedicated himself to his studies. He finished seminary early, at age 20, and had to wait four years before being ordained. (The minimum age for priests at the time was 24.) Despite this delay, Mundelein quickly progressed, becoming the Bishop of Brooklyn in 1909 at age 37, making him the youngest bishop in the United States.
Only six years later, Mundelein became America's youngest Archbishop when he was named the Third Archbishop of Chicago. At his installation, he said that he was "different from the late Archbishop" and "more likely to act more quickly." These messages of change, while worrying some Chicago Catholics, were generally welcomed. In 1924, Pope Pius XI named Mundelein a Cardinal, making him the first Cardinal to lead a diocese west of the Allegheny Mountains. Over one million of the faithful cheered him on his return from Rome with his Cardinal's hat, a sign of his popularity.
Mundelein's penchant for change quickly was put to the test by the ethnic segregation of Chicago's parishes. Since the establishment of the Church in Chicago, it had been divided into Polish, Bohemian, German, and Irish parishes. Each clan had either enjoyed an archbishop that spoke their language or relative freedom from the Archbishop's control. Mundelein, however, did not give the ethnic clans this freedom. Mundelein, recognizing that segregated parishes reinforced the anti-Catholic claim that Catholics were loyal to their old countries rather than the United States, began to push for unity among these different ethnic groups almost as soon as he was appointed. His push was ultimately successful and is one of the primary reasons the vast majority of Chicago's Catholic churches are so diverse today.
It is unsurprising, given the poverty that he encountered during his childhood, that Mundelein was fairly liberal and supported the rights of labor. He supported FDR's New Deal programs and worked to move the Church away from its ties to business and towards ties with the people, who he claimed were the foundation of every aspect of the Church. Mundelein recognized in Jesus' teachings a commitment to the poor and downtrodden and worked to apply that to the industrial working class. During the Great Depression, Mundelein worked to expand the Church's charitable programs, establishing a citywide network of St. Vincent de Paul Societies.
Mundelein's commitment to the poor and to unity among ethnic groups made him several enemies. In 1916, an anarchist attempted to poison him and 100 distinguished business leaders at a banquet in the Cardinal's honor. Thankfully, the quick thinking and action of a doctor attending the banquet meant that none were seriously harmed by the poison. During the Great Depression, Mundelein also took on the Rev. Charles Coughlin. Coughlin had been preaching an anti-Semitic message on his popular radio broadcasts, claiming that the Jews were responsible for the hardships Americans were facing. While many Church authorities were afraid of Coughlin and allowed him to continue spreading his hateful message, Mundelein wasn't and said publicly that Coughlin was not authorized to speak for the Church. This helped mark the beginning of Coughlin's downfall. Mundelein also took on Adolf Hitler, who he claimed in a 1937 speech was an "alien...(wall)paper hanger" who had deceived the Germans into giving up their brains. Mundelein's remarks drew the ire of the German authorities, who demanded that the Vatican rebuke him. The Vatican, however, chose to stand by their beloved Cardinal.
Mundelein gave this famous speech at the Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary, which Mundelein began building almost immediately after his installation as Archbishop following Archbishop Quigley's death.
He also built St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, the largest seminary in the United States (and, he hoped, the first is a series of colleges around the lake of that campus that might one day become Catholic University. But the U.S. bishops decided to put that University in Washington, D.C.). The seminary was built in the town of Area, and honored Cardinal Mundelein by renaming the town in his honor.
As Mundelein worked to make Chicago a better city over his 24 years as Archbishop, he grew on the people of the city, and the city grew on him. Towards the end of his life, Mundelein said that Chicago was the "greatest city in the world" and that "the only way they will get me to leave Chicago is feet first." Mundelein passed away on October 2nd, 1939, at the age of 67. After a funeral attended by tens of thousands, he was buried behind the altar at the chapel at Mundelein Seminary.