Family members share stories of their brother Blase

By Michelle Martin | Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2014

Family members share stories of their brother Blase

If you ask Rich Cupich when he first heard that his brother Blase wanted to be a priest, he’ll tell you it was when Blase was quite young — about 9 — and in the hospital. “He probably doesn’t remember this, but I do,” said Rich Cupich.
Blase Cupich's high school graduation photo. He was student council president his senior year at Archbishop Ryan Memorial High School in Omaha. (Photo provided)
Blase Cupich sits on the floor looking at his shoes, which are on the wrong feet. (Photo provided)
Blase poses for a photo with his sister Marge. (Photo provided)
A young Blase Cupich is pictured in the center with his father’s arms wrapped around him. Brothers Bob Cupich is on the left and Rich Cupich is on the right. (Photo provided)

If you ask Rich Cupich when he first heard that his brother Blase wanted to be a priest, he’ll tell you it was when Blase was quite young — about 9 — and in the hospital. “He probably doesn’t remember this, but I do,” said Rich Cupich.

Rich, the second oldest of the nine Cupich children, was on a Boy Scout trip to a Winnebago reservation with his older brother, Bob. Blase, the next in the order of the children, was not old enough to participate.

He decided to try to ride a bike that he found in the yard that was too big for him, despite his father’s warnings.

“Dad told him not to mess with the bike,” Rich Cupich said.

Blase was not big enough to operate the bike’s brakes, and ended up crashing into a yield sign at the end of the block. The handlebars punctured his abdomen and ruptured his appendix, and Blase spent a week in the hospital.

A priest who went to visit him, Msgr. John Juricek, told their mother that Blase had expressed an interest in the priesthood.

Blase didn’t mention it again until he was a senior at Archbishop Ryan Memorial High School.

Rich Cupich and Margaret Altman, the Cupich sister just younger than Blase, describe something like a typical Midwestern childhood in the mid-20th century, especially for a large Catholic family with nine children. The Cupiches lived in the south part of Omaha, Nebraska, where their grandparents had settled, and though they moved into different houses, they always attended the Croatian Sts. Peter and Paul Church and school. While the neighborhood was a mix of nationalities — Lithuanians, Croatians, Poles and Bohemians, among others — each nationality had its own parish church.

“In that area, you had a number of parishes within a couple of square miles,” Rich Cupich said. “The Masses would be in Latin, but the sermons were in Croatian.”

Cupich’s grandparents were among the founding members of Sts. Peter and Paul, and the children sang in the choir and the boys served at the altar.

Their neighborhood was located near the packinghouses, a prime employer of uneducated immigrants looking for work in the early decades of the 20th century.

For much of Blase’s childhood, the Cupiches lived in a house at 31st and X streets, near the old Jetter’s Brewery, where beer was brewed until the early 1950s, Rich Cupich said. The house there had one bedroom downstairs, with the then eight boys and girls occupying opposite ends of an upstairs dormer.

Later, their father built a house with a second bedroom downstairs and two dormer bedrooms. Having a large family in tight quarters made for close relationships, Rich Cupich said.

“The girls are so close today because they would go to bed at night and just talk and tell each other what was going on in their lives,” he said. “And we boys did the same.”

Blase was also close to his sister Margaret, the fourth of the Cupich children and the oldest of the five girls. She is about three years younger than Blase.

“We did quite a few things together,” she said. “He liked to ride bikes, go and explore things around the neighborhood, and he would take me with him.”

Their father was a mailman and did a variety of side jobs to support his family, while his mother took care of the children and their home. His oldest three sons, Bob, Rich and Blase, helped him clean the school and church.

“He made sure that we had our education and food was on the table,” Rich Cupich said. “We had our family. We didn’t have a lot of money.”

Because of that, getting new shoes was something of an occasion. When Blase was about 10, his parents bought him new shoes for his birthday, on March 19, Rich Cupich said. He was supposed to wear them, along with his best clothes, to a school function that evening. He put them on early and went to show them off to a friend.

Unfortunately, he misjudged the depth of the mud on a hillside where the neighborhood children played. He sank in up to his knees and had to be pulled out by a neighbor’s teenage son, leaving one of the new shoes buried in the muck, never to be seen again.

“I am sure after the scolding my parents gave him, Blase most likely began to learn to find himself on solid ground in making any future choices, whether it be serving as president of his high-school student council or accepting the role as archbishop of the thirdlargest city in the U.S.,” Rich Cupich said.

Blase was a popular teenager, especially in his last two years of high school, his brother and sister said.

“He was always a good student, always a leader,” Altman said. “He was probably the most social of the brothers.”

That stood him in good stead when he decided to run for student council president in the spring of his junior year.

“His opponent was a very popular athlete who seemed to be the front runner,” Rich Cupich said, “that is, until the time of the school assembly in which each of the two candidates presented his platform. I remember the opponent, a bit nervous, but very serious in his delivery, especially when answering a particular question about new proposals regarding food service in the cafeteria.

“I can’t remember the particulars that the contender proposed, but I do remember when Blase stepped to the podium to field the same question. ‘What are you going to do with the cafeteria?’ the student moderator asked. Without skipping a beat, Blase responded, ‘I plan to leave it right where it is!’ The crowd came to life with smiles exuding from their faces. He had them at that point, as they began to listen to his platform, which eventually got him elected.”

Both Rich Cupich and Margaret Altman said they were surprised when they heard their brother had been appointed archbishop of Chicago, but they have no misgivings about his ability to lead the archdiocese.

Altman said she was surprised, “only because it wasn’t on my radar. When he called me, I thought he was joking, although I don’t know why he would joke about something like that. He’s more than qualified.”

Rich Cupich said that Chicago-area Catholics should not have any trouble relating to their new archbishop.

“What you see is what you get. He doesn’t put on any pretenses. He’s disciplined that way. He’s very down to earth,” Rich Cupich said. “He gets that from his grandparents and parents.”


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