Remembering Bishop Sheil and the Catholic Youth Organization

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Remembering Bishop Sheil and the Catholic Youth Organization

In 1930, Auxiliary Bishop Bernard Sheil founded the Catholic Youth Organization to give at-risk youth a positive outlet. It was a revolutionary endeavor by a remarkable man.
Bishop Sheil poses with boxers before a sign promoting the 19th annual CYO boxing tournament in 1949. Boxing was the first sport Sheil started in the CYO. Chicago Catholic archives
A CYO track and field meet in an undated file photo. Chicago Catholic archives
A young CYO division boys basketball team.
Girls 1949 CYO basketball champions. Chicago Catholic archives
28,000 spectators at CYO-Hawaii final bouts at Chicago Stadium in 1940.
Senior division team poses in an undated file photo.
Bishop Sheil poses with children and a large cake celebrating the 21st anniversary of CYO’s founding on May 25, 1951. Chicago Catholic archives
Johnny Ross, 12, and his dog Major von Salle receive congratulations from Auxiliary Bishop Bernard J. Sheil of Chicago, President of Master Eye Foundation. Johnny, blind since he was 5, holds a certificate of achievement presented by Bishop Sheil. The award recognizes Johhny as the youngest graduate of Master Eye Foundation and youngest American to become master of a guide dog. (Religious News Service photo/1955)
An ad in a anniversary program book for Bishop Sheil asks for donations to the guide dog program.

When Auxiliary Bishop Bernard Sheil was a young priest working as a chaplain at the Cook County Jail, he saw a great need to provide an outlet for at-risk youth that was positive but also channeled their energy.

As a star football and baseball player in high school and college, Sheil turned to sports and founded the Catholic Youth Organization in 1930 with the support of Cardinal George Mundelein.

He began by first offering a boxing league because, next to gangsters like Al Capone, boxers were the most idolized figures at the time.

The league quickly took off and annual CYO boxing tournaments saw more than 15,000 spectators filling the seats at Chicago Stadium.

But Sheil offered more than sports through the CYO. He stressed Christian morality, civic mindedness and “clean living,” according to Timothy B. Neary, author of “Crossing Parish Boundaries: Race, Sports and Catholic Youth in Chicago, 1914-1954.”

Soon after founding the CYO, Sheil added basketball leagues for both boys and girls. A man ahead of his time, Sheil mandated that the CYO accept children of all races.

By 1935, dioceses around the country picked up the CYO model and many still offer it today.

The Archdiocese of Chicago didn’t fund CYO. Sheil relied on donations from civic and business leaders to support the league. Today, the CYO in the archdiocese is run by Maryville.

The CYO wasn’t Sheil’s only addition to society. He opened the Sheil School of Social Studies for adult education, started the flying program at Lewis University and founded the Sheil Center at Northwestern University, to name just a few.

He was also heavily involved in the Pilot  Dog Foundation, which trained and provided guide dogs for the blind.

In 1954, despite being an auxiliary bishop, the “Apostle of Youth” was elevated to archbishop by Pope Pius XII for his many charitable works.

At this death in 1969, his life of ministry was hailed from all corners of the county. That ministry is still bearing fruit today.


  • cyo
  • catholic youth organziation
  • bishop bernard sheil

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