Dolores Madlener, the longtime columnist for the English-language newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, died surrounded by her family Dec. 15. She was 90.
Madlener began working as the secretary to the editor of the paper, then, as now, known as the Chicago Catholic, in September 1978. She retired as the beloved author of “Parish Pride,” “Five Minutes with Father,” “Conversations With the Consecrated” and “Church Clips,” her “benevolent gossip column” on Nov. 1, 2015.
Her wake was Dec. 19 in Queen of Martyrs Church, where she was a founding member of the parish, and she was a member of the Focolare movement for more than 50 years.
In early September 1978, Pope John Paul I was in the midst of his 28-day papacy, Cardinal John Cody led the Archdiocese of Chicago and A.E.P. “Ed” Wall, the editor of Chicago Catholic, was in need of a secretary.
Dolores Madlener was working at the American Medical Association headquarters in Chicago.
In a 2008 interview, Madlener, said she could thank Father William P. Murphy, then pastor of Queen of Martyrs Parish in Evergreen Park, for pointing her toward the job of editor’s secretary.
“We both thought I’d be a perfect fit, except Father Murphy was never wrong,” Madlener said.
She was already a loyal subscriber, she said, “and I wrote letters to the editor at the time. Usually complaining.”
The waves of young journalists who worked at the newspaper kept her young, Madlener said, and each of the six editors — not to mention four archbishops — kept things fresh. For one thing, the paper changed names three times during her tenure.
“As the years went by, I don’t think I’ve ever felt the passing of the time,” she said. “I try to live in the present moment. When I do, it doesn’t feel like 10 years, doesn’t seem like 20 years. It’s like a river, I guess.”
It’s been decades since the Chicago Catholic editor had a secretary. When Wall moved to Florida after Madlener had been on the job for 10 years, she continued as secretary for a time, handling correspondence and signing her name and title, “secretary to the editor.”
“But I realized with no editor, that position was going to be obsolete,” she said.
She transferred her skills from the electric typewriter to the newsroom computer system and volunteered to take on the “most tedious job in the newsroom” — putting together “Around the Archdiocese.”
But Madlener did not find it so tedious.
“I had been active in PR in my parish for years,” she said. “I knew how important it was to A&R (Altar and Rosary Society) women to get their card parties and craft fairs in. They were like my sisters ... even though I wished they’d remember to put in the phone number or address so I wouldn’t have to check back.”
When Sister of Providence Cathy Campbell came on board, Madlener was taking minutes at an editorial advisory board meeting when the talk turned to perennial worries about circulation. Someone joked that it was too bad the paper couldn’t run a horoscope column, or better yet, a gossip column.
Inspiration struck, and Madlener went home and wrote a prototype of a “benevolent gossip” column, and “Church Clips” was born. It debuted Aug. 5, 1988.
She also profiled each parish in Chicago, in “Parish Pride,” and, in 2007, started a feature to help Catholics get to know their clergy, called “Five Minutes with Father.” In 2015, that became “Conversations with the Consecrated” in honor of the Year of Consecrated Life.
“I really think ‘Five Minutes with Father’ is my favorite feature,” she said in 2008. “It’s touched me the most. I always start by asking the priest to lead us in prayer. I’m impressed by their generosity of spirit, to be so open. I hope that by getting to know them better, our readers will be moved to pray even harder for our priests.”
Madlener maintained a close relationship with those readers, many of whom feel as if they know her.
“I just feel about my readers that I know each one of them, one at a time,” she said. “In a social situation, I don’t know NASCAR from ‘Desperate Housewives.’ But if you say what parish you’re from, we can go from there. … I know people by the letters they write to me and the phone calls they make.”
She quoted letters from readers in a special “Church Clips” column she wrote for the 125th anniversary of the paper in 2017.
One correspondent closed her note with, “Let’s pray for each other. See you upstairs!” As Madlener concluded her final piece for the paper: “Now remember, dear readers, that’s the plan.”
Madlener is survived by her children, Joan (Chuck) Zabelka, Jeanne Madlener, Donna (Robert) Steffey, Bill (Linda) and Dave Madlener, 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. A son, Robert Madlener, preceded her in death.