Mundelein centennial: Architecture designed to respond to society

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2021

An aerial photo of the campus of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. (USML photo)

Visitors to the campus of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary who think they have stepped into a quaint New England village are getting exactly the impression Cardinal George Mundelein hoped for when he began building.

Cardinal Mundelein, a New Yorker by birth who came to Chicago two years before the United States entered World War I, wanted to instill in students, visitors and faculty alike that the seminary was educating American priests and forming them to serve American Catholics, according to Denis McNamara, now associate professor and executive director of the Center for Beauty and Culture in Atchison, Kansas.

McNamara worked at the University of St. Mary of the Lake for 19 years, serving in the Liturgical Institute as associate professor of sacramental aesthetics when he left in 2019, is the author of “Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago” (2009) and spent years studying the campus’s architecture.

When Cardinal Mundelein built his seminary, McNamara said in an email interview, “American Catholicism was considered a group of regional identities separated by language groups at what were called ‘national parishes.’ Mundelein believed that developing a unified ‘American’ Catholicism was a goal, promoting the unity of the archdiocese and its priests.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago did not have its own seminary at the time, so building one afforded Cardinal Mundelein an avenue toward achieving that goal.

His success is evident to Pope Francis, who wrote a congratulatory letter to the seminary community that Cardinal Cupich read at the centennial Mass Oct. 17 noting the university’s “unique architecture, so expressive of the American spirit.”

“Many dioceses were building new and better seminaries in the early twentieth century, many on grand architectural plans, like St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and Kenrick in St. Louis,” McNamara said. “But they were using ‘old world’ modes of architecture like Roman baroque or Gothic. Mundelein chose a ‘colonial’ New England mode for his seminary, including modeling the seminary’s chapel on a Congregationalist meeting house called the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, Connecticut. This may not sound radical to us today, but to model a Catholic seminary on a Protestant church was a big deal back then.”

McNamara quoted a letter in the archdiocesan archives from another American seminary rector who said the colonial-inspired chapel as designed “stood for everything that was non-Catholic and anti-Catholic and that it was a religious calamity, and Cardinal Mundelein would be ‘blamed in saecula saeculorum’ (‘forever and ever’).”

Cardinal Mundelein was not one to back down.

The cardinal, who insisted on personally approving the design of all of the campus buildings, thought that colonial architecture was the only “true” American architecture, McNamara said. In 1917, a year after arriving in Chicago, Cardinal Mundelein complimented St. Thomas of Canterbury Church, 4827 N. Kenmore Ave., on its colonial architecture.

“Coming at this time, when our country calls for every particle of our loyalty, it is almost symbolical of the twin devotions of your heart, love of God and love of country,” Cardinal Mundelein is quoted as saying.

“So that becomes his mantra: love of God AND love of country,” McNamara said. “At Mundelein Seminary he did both, combined American colonial architecture with the architecture of Rome. He wanted his priests to be American in their customs and manners, but loyal to Rome in their hearts. So even though the exterior manner of the seminary buildings might be colonial, the interiors of the library and the administration building are modeled on Roman palace courtyards, and the chapel is covered with Latin inscriptions, honorific titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the coat of arms of the pope. No one who looks closely would think it is a Protestant church, even though it is ‘speaking’ with an American architectural accent.”

Mundelein also had copies of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence on exhibit in the library so students could study them.

“It may sound silly to us now, but there were recent immigrant seminarians who went to German or Polish language seminaries, for instance. Mundelein wanted one presbyterate in the archdiocese, all given a unified formation at a very high level,” McNamara said.

Cardinal Mundelein’s “great seminary” was a message to non-Catholic residents.

“Mundelein was doing something we would now call ‘inculturation,’ though the word did not exist at the time,” McNamara said. “He was taking his local ‘native’ architecture and elevating and purifying it to make something Catholic. On one hand, this unifies the various national groups in Chicago, but it also answers the common notion that immigrants are cultural inferiors to more established Americans. If I remember correctly, the front cover of the New World that announced the seminary also had a front-page story about the KKK threatening to burn down Catholic churches in Peoria. It’s easy to forget that many of Chicago’s surrounding suburbs were deeply anti-Catholic and tried to prevent construction of Catholic churches in their towns. If immigrant Catholics and their clergy could be seen as both cultural and intellectual peers of the Protestant establishment, it would both unify Catholics around a quest for excellence and also make their entry into American culture that much easier”

Now Mundelein educates and forms seminarians from two dozen dioceses across the country, lending a new meaning to “American,” said Father John Kartje, rector/president of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary.

“What ‘American’ means today is probably different that how people would have defined it 100 years ago,” he said. “I do think we should always keep front and center of our minds that we live in a big world. We don’t live in a bubble.”


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  • mundelein centenary

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