When the newly appointed Archbishop George Mundelein made his way to Chicago for the first time in 1916, he met with reporters on the train and said, according to the Chicago American, that his first project would be to build “one of the greatest seminaries … in the world.”
The institution that would become the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary (USML) opened to its first students five years later, thanks to the pushing and prodding of Cardinal Mundelein, who became the namesake of the village where it is located in 1925.
Now celebrating its centenary, the university does not look entirely like what Cardinal Mundelein envisioned the crown jewel of his archdiocese to be, but in some ways, it might be closer that it ever has been.
The University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary began its centennial celebration with a Mass and open campus on Oct. 17 (see coverage in Chicago Catholic’s Oct. 25 issue). Other events are scheduled through June.
“Mundelein was a builder,” said Dennis J. Driscoll, author of “Mundelein: The Story of Chicago’s Catholic Seminaries” (2017), which includes the anecdote about planning a major seminary before even arriving in Chicago. “He liked things. He wasn’t much of an idea man. He would grab one idea and run with it.”
His idea was to have a community of seminaries, for the archdiocese and for various religious orders, all situated around what became St. Mary’s of the Lake, and for those seminaries to be the heart of a national Catholic university that would have branches throughout the archdiocese. Its centerpiece, though, was to be the archdiocesan seminary, built in red brick with architecture clearly meant to hearken back to New England and with an education system modeled on seminary education in Rome.
“He was kind of ahead of his time,” said Father Thomas Franzman, a graduate of USML who was ordained in 1970 and worked in the seminary’s development office for two years before serving as provost from 2011 to 2016.
The other seminaries Cardinal Mundelein envisioned never became part of the university, and neither did colleges teaching secular subjects. Rather, the university includes the major seminary and the pontifical faculty of theology, as well as institutes for the education and formation of deacons and lay ecclesial ministers. It is also home to the Liturgical Institute, the Instituto de Liderazgo Pastoral and the Feehan Memorial Library and McEssy Theological Resource Center, as well as the Joseph and Mary Retreat House.
The key, said Father John Kartje, rector since 2015, is that it educates priests, deacons and laypeople to serve as parish ministers.
“The mission of lay ministry training and the diaconate training was placed here on the campus of USML and that does in some ways broaden the mission of what was always part of the understanding of the university,” Kartje said. “In its core mission, it hasn’t changed: initially preparing seminarians, and now additionally men and women lay leaders, for parish ministry.”
In its earliest iteration, the University of St. Mary of the Lake was founded by Bishop William Quarter and chartered by the state of Illinois in 1844 as an institution of higher learning in Chicago with the authority to grant all kinds of academic degrees. Financial difficulties put an end to it soon after the Civil War, but Cardinal Mundelein was able to revive the charter more than 50 years later for his seminary project.
He built the campus on the site of Arthur Sheldon’s business school, whose motto was, “Ability, responsibility, endurance and action.” An acronym of that motto gave the nearby village the name Area, which stuck until village leaders changed it to Mundelein four years after the seminary’s doors opened.
To this day, the village is named Mundelein; the school is the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Kartje noted.
In 1926, Cardinal Mundelein flung the doors wide during the 28th International Eucharistic Congress, when more than 800,000 people made their way to Mundelein by car, train and foot for the closing ceremonies on June 24.
Participants could see Mass celebrated on the steps of the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, built on the highest point of the campus.
Gail Kahover documented much of the history in her 2014 book “Mundelein Seminary” (Arcadia Publishing), a project she started after spending time on campus as part of a lay ministry formation program.
She found lots of anecdotes in the scrapbooks kept by seminarians, according to an article about the book that ran in the Catholic New World, as the archdiocesan newspaper was then called.
For example, in the 1940s, cadets from the nearby Glenview Naval Air Station often flew over the seminary during maneuvers. In 1943, the cadets came closer than usual.
“One day one had to make an emergency landing on the ball field. But because these seminarians kept such good records in these scrapbooks, they went out and took pictures,” Kahover said. Photos of the plane are included in the book.
The university took big steps to let the world in — and to let the seminarians out — in the 1960s.
In 1964, Franzman said, seminarians were allowed to go home for Thanksgiving for the first time in at least 20 years. The following year, students were allowed to leave the grounds on Thursdays, when they did not have classes, and the seminary started to host a winter festival for those who lived nearby.
“It was kind of opening up the doors and the windows to the community in which we lived,” he said, noting that the changes took place around the time of or shortly after the Second Vatican Council.
That was also when the teaching of philosophy and theology went from Latin to English, Franzman said.
When Cardinal Francis George moved the diaconal and lay formation institutes to Mundelein in the early 2000s, it was, in a way, bringing back part of Cardinal Mundelein’s vision.
“He said, if we’re going to be offering these certificates, the programs should be taught at a real university by certified faculty,” Franzman said.
Kartje said academics have always been a strength of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, as has its dedication to preparing people for parish ministry, something that is now encouraged even more with the Augustus Tolton Teaching Parish program, which places seminarians in parishes during their formation.
“The way that you learn in the classroom is enriched by your interaction and encounter in the parish,” Kartje said. “Ideally, the student should have both his interpersonal encounter in the parish front and center in his mind and whatever great texts of dialogues he is engaging in the classroom front and center in his mind. They’re not separate; they’re interwoven. … Mundelein has done a nice job keeping that integration in the forefront. Society is changing, the church is changing, The truths of the faith don’t change but the ways the priest can be a bridge for the people to come closer to God — that needs to evolve as society evolves.”
The University of St. Mary of the Lake counts plenty of Catholic prelates among the men who studied there. Now, it can count the leader of the Assyrian Church of the East. Mar Awa Royel, born in Chicago, was elected patriarch in Erbil, Iraq, in September.
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.
The following men have been rectors of University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary: