New archives collection showcases history of Niles College

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, May 17, 2023

New archives collection showcases history of Niles College

Niles College Seminary educated and formed men for the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Chicago for 33 years, from 1961 to 1994, and, during that time, witnessed great changes both in the church and in society.
Cardinal Albert Meyer joins Niles College rector Father Eugene Lyons and others for the dedication of Niles College Seminary in 1961. From left: Father George A. Gorski, superintendent of St. Andrew's Home; Father Edward F. Breen, faculty member; Father (later Auxiliary Bishop) John R. Gorman, faculty member; Msgr. Malachy P, Foley, rector of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary; Cardinal Meyer; Father Lyons; Father Edward J. Borisewicz; Father John P. O'Donnell, rector of Quigley North. (Photo provided by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Archives and Records Center.)
An undated aerial view of the Niles College Seminary campus at Harlem and Touhy avenues. (Photo provided by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Archives and Records Center.)
Niles College seminarians in the 1960s. (Photo provided by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Archives and Records Center.)

Niles College Seminary educated and formed men for the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Chicago for 33 years, from 1961 to 1994, and, during that time, witnessed great changes both in the church and in society.

Now researchers, alumni and others interested in the seminary’s history can learn more by examining a new collection at the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Archives and Records Center. The Niles College Seminary Collection includes everything from the rectors’ logbooks to yearbooks to photographs and newspaper articles about the seminary, which educated men in their undergraduate years for most of existence.

“It kind of captures that precise moment of extreme change,” said Charles Heinrich, the processing archivist who went through the materials to decide what should be kept and to organize them,

The collection, housed in perhaps 30 document boxes, was culled from about 100 larger banker’s boxes that the staff of the archives collected from several locations.

“They were just kind of left all over,” Heinrich said, noting that nearly three decades passed between Niles College Seminary’s 1994 closure and when he began trying to make sense of the materials that remained late last year.

All told, the effort took about three months.

It covers the establishment of Niles College, a goal of Cardinal Albert Meyer when he arrived in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1958. At that time, boys and young men studying for the priesthood would spend five years studying at Quigley Preparatory Seminary and another seven years at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary.

When Niles College Seminary opened its doors in 1961 on the grounds of the former St. Hedwig Orphanage at the intersection of Harlem and Touhy avenues in Niles, it was as a “junior college,” Heinrich said. Quigley Preparatory Seminary’s program was reduced to four years, like most high schools, and graduates who wanted to continue studying for the priesthood could spend two years at Niles before going to Mundelein for their last six years.

“That didn’t last too long,” Heinrich said.

Then, with Niles College Seminary began a four-year program, so the traditional 12 years of formation that started with high school were conducted in four years at Quigley, four years at Niles and four years at Mundelein.

It was only about a year after Niles opened its doors that the Second Vatican Council opened, and that led to even more changes to seminary education, Heinrich said, leading the faculty to grapple with what  it would mean to be a seminarian in the post-conciliar years. Niles itself became less insular, as seminarians began taking classes outside philosophy and theology at Loyola University Chicago and mixing with the wider student body.

“They had to constantly be rethinking what seminary formation meant,” Heinrich said. “Looking at the first 10 years of Niles, it seems like a lot of changes.

By the end of the decade, founding rector Father Eugene Lyons was still in charge, but he was reporting to Cardinal John Cody, who didn’t have much patience for the college seminarians’ involvement in social and cultural issues of the day.

The display of a large outdoor Nativity set — with the figures as Peanuts characters — on the seminary campus in 1967 led to a lengthy back-and-forth on the letters page of the New World, as the archdiocesan newspaper was then called. Then, in 1969, 13 of the seminarians disrupted the Palm Sunday Mass at Holy Name Cathedral, coming forward during the homily to read their own statement.

Their causes, Heinrich said, included advocating against the Vietnam War and for racial justice.

According to a story about their protest in the Quigley Preparatory Seminary newspaper, their leaders were disappointed that the manner of sharing of their message got more attention than its content.

The writer of that article was Father Michael Bradley, who retired in 2022 after serving as pastor of St. Gertrude Parish.

Meanwhile, in his logbook, Lyons said it taken some convincing to persuade Cardinal Cody that the men  should not be dismissed from the seminary.

“There seems to have been a lot of discussions between Father Lyons and Cardinal Cody,” Heinrich noted.

Still, a few entries later, Lyons wrote about a new system to try to make sure the seminarians cleaned their rooms properly before leaving for the summer.

“You have to remember they were taking these men at 19 years old,” Heinrich said, at a time when young people across the country were demonstrating for peace and justice, believing they could — and would — change the world, at a time when the church itself was changing, opening its windows and trying to read the signs of the times.

“You have this golden moment in time when they asking, ‘What is the way to form men for the priesthood? What is good and true?’” he said.

The latter two decades at Niles College Seminary were calmer, as the archdiocese and the seminarians settled into new ways and the culture turned away from the mass demonstrations of the 1960s. In those years, the seminary worked to improve its formation as it considered ways, for example, to connect seminarians more with parish life.

By 1994, when Niles Seminary closed, it had fewer seminarians and all of them were taking classes at Loyola University Chicago. St. Joseph College Seminary, on Loyola’s Lakeshore Campus, became the new archdiocesan college seminary.

Many of the boxes that contained Niles College materials were found at St. Joseph College Seminary when it closed in 2019. College seminarians for the Archdiocese of Chicago now attend the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Unlike previous decades, when most men ordained priests entered the seminary system in high school or college, many men now enter the seminary as post-graduates.

Heinrich’s job was to sort through everything and discard items that had no historical value — say, receipts for meals or gas that someone turned in to get reimbursed — and organize what remained to make it accessible and useful for researchers.

“Part of the job is creating context,” Heinrich said. “How do the pieces of material relate to each other? How do they relate to the chronological history?”

Alumni and researchers alike can visit the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Archives and Records Center to explore the Niles College Seminary Collection. Staff at the Archives put together a “finding aid,” something like a catalog, to help people looking through the material. It can be found at

Heinrich said he hopes to hear from alumni, and perhaps even add to the collection if they have material they want to donate. He also created small displays of Niles College materials for the lobbies of both the Archbishop Quigley Center and the Cardinal Meyer Center.

Research at the Archives and Records Center is by appointment only, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Researchers can schedule an appointment by calling 312-534-4411 or emailing [email protected].

Other recent collections to the center include histories of St. Ignatius Parish and School, Corpus Christi Parish and School, the Catholic Conference of Illinois and the Commission on Human Relations and Ecumenicism.

The center houses over 30,000 boxes of records detailing the history of parishes, schools, organizations and more in the Archdiocese of Chicago..


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