Visitors to the University of St. Mary of the Lake / Mundelein Seminary campus who think they’ve stepped into a quaint New England village feel exactly like Cardinal George Mundelein was hoping for when he started 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 professors that the seminary trained American priests and trained them to serve American Catholics, according to Denis McNamara, now an 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 at the Liturgical Institute as an Associate Professor of Sacramental Aesthetics when he left in 2019, is the author of “Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago “(2009) and has spent years studying campus architecture.
When Cardinal Mundelein built his seminary, McNamara said in an email interview: âAmerican Catholicism was seen as a cluster of regional identities separated by language groups in what were called ‘national parishes’. Mundelein believed that developing a unified âAmericanâ 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 enabled Cardinal Mundelein to achieve this goal.
Its success is evident to Pope Francis, who wrote a letter of congratulations to the seminary community that Cardinal Cupich read at the Centennial Mass on October 17, noting “the university’s unique architecture, so expressive of the American spirit â.
âMany dioceses were building new and better seminaries at the turn of the 20th century, many on large architectural grounds, like St. Charles Borromeo’s Seminary in Philadelphia and Kenrick’s Seminary in St. Louis,â McNamara said. âBut they used ‘old world’ architectural styles like Roman Baroque or Gothic. Mundelein chose a “colonial” New England fashion for his seminary, including modeling the seminary chapel on a congregational meetinghouse called the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, Connecticut. It may not sound radical to us today, but modeling a Catholic seminary on a Protestant church was a big deal back then. “
McNamara cited a letter in Archdiocesan records from another American seminary rector who stated that the colonial-inspired chapel as it was designed “was intended for all that was non-Catholic and anti -catholic and that it was a religious calamity, and Cardinal Mundelein would be âblamed 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 buildings on the campus, felt that colonial architecture was the only ârealâ American architecture, McNamara said. In 1917, a year after arriving in Chicago, Cardinal Mundelein complimented St. Thomas of Canterbury Church, 4827 N. Kenmore Ave., for its colonial architecture.
âComing at this time, when our country calls for every bit of our loyalty, it is almost symbolic of the twin devotions of your heart, the love of God and the love of the motherland,â Cardinal Mundelein reportedly said.
âSo that becomes his mantra: love of God AND love of country,â McNamara said. âAt Mundelein Seminary, he did both, combining American colonial architecture with the architecture of Rome. He wanted his priests to be American in their customs and manners, but faithful to Rome in their hearts. Thus, even if the exterior appearance of the seminary buildings may be colonial, the interiors of the library and the administrative building are modeled on the courtyards of the Roman palaces, and the chapel is covered with Latin inscriptions, honorary titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Pope’s coat of arms. No one looking at it closely would think it is a Protestant church, even if it “speaks” with an American architectural accent.
Mundelein also had copies of the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence on display in the library for students to study.
âIt may seem silly to us now, but there were recent immigrant seminarians who went to German or Polish language seminars, for example. Mundelein wanted a presbytery in the archdiocese, all with unified formation at a very high level, âMcNamara said.
Cardinal Mundelein’s âmajor seminaryâ was a message to non-Catholic residents.
âMundelein was doing something we would now call ‘inculturation’ even though the word didn’t exist then,â McNamara said. âHe would take his local ‘native’ architecture and elevate it and purify it into something Catholic. On the one hand, this unifies the different national groups in Chicago, but it also responds to the common notion that immigrants are culturally inferior to more established Americans. If I remember correctly, the New World coverage announcing the seminar also had a front page article about the KKK threatening to burn down the Catholic churches in Peoria. It’s easy to forget that many of Chicago’s surrounding suburbs were deeply anti-Catholic and tried to prevent the construction of Catholic churches in their cities. If immigrant Catholics and their clergy could be seen as both cultural and intellectual peers of the Protestant establishment, this would both unify Catholics around a quest for excellence and also facilitate their entry into American culture.
Now Mundelein is educating and training seminarians from two dozen dioceses across the country, giving 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 from how people would have defined it 100 years ago,” he said. âI think we should always keep in mind that we live in a big world. We don’t live in a bubble.