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updated: 11/17/2013 7:57 AM

Kennedy's presidency a milestone for suburban Catholics

Suburban Catholics share Kennedy's impact on their lives

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  • This is a general view inside St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, during funeral Mass for President John F. Kennedy, Nov. 25, 1963.

      This is a general view inside St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, during funeral Mass for President John F. Kennedy, Nov. 25, 1963.
    Associated Press

  • Three Roman Catholic nuns pay their final respects at the grave of President John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery, Nov. 25, 1963. Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic elected to the presidency.

      Three Roman Catholic nuns pay their final respects at the grave of President John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery, Nov. 25, 1963. Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic elected to the presidency.
    Associated Press

  • The Rev. John Milton, 84, and the Rev. Jim Michaletz, 82, both of the Clerics of St. Viator, were teaching at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights at the time of John F. Kennedy's assassination 50 years ago. They remember sitting in stunned silence with their classes as they listened to the radio for updates on what had happened.

       The Rev. John Milton, 84, and the Rev. Jim Michaletz, 82, both of the Clerics of St. Viator, were teaching at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights at the time of John F. Kennedy's assassination 50 years ago. They remember sitting in stunned silence with their classes as they listened to the radio for updates on what had happened.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • "I liked him because he was a breath of fresh air," the Rev. Jim Michaletz, 82, of the Clerics of St. Viator, said about John F. Kennedy. "I did not vote for him because he was Catholic." Michaletz was a teacher at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights at the time Kennedy was killed. He recalls sitting in stunned silence with his students as they listened to the radio.

       "I liked him because he was a breath of fresh air," the Rev. Jim Michaletz, 82, of the Clerics of St. Viator, said about John F. Kennedy. "I did not vote for him because he was Catholic." Michaletz was a teacher at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights at the time Kennedy was killed. He recalls sitting in stunned silence with his students as they listened to the radio.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Ed Cahill of Arlington Heights shares his memories of the Kennedy assassination 50 years later, and what it meant to him as a Catholic.

       Ed Cahill of Arlington Heights shares his memories of the Kennedy assassination 50 years later, and what it meant to him as a Catholic.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • James Hahn of Arlington Heights: "I was surprised that the professors and graduate students at the university (Northwestern) were all for John Kennedy."

      James Hahn of Arlington Heights: "I was surprised that the professors and graduate students at the university (Northwestern) were all for John Kennedy."

  • Eleanor Haberkorn, Bartlett: "He was young, full of life, and I thought he would be good for the country."

      Eleanor Haberkorn, Bartlett: "He was young, full of life, and I thought he would be good for the country."

  • Alice Myslinski, a nun who works at Clare Oaks Retirement Community in Bartlett: "I thought (his religion) was a unique aspect that they advertised, but I'm not so sure he was elected because he was Catholic."

      Alice Myslinski, a nun who works at Clare Oaks Retirement Community in Bartlett: "I thought (his religion) was a unique aspect that they advertised, but I'm not so sure he was elected because he was Catholic."

  • This is a general view inside the Washington Cathedral during a memorial service for President John F. Kennedy, Nov. 23, 1963.

      This is a general view inside the Washington Cathedral during a memorial service for President John F. Kennedy, Nov. 23, 1963.
    Associated Press

  • Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of assassinated President John F. Kennedy, holds the American flag that covered the coffin of her husband at Arlington National Cemetery Nov. 25, 1963.

      Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of assassinated President John F. Kennedy, holds the American flag that covered the coffin of her husband at Arlington National Cemetery Nov. 25, 1963.
    Associated Press

  • U.S. President John F. Kennedy reports to the nation on the status of the Cuban missile crisis from Washington, D.C., on Nov. 2, 1962.

      U.S. President John F. Kennedy reports to the nation on the status of the Cuban missile crisis from Washington, D.C., on Nov. 2, 1962.
    Associated Press

  • Sister Barbara Mass, left, and Sister Joyce Roehl of the Sisters of the Living Word remember the sadness Catholics and non-Catholics felt when President Kennedy died 50 years ago.

       Sister Barbara Mass, left, and Sister Joyce Roehl of the Sisters of the Living Word remember the sadness Catholics and non-Catholics felt when President Kennedy died 50 years ago.
    Jessica Cilella | Staff Photographer

 
 

There are three items Joe Ruane of Arlington Heights still remembers hanging on the living room wall of his in-laws' Irish Catholic home.

A crucifix. A photo of the pope. And a picture of John F. Kennedy.

"I'm not too sure in what order it was, either," he said with a laugh.

Such admiration for Kennedy was widespread among suburban Catholics in the 1960s. As the nation's first and only Roman Catholic president, Kennedy signified a new era for the religion, whose American followers had faced discrimination in the country's past.

Yet, as Catholics reflect on where they were at the time of Kennedy's assassination -- which occurred 50 years ago this Friday -- many realize the sadness they felt when he died wasn't due to their shared faith.

It was because they lost the nation's commander-in-chief, a man who is frequently described by Catholics and non-Catholics alike as a charismatic, vibrant and youthful sign of hope.

A first for Catholics

While some Catholic voters were won over by Kennedy's religious affiliation and charm, others simply voted for him because he was a Democrat. On the other hand, of the few Catholics who didn't vote for him, many made their decision based solely off the candidates' political party.

Eleanor Haberkorn, a Catholic who was living in Chicago during Kennedy's presidency, said she usually voted Republican. But she changed her mind with Kennedy -- perhaps, she said, because he was Catholic, but more because he seemed like the better candidate.

"He was young, full of life, and I thought he would be good for the country," she said.

The Rev. Jim Michaletz, a former teacher and principal at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, said more than being favored for his religion, Kennedy was well-liked because he was a sign of hope.

"I liked him because he was a breath of fresh air," he said. "I did not vote for him because he was Catholic."

Michaletz noted, however, that his parents' generation may have been more proud and excited about a Catholic being elected president because they had already watched Gov. Alfred Smith of New York -- the first Roman Catholic nominee for president -- lose to Herbert Hoover in 1928.

"There were some people who felt that's why (Smith) lost," Michaletz said. "Catholics felt discriminated against. (Kennedy's election) was a sign that they had made it."

James Hahn, a longtime Catholic resident of Arlington Heights, said he worked with people from a variety of religious backgrounds at Northwestern University in the 1960s. He didn't know what everyone on the cosmopolitan campus would think of Kennedy as his religion began to be publicized.

"There was some anti-Catholic sentiment in the country at that time ... but I was surprised that the professors and graduate students at the university were all for John Kennedy," he said. "I was very happy about that."

Shock and prayers

On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, news that Kennedy was shot in Dallas came over the St. Viator High School public announcement system while the Rev. John Milton was teaching.

"We all looked at each other, and nothing further (was said), so I think I just went on with the math class. What could I do?" he said.

It wasn't until Milton looked out the window and saw students lowering the flag to half staff that he realized the enormity of what had happened.

Class wasn't dismissed that day. But Milton and Michaletz couldn't continue teaching. Instead, they listened to the radio in stunned silence with their students.

Jim Gibbons, a Marengo resident who has been giving presentations about Kennedy's assassination at suburban libraries this month, said he was attending St. John of the Cross Parish School in Western Springs when the president died.

"Being 10 years old, I still didn't understand," Gibbons said. "You comprehended, but it was like, 'What do you mean he's dead?' All I remember is we went straight to the church and got down on our knees."

Edward Cahill was a senior at Fenwick High School in Oak Park on the day of Kennedy's assassination. He remembered his history teacher saying while the assassination would impact students' families, particularly because a lot of them were Irish, it was also going to be an internationally historic event that would have a bigger impact than they could imagine.

"It was interesting to me, being in a Catholic high school, being taught by a Catholic priest, that he did have the foresight to be talking about the fact that it was bigger than a Catholic issue," he said, adding that shortly after, they were dismissed from the class and required to attend an impromptu prayer service in the auditorium.

Joyce Roehl was a 26-year-old nun attending a sewing class at the Sisters of Christian Charity motherhouse in Wilmette when she heard the news. Now a member of the Sisters of the Living Word in Arlington Heights, Roehl recalled that the first sign something was wrong was the sound of church bells.

"I kept thinking, why are they ringing bells at one in the afternoon?" she said.

Then a stunned sister came into the room, sank into chair and announced the president was dead.

"My first thought was, 'He was the first president I ever voted for!' It was like you couldn't absorb it," Roehl said, adding that nuns gathered around a TV set for days, watching the news nonstop.

Hahn said his house was particularly filled with sadness that Monday, during Kennedy's funeral.

"It was like a member of the family had died," he said, adding that just a few months earlier Catholics mourned the death of another popular and charismatic leader, Pope John XXIII.

Religion today

Many Catholics noted the turmoil and change that occurred in the years that followed Kennedy's death, from the riots following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination to the domestic conflict over the Vietnam War.

"It was a very tragic time, and it still hurts 50 years later," Roehl said.

Today, most Catholics also agree that if the religion's followers knew more about Kennedy's extramarital affairs, they may not have had such favorable views of him.

Milton said it shows the faithful that while Kennedy and other historic figures may be looked at as heroes, they were "flawed human beings."

While there hasn't been a Catholic president since Kennedy, his presidency was a turning point in many ways for both Catholicism in America and the relationship between politics and religion.

Milton said he remembered using Kennedy's funeral -- which was said in Latin with a translator talking over the Mass on TV -- as an example of why Pope John XXIII's Pope John XXIII was a good thing. The council did not completely abolish Latin as the liturgical language, but it addressed how the Catholic Church could adjust to modern times and cultural changes.

Today, there are a handful of national leaders who are Catholic, but Michaletz said he doesn't think a lot of people realize they include Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry. Having a black president, he added, is another example of the voting public moving "beyond something," as they did with Kennedy's religion.

"I think the election of Barack Obama cast aside of a lot of this," he added. "The very fact that he was elected and re-elected said an awful lot about getting beyond ... some prejudicial factors."

Barbara Mass of the Sisters of the Living Word said people might also be surprised to know another national leader, Sen. Dick Durbin, is Catholic, considering he has voted for things that are not in line with Catholic teaching.

"I think we're in a different spot, as to, 'How do my politics and my religion fit together?' And it's a struggle," she said.

Alice Myslinski of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis said while the election of a Catholic president was significant, the bigger breakthrough Kennedy made for American politics was his stand for justice in the world.

"I thought (his religion) was a unique aspect that they advertised, but I'm not so sure he was elected because he was Catholic," she said. "I think the tenants that he stood for -- peace, justice, equality for all people -- and just a sincere reaching out to the American people, I think that was something that was very attractive to people."

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