Suburban parishes mourn the passing of Cardinal George

  • Cardinal Francis George greeted people after the 50th anniversary Mass at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights.

    Cardinal Francis George greeted people after the 50th anniversary Mass at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Cardinal Francis George blesses an infant at the 2013 opening of Alexian Brothers Women & Children's Hospital in Hoffman Estates.

    Cardinal Francis George blesses an infant at the 2013 opening of Alexian Brothers Women & Children's Hospital in Hoffman Estates. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Cardinal Francis George pauses at a news conference in Chicago shortly before announcing he would retire.

    Cardinal Francis George pauses at a news conference in Chicago shortly before announcing he would retire. Associated Press

  • Cardinal Francis George rode through the hallways of the Alexian Brothers Women & Children's Hospital in Hoffman Estates at its dedication in 2013, spreading holy water and visiting patients and staff.

    Cardinal Francis George rode through the hallways of the Alexian Brothers Women & Children's Hospital in Hoffman Estates at its dedication in 2013, spreading holy water and visiting patients and staff. Bob Chwedyk/Daily Herald, April 2013

  • The Rev. Robert Rizzo, left, greeted Cardinal Francis George at Rizzo's installation Mass as pastor of St. Hubert Parish in Hoffman Estates in 2005.

    The Rev. Robert Rizzo, left, greeted Cardinal Francis George at Rizzo's installation Mass as pastor of St. Hubert Parish in Hoffman Estates in 2005. John Starks/Daily Herald, August 2005

 
 
Updated 4/17/2015 9:35 PM

His body weak from cancer treatments, Cardinal Francis George struggled to get around in November, but still made a point to travel out to Mundelein to help St. Mary of the Annunciation celebrate its 150th anniversary.

"Physically, you could tell he was worn," the Rev. Jerome Jacob recalled. "But he stayed afterward, and anyone who wanted to have a picture with him, or talk to him, could. You could tell people had a deep respect and love for him." That love is being shared today as people mourn the passing of Cardinal George, the former leader of the Chicago Archdiocese, who succumbed to his long battle with cancer Friday morning. He was 78.

 

A regular presence in the suburbs, George frequently visited local parishes and schools during his years as archbishop, from 1997 to 2014. He'd lead Masses, celebrate milestones, greet church members, and console parishes during tough times.

Local clergy say the church's priest sex abuse scandal troubled George deeply, as did having to close Catholic schools.

"Cardinal George (was) very Chicagoan, and I mean that as a compliment. I'll tell you how I think but not how I feel. So people never necessarily saw his broken heart," said the Rev. Tim O'Malley of St. Joseph's Parish in Round Lake, where George worked hard to show his support and restore people's faith following a 2004 priest sex abuse scandal there.

"He knows he can't put people's lives back together. He can ask for their forgiveness and pray for them," O'Malley added. "He's been a great father. It's a tough job, being cardinal. He was always concerned that pastors were taking care of their communities. He would have liked to bat 1,000. I think we all do. I don't know if he accomplished that ... but St. Paul could be all things to all people. The rest of us fall short."

Rev. Jacob knew Cardinal George for more than 20 years and said the cardinal visited St. Mary of the Annunciation numerous times. He remembered George as an "extremely brilliant" man with many sides who loved a good debate and had tremendous integrity.

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While George's unwavering, black-and-white stance on the church's teachings sometimes drew criticism, it also was a trait that many Catholics admired, Jacob said.

"He was a hard person to get close to. He's not a warm fuzzy person, but we saw glimmers of it," Jacob said, adding that among his compassionate acts, George wrote him a beautiful letter after Jacob's mother died. "He made it his business to be present in those times of tragedy."

The Rev. Robert Rizzo, pastor of St. Hubert Parish in Hoffman Estates, had a unique relationship with the cardinal. Rizzo is the only priest in the archdiocese installed as pastor by George during the cardinal's tenure. Archdiocesan vicars -- bishops who are the right-hand men of the archbishop -- normally perform those ceremonies. But the vicar responsible for St. Hubert was only filling in at the time of Rizzo's installation in 2005. And the temporary vicar wasn't a bishop, but a pastor of another church.

Rizzo's appointment also came at a time of turmoil for St. Hubert. The congregation was divided over proposals to tear down the 38-year-old church and build a new one for $11 million or renovate the building for $5 million. The church faced a $2.3 million debt. And the church had been without a full-time pastor for at least a year.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

George asked Rizzo to come to St. Hubert, even though Rizzo was supposed to be appointed to a parish in Chicago.

"I asked if a bishop could install me," Rizzo said. "He said, 'No, I'm going to install you. People have been waiting a long time and are hurting and I think it's appropriate for me to come out and install you.' I was stunned. He could easily have sent an auxiliary bishop to do that."

George was late for the installation Mass, having been delayed in traffic coming from Chicago. But he was in no hurry to get back, Rizzo recalls.

"To his credit, he not only stayed for Mass and after for the reception, he was one of the last to leave."

Following Rizzo's installation, the parish agreed to take the less-costly renovation route. Rizzo said it was because of George's help -- with an interest-free loan for five years and providing engineering consultants -- that the project came to fruition. The renovations were completed in 2008.

Despite George's declining health, many admired his courage and determination to serve his ministry, his request that a successor be named before his death, and his continuing to visit parishes in Cook and Lake counties.

"He made sure he knew all of the parishes in the archdiocese. He knew his priests," Jacob said. "In his own way, I believe he cared for us and wanted the best for us."

He certainly wanted the best for suburban Catholic schools, said Sister Mary Frances McLaughlin of Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein.

McLaughlin said George was always a strong advocate of Catholic education. When he recently received a $100,000 award from the Knights of Columbus in honor of his work for the Catholic Church, he gave half of it to the Catholic schools to help families who fall short on paying their tuition.

"It (was) important to know that he supported the work that we do for the students and their families," she said. "He's been a good leader for our time and a graced person in our midst. He's been a gift to us."

So, too, was George's dedication to Catholic health care, said Mark Frey, president and chief executive officer of the Alexian Brothers Health System.

The cardinal regularly attended openings of new Alexian Brothers facilities, from the Hospice Residence in Elk Grove Village to the Women & Children's Hospital in Hoffman Estates, both in 2013.

During the latter, George went up and down the hallways of the new hospital in a golf cart, spreading holy water in all the rooms, and stopping to greet staff and patients.

"He blessed babies and spent as much time with every one of those mothers that wanted to spend time with him," Frey said. "That extra commitment to pastoral care and demonstrating his personal involvement in patients I thought was remarkable."

The cardinal's appearances came as he battled ailments of his own. George, a survivor of polio that he contracted at age 13, walked with a limp most of his life after the disease left his legs damaged.

He survived bladder cancer in 2006, when doctors removed his bladder and prostate, though cancerous cells in his kidney and liver resurfaced in 2012.

He underwent chemotherapy, and last year, participated in a clinical trial at the University of Chicago to treat the disease.

And still, George tried to maintain his regular schedule: saying Mass, attending conferences and meetings, and keeping a presence at local parishes.

The Rev. Michael Bonner, pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Church in Wheeling, recalls George's visit in 2011 to dedicate a new social hall. George spent nearly four hours visiting with parishioners, despite attempts by his assistant to pull him away and keep him on schedule, Bonner said.

"I respected him because of the polio he had as a child and overcoming all this to rise to be one of the famous cardinals in the U.S. and also highly recognized in the Vatican," Bonner said. "To limp every step you take, it's a cross."

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