Mundelein Seminary marks 100 years of forming Catholic priests
Over the last century, the Mundelein Seminary has educated more than 4,000 parish priests for about 80 Catholic dioceses worldwide from its idyllic, 1,000-acre campus on the grounds of the University of St. Mary of the Lake.
The seminary community will celebrate that legacy Thursday with a ceremony at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. At the event, descendants of Cardinal George Mundelein, the visionary archbishop of Chicago who founded the seminary in 1921, will be presented with a service award in his honor.
Most every aspect of the seminary can be traced back to Mundelein, who was appointed as Archbishop of Chicago in 1915 at the age of 43 -- making him the youngest cardinal, according to accounts from the time. Shortly after taking the helm, Mundelein began buying the land that would become the seminary's campus.
What is now the beautiful St. Mary's Lake was once a small, dirty body of water referred to as Mud Lake by the area's first settlers, after the Black Hawk War in the 1830s, said Mike Flynn, president of the Mundelein Historical Commission.
Construction of the campus was a herculean effort.
Flynn said historical records show that instead of going to a nearby station, trains filled with building supplies would be unloaded directly from the nearby railroad tracks and hauled the few hundred feet to the campus.
The Rev. John Kartje, rector and president of Mundelein Seminary, said the entire project was completed in about five years. Campus libraries, dormitories and other buildings were laid out symmetrically, with the iconic Chapel of Immaculate Conception in the center.
"They were built solidly, to put it lightly," Kartje said of the original structures, which still stand today.
Shortly after its completion, the campus hosted crowds estimated at between 500,000 and 800,000 people for the 1926 International Eucharistic Congress. Local parishes asked members to accommodate visitors from around the world in their homes, schools became makeshift hostels, and hotel rooms were reserved in bulk, according to historical reports.
The success of the event and the warm reception of the seminary led to the growth of Mundelein's standing. He made the cover of Time magazine in 1926, and the accompanying article heaped praise on him. "No archdiocese is more efficiently run. Its head has never committed a public blunder," the piece read.
Flynn said Mundelein and his new seminary were so impressive that there was a campaign among residents to rename what was then called the village of Area -- an acronym of "Ability, Reliability, Endurance and Action," the motto of a local school -- in the cardinal's honor. Though initially resistant to the idea, the cardinal eventually agreed and the village of Mundelein was born.
Outside of sharing a name, Flynn said, the seminary and the village didn't interact very much for the first half of its history, in part because the campus was designed to be self-sufficient. The campus had its own systems for providing water and power, and even farms for food, a golf course and a gym.
But Flynn said as time has gone on the two entities have gotten closer. Part of that is practical, as the campus is now on the municipal water system and the village provides other essential public services like police protection.
Seminary leaders decided years ago to open up the campus' spacious grounds to the public daily, and opened a gift shop and visitors area.
Kartje said he enjoys seeing local residents who regularly come to campus to walk in nature and for a quiet retreat the grounds afford.
"We have a good balance between still keeping the grounds with a contemplative feeling and being open to visitors who come seeking that," Kartje said.
Kartje said that while the seminary originally trained priests and church leaders just for the Archdiocese of Chicago, now only about 20% of seminarians are from Illinois. The campus also hosts a nationally renowned Spanish-language program, and Kartje said about 40% of seminarians are Hispanic. It currently is home to more than 100 seminarians from nearly 30 dioceses nationwide.
"It reflects the realities of the modern world," Kartje said. "Most diocese can't run their own seminary."
Over the last century, many alumni have risen to prominent leadership positions in nonprofit organizations, while several currently serve as bishops and archbishops across the country. Notable graduates include the late author Andrew Greeley; the Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin, the first Catholic priest to serve as chaplain of the United States House of Representatives; and Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, D.C., and the first Black American cardinal in the church's history.
Throughout its history, the seminary's mission of preparing the next generation of priests has remained first and foremost, Kartje said. And it's well-prepared to continue that mission for the next 100 years, he added.
"I think the seminary has done a good job with education, but formation is more than that. We must also prepare (a seminarian) to be a relatable, pastoral man who is not afraid to take a call from a parishioner in the middle of the night when something has gone wrong," Kartje said.