Over the past century, Mundelein Seminary has educated more than 4,000 parish priests for approximately 80 Catholic dioceses around the world 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 receive a service award in his honor.
Most aspects of the seminary can be traced back to Mundelein, who was appointed 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 purchasing the land that would become the seminary campus.
What is now beautiful Lake St. Mary’s was once a dirty little body of water called Mud Lake by the area’s first settlers after the Black Hawks’ War in the 1830s, said Mike Flynn, president of the Mundelein Historical Commission.
Building the campus was a Herculean effort.
Flynn said historical records show that instead of going to a nearby station, trains loaded with building materials would be unloaded directly from nearby railroad tracks and carried the few hundred feet to campus.
Rev. John Kartje, rector and president of Mundelein Seminary, said the whole project was completed in about five years. Campus libraries, dormitories, and other buildings were laid out symmetrically, with the iconic Immaculate Conception Chapel at the center.
“They were built solidly, to put it lightly,” Kartje said of the original structures, which still stand today.
Catholic clergy from around the world attended the event and some estimated that up to 800,000 people attended.” width=”300″ style=”max-width:100%;width:100%;” class=”lazyImg”/>
The XXVIII International Eucharistic Congress at the University of St. Mary’s Seminary at Lake Mundelein in June 1926. Catholic clergy from around the world attended the event and some estimated that up to 800,000 people attended.
– Courtesy of University of St. Mary of the Lake
Soon after its completion, the campus hosted crowds estimated at between 500,000 and 800,000 for the 1926 International Eucharistic Congress. Local parishes asked members to welcome visitors from around the world to their homes, schools became makeshift inns and hotel rooms were booked in droves, according to historical reports.
The success of the event and the warm reception of the seminar led to the growth of Mundelein’s reputation. He graced the cover of Time magazine in 1926, and the accompanying article showered him with praise. “No archdiocese is run more efficiently. Its leader has never committed a public blunder,” the article read.
Flynn said Mundelein and his new seminary were so impressive that there was a campaign among locals to rename what was then called the village of Area – an acronym for “Ability, Reliability, Endurance and Action”, the motto of a local school – in honor of the cardinal. Although initially resistant to the idea, the Cardinal eventually agreed and the village of Mundelein was born.
Other than sharing a name, Flynn said, the seminary and village didn’t interact much during the first half of its history, in part because the campus was designed to be self-sufficient. The campus had its own water and electricity supply systems, and even farms for food, a golf course and a sports hall.
But Flynn said that over time the two entities grew closer. Part of this is convenience, 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 the expansive campus grounds daily to the public and opened a gift shop and visitors’ area.
Kartje said he loves seeing local residents who regularly come to campus for nature walks and for the quiet retreat the grounds provide.
“We have a good balance between keeping the pitch with a contemplative feeling and being open to visitors who come looking for that,” Kartje said.
Kartje said that while the seminary originally trained priests and church leaders only for the Archdiocese of Chicago, only about 20 percent of seminarians are now from Illinois. The campus also hosts a nationally recognized Spanish language program, and Kartje said about 40% of seminarians are Hispanic. It currently houses more than 100 seminarians from nearly 30 dioceses in the country.
“It reflects the realities of the modern world,” Kartje said. “Most dioceses cannot run their own seminary.”
Over the past century, many alumni have risen to important leadership positions in non-profit organizations, while several of them are currently bishops and archbishops across the country. Notable graduates include the late author Andrew Greeley; the Reverend Daniel P. Coughlin, the first Catholic priest to serve as chaplain to the United States House of Representatives; and Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, DC, and the first black American cardinal in church history.
Throughout its history, the seminary’s mission to prepare the next generation of priests has remained paramount, Kartje said. And it is well prepared to continue this mission for the next 100 years, he added.
“I think the seminary has done a good job in education, but formation is more than that. We also need to prepare (a seminarian) to be a communicable pastoral man who is not afraid to take a call from ‘a parishioner in the middle of the night when something went wrong,’ Kartje said.