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April 19 - May 2, 2015

Remembering Cardinal Meyer 50 years after death

By Michelle Martin

Staff writer

Cardinal Meyer (left) pictured with Martin Luther King Jr and Oklahoma City Bishop Victor Reed on Jan. 25, 1963. The men were attending an ecumenical meeting on religion and race at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Catholic New World file photo

Cardinal Albert Meyer was, according to those who knew him, a man of few words, said Father Steven Avella, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and history professor at Marquette University. Shy, even taciturn, he “blanched” when told that Pope John XXIII had selected him to be the archbishop of Chicago.

So it’s a bit surprising that Cardinal Meyer became the intellectual leader of the American prelates at the Second Vatican Council, offering 27 interventions “in impeccable Latin,” — more than any other cardinal — during the council’s third session, according to Father Richard Mueller, a Chicago archdiocesan priest who was in seminary during the council.

“Cardinal Meyer was a man of great faith, virtue and holiness,” Mueller said in his homily during a memorial Mass on April 9, the 50th anniversary of the prelate’s death, at the Church of St. Mary in Lake Forest. Among the participants were Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, Chicago Auxillary Bishops Joseph Perry and George Rassas, St. Mary pastor Father Michael McGovern and several other priests.

Following the Mass, Avella spoke about the Cardinal Meyer he learned about while researching his 1985 dissertation, “Meyer of Milwaukee: The Life and Times of a Midwestern Archbishop.” Much of that material was also included in his 1993 book “This Confident Church: Catholic Leadership and Life in Chicago, 1940-1965,” which covers the period in which the church was led by Cardinal Meyer and his predecessor, Cardinal Samuel Stritch.

“I know about him primarily from reading his mail,” Avella said, explaining that his research brought him to the archdiocesan archives, which have Cardinal Meyer’s papers. “He saved nearly every scrap of paper he generated or received.”

That research was augmented by roughly 80 interviews with people who knew Cardinal Meyer, Avella said.

Cardinal Meyer, Avella said, was not a church politician or climber. The son of a “failed grocer,” he grew up in a lower-middle class home in Milwaukee and became a priest of the archdiocese there. He became bishop of Superior, Wisconsin, in 1946, and archbishop of Milwaukee in 1953.

He was installed as archbishop of Chicago on Nov. 16, 1958, two weeks before the Our Lady of the Angels School fire killed 92 children and three nuns. That was another time when the intensely private man showed emotion in public.

“Cardinal (Francis) Spellman of New York came to the funeral for the victims, and he said Cardinal Meyer nearly collapsed, sobbing,” Avella said.

Cardinal Albert Meyer

Born: March 9, 1903, in Milwaukee

Ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee: July 11, 1926

Consecrated as bishop of Superior, Wisconsin: April 11, 1946

Installed as Archbishop of Milwaukee: Sept. 24, 1953 Installed as Archbishop of Chicago: Nov. 16, 1958

Created a cardinal priest: Dec. 14, 1959

Died: April 9, 1965

Cardinal Meyer attended the first three sessions of the Second Vatican Council before dying in 1965 following surgery intended to remove a malignant brain tumor.

Because his time in Chicago was short, and interrupted by long stays in Rome for the council meetings, he did not have as significant of an effect on the archdiocese locally as he might have, Avella said.

However, he did oversee changes in the leadership of the archdiocese and its continued building boom — especially into the suburbs — during the end of the post-war economic and population expansion.

He also became a voice for civil rights, even though he didn’t know too much about the movement when he came to Chicago. He listened to priests working for civil rights, and in 1960 declared that Catholic schools in the archdiocese must end the practice of racial segregation.

In January 1963, he lent his name to an ecumenical meeting on religion and race at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. There, he allowed himself to be photographed with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., something he did not take lightly.

If Cardinal Meyer had lived to retire at age 75, he would have served the Archdiocese of Chicago until 1978, Avella said. While it’s difficult to speculate on how the archdiocese and the wider church would be different, Cardinal Meyer would undoubtedly have left his stamp even more firmly on the local church. He would have faced increasing social and racial unrest and mistrust of authority, but perhaps his cooler head could have weathered the storms, Avella said.

“I saw no evidence that he ever picked up the phone and yelled at anyone,” Avella said. “He did not choose coercive methods of leadership.”

If Cardinal Meyer were to land in the archdiocese today, he might not recognize it, but Avella said there is reason to look forward.

“This is a good city with good priests and religious and lay persons,” he said. “To behold even the landscape of Chicago with its steeples and spires, and to see the big modern churches of the suburbs, and to look even cursorily at the social impact of the church, one finds it hard to be permanently pessimistic.

“The phoenix that rises on your archdiocesan crest is not a bird of despair, but of hope. On the shoulders of your great ones like Cardinal Meyer, you have built a great legacy.”