Auxiliary Bishop Bernard Sheil of Chicago.

Distinctly Catholic

Yesterday, I began my review of Timothy Neary's wonderful book

Crossing Parish Boundaries: Race, Sports, and Catholic Youth in

Chicago, 1914-1954. Having examined the early years of interracial

tensions and even hostilities, the book turns to its hero, Auxiliary

Bishop Bernard Sheil of Chicago.

Sheil was from a "financially secure family," which Neary notes

"removed from the Sheil family many of the economic excuses for

bigotry common among ethnic and racial groups competing for economic

and social status in the industrial order." Sheil attended St. Viator

Born and raised in Chicago, Sheil was ordained a priest on May 3, 1910. He was named auxiliary Bishop of Chicago in 1928, a post he held for over forty years. As bishop he was given the titular see of Pegae. On June 5, 1959, he was raised to the rank of Archbishop, being named titular Archbishop of Selge.
Sheil was "outspoken advocate of social justice in the underprivileged and marginalized sectors of the community." His pro-labor stance led him to endorse some controversial strikes.
Bishop Sheil was founder of Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). According to a history of Catholic Scouting, while Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago had "explored the possibility of Scouting for his 'street kiddies,'" it was not until his newly consecrated auxiliary, Bishop Bernard J. Sheil, took the reins, that Catholic Scouting flourished in Chicago." He was awarded the Silver Buffalo Award by the Boy Scouts of America in 1942.
The Sheil School of Social Studies, which focused on adult education, opened at CYO headquarters in 1943. In eleven years of operation, it enrolled 20,000 students. In 1954, Sheil vehemently attacked Joseph McCarthy, at a time when most Catholics supported this right-wing senator, provoking the withdrawal of some of the financial supporters of his projects. The Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University is also named for him.

College, a boarding school for boys, where he was mentored by Viatorian

Fr. William Bergin, a man who instilled in his young charges a profound

commitment to Pope Leo XIII's seminal encyclical Rerum Novarum. St. Viator

also counted among its alumni two other great churchmen, Fulton Sheen and

John Tracy Ellis.

Sheil's charismatic personality came to the attention of Chicago Archbishop

George Mundelein, who was appointed in 1915, and in 1924, Sheil was named

chancellor. Four years later, he was named auxiliary bishop.

Sheil had worked as a chaplain at the Cook County Jail and later at the

Great Lakes Naval Training Station, which "left the young priest with two

lasting convictions. First, society must take responsibility for juvenile

delinquency. Second, the church should employ organized recreational and

leisure activities to promote Christian and democratic principles among


Begin the Year of Grace with a free booklet of formation and feature

articles on migration from Celebration Publications.

In 1930, Sheil founded the Catholic Youth Organization, putting those

convictions to work. There had been parish sporting events previously,

but these had followed the racial and ethnic boundaries that the parishes

did. "The CYO differed from other youth leagues and organizations,"

Neary writes. "From its inception, Sheil invited boys and girls regardless

of ethnicity or race to participate in CYO activities."

The organization acquired four floors in the Congress Bank Building, in

the heart of downtown, and filled it with locker rooms, boxing rings and

bowling alleys.

"We are rescuing our boys from speakeasies, gangster hang-outs,

street corners, and from the other temptations that lie in wait for dis-

contented youth," Mundelein, now a cardinal, said at the center's

dedication. But most of the CYO activities happened out in Chicago's many

parishes, building on that existing network, and advertising through the

archdiocesan newspaper and parish bulletins. Those who decry "organized

religion" forget that disorganized religion is its opposite.

Sheil crafted a "My CYO Creed" for the participants:

1. To love God and country;

2. To love the poor and afflicted;

3. To acquire physical and mental courage;

4. To understand myself and my group;

5. To strive for a better life for myself and my fellowmen;

6. To promote social justice by rigid application of the

principles expressed in the Encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI;

7. To foster the spirit of American democracy as expressed in

the deeds of Jefferson and Lincoln;

8. To abstain from excesses of any kind;

9. To emulate virtues of the victorious Apostolate of Christ;

10. To be humble in victory; undaunted in defeat.

The list holds up pretty well, although revisionist historians

have complicated our understanding of the "deeds" of Jefferson.

Neary notes that the CYO, while founded to confront juvenile

delinquency and to promote the Americanization program so

characteristic of Mundelein's tenure, was distinguished quickly

from groups like the YMCA precisely because it was not segregated

by race.

In the heart of "Bronzeville", the neighborhood with the highest

concentration of black Chicagoans, Sheil converted a building at

St. Elizabeth into "Sheil House," a kind of community center.

During the summer months, it hosted a day camp, with morning

socialization and recreation activities and afternoon field trips

to the city's cultural gems. It was open to all, regardless of


It was in the boxing ring that Sheil's commitment to inter-

racialism first came before the public eye. Neary quotes

Malcolm X who said, "The ring was the only place a Negro could

whip a white man and not be lynched." Joe Louis won the world

championship belt in 1937. Black and white CYO boxers not only

competed against each other, but when the Chicago team went to

other cities to compete, they went as teammates. Thousands

attended interracial matches at Chicago Stadium and other venues.

In 1936, three CYO boxers were on the U.S. Olympic boxing squad

at the Berlin Olympics, at which the legendary Jesse Owens

disproved with his speed the Nazis' view on Aryan racial


The CYO also opened its doors to women, although the number of

sports available to them were fewer. Still, runner Mabel Landry

Staton summed up the social significance of the racial inte-

gration Sheil pursued: "We were the only interracial team running

at the time. And we beat everybody."

Mundelein died suddenly in 1939, and Sheil never had the same degree

of support from, nor rapport with, Mundelein's successor, Archbishop

Samuel Stritch. The Second World War brought another wave of domestic

migration and the black population of Chicago swelled. By 1950, blacks

were 14 percent of the city's population and by the end of the decade,

a stunning 23 percent.

This created a "tipping point" in the eyes of some white folk.

"They no longer saw black involvement in the CYO as the participation

of just one ethnic group among many," Neary writes. "Rather, they felt

that racial minorities had overrun the organization. Some even referred

to the CYO derisively as the 'Colored Youth Organization.'"

In 1954, Sheil resigned as director of the CYO and the program became

decentralized. The conservative political winds blowing through both the

church and the state in the 1950s did not fill Sheil's sails ever again.

Neary catalogs other aspects of the CYO. Sheil started a CYO social service

department that provided a range of services to poor children and families.

In 1948, Sheil appointed a black laywoman, Dora Somerville, as director of

the Sheil Guidance Clinic, daring to push gender boundaries as he had pushed

racial ones.

Neary looks at the central role Sheil's commitment to organized labor played

in shaping his thinking, including the opening of a labor school,

the Sheil School of Social Studies, in 1943. He discusses Sheil's friendship

and collaboration with Saul Alinsky on the Back of the Yards project. One gets

exhausted just reading about all the different and varied initiatives Sheil began.

Chicago was subsequently home to another moment of interracial historical

significance, as hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans filled Grant Park on election

night 2008 to celebrate the election of the first black president. That moment,

as had so many moments in Sheil's career, held out the hope that America had lance

the boil of racial animus, but it turns out the sin of racism runs deep.

Still, this wonderful book tells the tale of an extraordinary bishop doing

extraordinary things in the Windy City, confronting societal ills boldly and

devising efforts to counter them. How many lives were made better by

Sheil's efforts — hundreds, thousands perhaps?

Let those lives be the legacy of his efforts, not the fact that racism remains

uncured. And let us hope that Chicago might see a similar burst of ecclesiastical

energy in the years ahead.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at

Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]