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
"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
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
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.]