We asked several local Catholics to share their thoughts on the man who was Cardinal George. Here is what they had to say:
Deacon Leroy Gill
When Deacon Leroy Gill was in the third year of his diaconate formation, he and his wife lost their 21-year-old son, and Cardinal George offered his condolences.
That was the first time he had personal contact with the cardinal.
Then, at the end of that academic year, leaders of the diaconate formation program suggested that Gill, who had missed some required spiritual direction sessions over the course of mourning his son, step away from the formation program for at least a year to take time to grieve. It was the last thing he wanted to do.
“I needed my classmates,” Gill said. “They got me through this.”
He happened to run into the cardinal in the courtyard at Holy Name Cathedral toward the end of that summer, and explained what was happening. Cardinal George told him to go ahead and return to formation with his class, and he went on to be ordained with them in 2006.
It wasn’t until later that Deacon Gill learned that Cardinal George had wanted to attend Quigley Preparatory Seminary and had been unable to; he wonders if that was why the cardinal reacted so quickly to his predicament.
“I preached about it on Sunday (April 19),” Gill said. “The text I used was ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’”
Gill, who served as chairman of the Black Deacons of Chicago, said the cardinal had a warm relationship with the black Catholic community, as well as for deacons.
“He cared,” Gill said. “He was an advocate for the black Catholics. I think he was a great guy.”
Archbishop Jerome Listecki
Several years ago, Cardinal George and Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki were talking about the cardinal’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. They were talking about their admiration for Cardinal Bernardin, and how well loved he was.
“It was interesting that Cardinal George said the one thing that stood out that he admired most about Cardinal Bernardin was that he died a public death,” Archbishop Listecki recalled April 20, noting that Cardinal Bernardin had “to continue to be a public person” in spite of the fact he knew he was dying.
Archbishop Listecki said it was ironic that Cardinal George was subjected to the same “public death” that Cardinal Bernardin experienced.
“It’s a thousand questions about how you’re feeling; a thousand questions about what’s the prognosis; a thousand questions about your ‘vision’ for the short time you have,” the archbishop said. “It is almost a living wake.”
Archbishop Listecki said that Cardinal George accepted that.
“He demonstrated the courage of someone who lived his faith as a leader and literally looked upon his impending death with grace and dignity as an example to all of us,” the archbishop said.
Archbishop Listecki said he and the cardinal “stayed away from the death talk,” focusing instead on their love for the church.
“As a believer, we believe we’re not embracing death, a finality, we’re embracing life, so why shouldn’t we embrace life now that we’re living with the understanding that God will take care of us as he embraces us in the transition from this life to the next?” Archbishop Listecki said.
Calling it an “honor” that Cardinal George submitted his name to the Holy See as a candidate for bishop, Archbishop Listecki said, “I have a lot to be grateful for to Cardinal George.”
Cardinal George ordained Archbishop Listecki an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2001. He was one of 10 bishops ordained by the cardinal between 1998 and 2012.
Father Frank Phillips
Today our spiritual father and founder bishop ended his earthly pilgrimage. For me personally, the loss is something difficult to describe as Cardinal George was one who listened, directed, corrected, encouraged and confronted but always gave hope to this tiny community of men dedicated to the restoration of the sacred.
The Canons Regular of St. John Cantius is the first men’s community founded in the Archdiocese of Chicago. We are a living legacy of this shepherd of souls.
“I want you to grow, I want this to succeed. Live your constitutions. Be men of prayer,” were short directives he would often repeat to me.
Cardinal George will always be remembered for his annual visit with our community. The men whom he ordained will always have a special bond to him as they offer Mass, hear confessions and make available the other sacraments to restore broken souls.
Cardinal George is now placed in our daily prayers for the deceased and in our Perpetual Masses. Rest in peace my spiritual father. May the Angels lead him into Paradise.
Msgr. Richard Zborowski
Msgr. Richard Zborowski, currently serving at Resurrection Parish, was the first monsignor Cardinal George recommended for the title.
The two were not particularly close friends, Zborowski said, but the cardinal agreed with the recommendation to honor Zborowski that came from a Polish archbishop, in honor of Zborowski’s work to raise money for the seminary in Bialystock, Poland. The seminary needed a new kitchen and retreat house, and he chose to raise money for it in thanks for the Polish priests who come to serve in Chicago.
“The most important thing about him is that he was a great intellect,” Zborowski said his April 19 homily. “What impressed me most was that he wrote his own homilies, which were brilliant. It was always his own thought.”
The cardinal also treated all people with the same respect, no matter the status, Zborowski said, using himself as an example.
“I’m just a simple priest,” he said. “He was a good man, and he was a wonderful pastor.”
Peter Cullen-Conway learned a lot about generosity during his nearly 20 years of working in fundraising in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
But the most important lessons came not from major donors, but from Cardinal George.
“When his schedule was full, and I needed to do something quick, he’d give his day off to me,” Cullen-Conway said.
That graciousness extended to Cullen-Conway’s professional growth.
“He always told me to tell him what to do,” Cullen-Conway said. “I was able to politely push back on some things, directly to him, to give him my best thoughts.”
However, Cardinal George’s generosity of spirit even applied when he had to say “no” to someone.
Cullen-Conway recalled the agonizing decision to tear down St. James Church, a soaring neo- Gothic structure that opened in 1880 at 2942 S. Wabash Ave. in the Bronzeville neighborhood. The church was literally crumbling away, as the archdiocese was forced to erect scaffolding over the front sidewalk in order to protect passers-by. Mass had not been celebrated in the church for at least two years — parishioners would meet in the parish center a couple of blocks away — when the archdiocese sought a demolition permit in the fall of 2012.
“The cardinal was really struggling on what to do, and he really wanted to save the building,” Cullen-Conway said. “He did not want to tear down St. James.”
Although a donor had pledged $5 million to repair the church, the much-needed complete renovation totaled $12 million, while a proposed new building would cost only $4 million. Cardinal George took responsibility for the decision to demolish the church, and delivered the news personally to the donor.
“The cardinal said, ‘I owe him this phone call. He needs to hear it from me,’” Cullen-Conway said.
The donor later called Cullen- Conway, telling him that personal phone call was “a classy move.”
But Cardinal George did not save that pastoral nature just for major donors — he showed it to everyone.
Cullen-Conway told of seeing Cardinal George in receiving lines at numerous fundraising events, always taking the time to talk to everyone.
“They’d come there with troubles — it was a kind of confessional booth,” he said. “He would take care of them, and you could see him just almost getting energy from being with the people.”
Although Cullen-Conway took another job in the fall of 2014, he contacted Cardinal George in March, asking to bring him his annual loaf of homemade soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day.
They met, and the conversation turned to the efforts they had spearheaded in raising funds for the church, on local, national and international levels.
“We told some of the old stories together and we had a couple laughs,” Cullen-Conway said. “Most of the stories got better every time we told them.”
And he was able to thank Cardinal George for the gifts he gave him.
“He truly made me a better person,” he said. “I was proud as a Catholic dad and a Catholic husband to be working for him.”
Dominican University President Donna Carroll has the distinction of being the only Catholic university president to hold her position for the entirety of Cardinal George’s tenure as archbishop.
She said she and the other university presidents had the advantage of being able to get to know the cardinal over the course of lunch meetings that took place at least twice a year. That way, she said, when a controversial issue cropped up, they had an existing relationship to fall back on.
“He was intimidatingly intelligent,” she said. “But he had a good sense of humor, and he was always interested in what was going on with the students. He had a real interest in the perpetuation of Catholic culture and community.”
Because of that, he enjoyed opportunities to interact with Catholic university students.
“I think that was particularly satisfying part of his tenure,” she said. “He could let down his guard and be accessible to students and debate with them and laugh with them. It was charming and authentic.”
Carroll and Cardinal George also worked on immigration issue, when Dominican became a leader in finding ways to allow undocumented students to attend the school.
“He felt deeply about providing individuals with opportunities and for families with the opportunity to stay together,” she said.
Father Dan Brandt
When Cardinal George comes to mind, an image of him dressed in his priestly “blacks” or colorful vestments reflecting the liturgical season most likely pops up.
But a bullet-proof vest?
Chicago Police Department Chaplain Father Dan Brandt tells a story of how his predecessor Father Thomas Nangle invited Cardinal George to ride along one night with police officers from the 11th District on the West Side, near Harrison Street and Kedzie Avenue. Cardinal George was game, donning a bullet- proof vest just like the plainclothes officers.
The first call they responded to was a man who had been stabbed in the eye socket — with the knife still hanging in place when they arrived.
“The profanities were just pouring out of the victim’s mouth,” Brandt said. “He was clueless as to who Cardinal George was. He thought he was an officer.”
Cardinal George took it all in stride, and by the end of the shift, the officers were calling him “lieutenant” in front of the local residents.
When Nangle retired a few years later, a party was thrown in his honor at a local banquet hall. More than 1,000 people showed up to honor the longtime police chaplain and welcome Brandt as his replacement, including newly appointed Chicago Police Department Superintendent Garry McCarthy.
Cardinal George was seated at the head table, along with Brandt and McCarthy.
Brandt said that McCarthy slyly noted to Cardinal George that in his native New York City, each of the five boroughs has a police chaplain, with four of them monsignors.
Brandt recalls, “I looked at the cardinal and I jumped on it and said, ‘Hey, don’t you think Monsignor Brandt has a nice ring to it?’
“And the cardinal says, ‘You know what, as a matter of fact Monsignor Brandt really does have a nice ring to it. You should move to New York.’”
However, what Brandt also remembers about that night is how Cardinal George showed up late, detained by another commitment, but still making it in time for the dessert course.
“That was just an example of him and his priorities,” Brandt said. “This was a Thursday night, and probably 9 o’clock when he finally got there, and any other man of his age with his schedule would have probably wanted nothing more than to go home and have a seat on his couch.”
Brandt saw that same dedication to others when he was ordained a priest by Cardinal George, who had recently implemented a program of monthly gatherings back at the seminary for new priests during their first three years. They would meet for continuing education, prayer, and a meal where they could share their experiences from their parishes.
“He didn’t want you to go out there in the field and be lost,” Brandt said.
Or in other words, without a spiritual bullet-proof vest.
Daughter of Charity Frances Ryan
Daughter of Charity Frances Ryan knew Cardinal George since both were children, maintaining a friendship that lasted more than seven decades. She grew up in his neighborhood and both were members of the St. Pascal School class of 1951.
While they had very little contact during the early years of their religious lives, they came back into touch when both returned to Chicago. At the time, Sister Frances said, she tried to figure out how she could best help him.
“Then I realized what he really needed from me was to be his friend,” she said.
That became even more important when he became ill with cancer.
“I could remind him of his roots, remind him of his childhood, bring him back to the Patio Theater,” the movie house on Irving Park Rd, where students from St. Pascal went. “He could really relax. He could just enjoy good friends. He was very loyal to his friends.”
She is a member of a religious community dedicated to serving the poor, as Cardinal George was, and she admired his efforts for the poor.
“One is that he created a community for the poor,” she said. Even the dinners he attended were “always to get the money for the schools to stay open in the poor neighborhoods. He supported the sisters and the priests. He visited every parish in the diocese. He went to every one of them. … I think history is going to be very kind to him.”
Cardinal George consecrated Twanna Bolling as a consecrated virgin in June 2007.
Before that, the most contact she had with him was during the meeting that all women who feel called to be consecrated virgins must have with their bishops. That took place on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, in 2005.
“It was very personal, very pastoral, very warm,” she said. “I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect and I wanted to be approved, and I told him I was nervous, and he said, “I’m sorry about that.’”
Her consecration was delayed by his treatment for cancer in 2006, but once it took place, she had more contact with him.
“I’m going to remember what a spiritual father he was to me,” she said. “He knew about me, knew details of my life, and he kept up with that. I’m just an ordinary person with an ordinary life, but he knew about my life, and he cared.”
One reason he was so accessible to people was that he was willing to share himself, Bolling said.
“He was very comfortable with his own humanity,” she said. “I could show him my vulnerability, because he showed me his.”