When the president of All Hallows College in Ireland saw the regal man on the framed canvas, he knew the portrait buried in a Dublin basement should head home to Chicago.
The painting of Patrick Feehan, Chicago's first Roman Catholic archbishop, belonged at DePaul University, concluded All Hallows President Patrick McDevitt, a former associate professor at DePaul. Last week the university unveiled the restored and reframed portrait in its new home in Cortelyou Commons on the Lincoln Park campus.
Feehan oversaw a significant era of growth for the Chicago church, which had been elevated to the status of archdiocese shortly before his nomination. While the current archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, has dealt with a decline in parishioners, the closing of Catholic schools and issues surrounding immigration and wayward youths, Feehan dealt with similar issues — or their inverse.
From 1880 to 1902, the number of Catholics in Chicago nearly quadrupled, to 800,000. The number of parishes more than doubled, and the face of the church changed dramatically as Eastern European immigrants flooded the Midwest. Meanwhile, epidemics of cholera, yellow fever and other urban diseases left scores of orphans on the streets to fend for themselves.
An imposing figure who evoked more reverence than affection, Feehan preferred to keep a low profile, tending the gardens of the red brick compound he had built near the lake that today remains the archbishop's home. In fact, relatively few speeches and sermons exist from his 22-year tenure.
But from that fortress by the water he tended an archdiocese still recovering from the devastation of the Great Chicago Fire just nine years earlier and turned it into an empire deserving of its new distinction as a metropolitan see.
Despite his aversion to the limelight, Feehan became a nationally renowned and respected church leader. More than once, his name surfaced as a contender for the red hat of a cardinal — speculation that never materialized.
Across a geographic area that included what is now the Archdiocese of Chicago as well as the Joliet and Rockford dioceses, Feehan dedicated 94 parishes — more new churches than all of his predecessors combined, said the Rev. Martin Zielinski, an associate professor of Catholic history at Mundelein Seminary.
Feehan ordained 250 priests. He added schools and a number of social service agencies, including what are now known as Mercy Home and Maryville Academy, making the archdiocesan budget balloon to $44 million.
Feehan managed it all almost single-handedly.
"The diocesan structure didn't have departments that the modern church of the 21st century has," Zielinski said. "He faced tremendous challenges without the type of institutional sophistication that we have nowadays."
Feehan also faced the challenge of accommodating one of the largest waves of immigration ever to hit the U.S. Adding to the Irish and German communities already settled here, Polish, Bohemian, French, Lithuanian, Italian, Croatian, Slovak and Dutch Catholics brought devotion infused with a diverse range of customs.
Rather than discourage those customs in favor of a more American Catholic approach, Feehan encouraged ethnic pride by creating parishes to accommodate national identities and fuel the newcomers' faith. To minister to these ethnic congregations, he recruited religious orders from those countries to run the parishes. By the time he died in 1902, 52 percent of the new parishes built in the archdiocese served a particular ethnic community.
"These parish structures served an important purpose," Zielinski said. "In one way they were an oasis for immigrant groups" where they could find familiar fraternal organizations, music, language and artwork. There was also a fair share of xenophobia and anger toward Catholics, he said. "These parishes were a sanctuary from some of that hostility."
But before a parish could be built, Feehan insisted on building a school first. The Catholic Education Exhibit at the 1893 Columbian Exposition highlighted that emphasis, which he shared with bishops across the country. Catholic education, they believed, was the path to responsible citizenship.
"Our non-Catholic brethren do not understand our system of education or our desire to form a clear and correct conscience in the heart of our people," Feehan reportedly said, according to a biography. "If the conscience is correctly formed, all else will be right. The only thing that the United States need fear is corruption of morals."
He established the St. Vincent Orphan Asylum in 1881 and St. Mary's Training School for Boys, a trade school for homeless boys, in 1883. St. Mary's is now known as Maryville Academy. He also established St. Paul's Home for Working Boys, which is now known as Mercy Home, in 1887.
Feehan also brought the Vincentian religious order to Chicago to start what is now DePaul University on the North Side.
While the school system is often noted as Feehan's greatest legacy, the archbishop's residence also stands as an emblem to his foresight. People reportedly scoffed when Feehan spent $15,000 shortly after he arrived in Chicago on filling and grading the land at North Avenue and State Street, which was then abutting Lake Michigan. They said a house would only settle and sink. He reportedly said: "Some persons were never intended by God to be pioneers." He moved into the mansion in 1885.
Starting in 1882, reports that he would become a cardinal became rampant. On July 27, 1882, the Tribune ran a profile of "His Eminence" announcing Feehan's elevation to the cardinalate.
On Aug. 12, 1882, the headline read "No Truth in the Report that he is to be made a Cardinal."
That didn't discourage the Tribune from running another story on Dec. 20, 1885, suggesting that Feehan was in the running yet again.
"It is also a well-known fact that Archbishop Feehan during his recent visit to Rome made an excellent impression on the Holy Father and stands high in the esteem of some members of the College of Cardinals, with whom he once studied theology. … Well-informed clergy of the diocese say that the conferring of the honor is only a question of time."
But that time never came. On July 13, 1902, the front-page Tribune headline announced: "Death Comes to Aged Archbishop." For two days, an estimated 75,000 people viewed his open casket at Holy Name Cathedral. The Tribune reported that crowds were so dense that police had to clear the cathedral at least once to prevent a crush. Hundreds who couldn't squeeze into the aisles for the funeral Aass lined the sidewalks.
For its part, the Tribune also mourned his passing. In a glowing eulogy July 14, the editorial praised his devotion under the headline, "A good prelate — a good man."
Editor's note: Thanks to John Holden of DePaul University for suggesting this Flashback.