Celene Siedlecki, ran one of Chicago’s oldest funeral homes

SHARE Celene Siedlecki, ran one of Chicago’s oldest funeral homes
SHARE Celene Siedlecki, ran one of Chicago’s oldest funeral homes

It would be impossible to count all the precinct captains, police officers and politicians who’ve been buried by Thomas McInerney’s Sons Funeral Home, established in 1873 in Chicago’s Canaryville neighborhood, back when its Catholic church, St. Gabriel’s, was called “the most Irish parish outside of Ireland.”

Celene McInerney Siedlecki was the last surviving member of a trio of tough Irish women who in the early 1960s took over running their grandfather’s mortuary at 4635 S. Wallace, said her son, Charles.

She and her sisters, Rosemarie Barry and Margaret Munley, fended off being gobbled up by the conglomerates that have bought up many small funeral homes.

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McInerney’s remains in family hands — now, the fifth generation.

Mrs. Siedlecki died Jan. 6 of complications from a stroke at Franciscan St. Anthony Health, a hospital in Michigan City, Ind. She was 86.

The family funeral home was so well-known that Mike Royko singled it out in “Boss,” his biography of Mayor Richard J. Daley, when he wrote of the mayor’s devotion to evening wakes, “part of political courtesy and his culture.”

“The funeral home might be McInerney’s,” Royko wrote, “which has matchbooks that bear a poem beginning, ‘Bring out the lace curtains and call McInerney, I’m nearing the end of life’s pleasant journey.’ ” The poem is believed to have been written by a neighborhood resident, T.J. O’Donnell, in the early 1900s, said Mrs. Siedlecki’s son.

“It was very common to see Mayor Daley here, the first mayor Daley,” her son said. “He would never miss a wake. He would buzz in with his entourage and bodyguards, and he wouldn’t stay long, but he never missed a wake.”

McInerney’s buried the immigrants who survived “An Gorta Mor” — Ireland’s Great Hunger. Those refugees boarded disease-ridden “coffin ships” to come to Chicago, where they found work in the stockyards and began building a power base in the police and fire departments.

The family buried the dead from the 1918 flu epidemic and soldiers of every conflict from World War I to Afghanistan. One Chicago family loyal to McInerney’s has produced 26 police officers, Charles Siedlecki said.

McInerney’s also took care of the so-called “King of the Yards,” Father Maurice J. Dorney, a beloved St. Gabriel’s priest whose power, viewed today, is almost unfathomable. A law school graduate, he mediated labor disputes at the stockyards, going down to the killing floor to make fiery speeches. It’s been said that with a word, he could persuade thousands of men and women to avert a strike. When Dorney wanted to ban taverns, “by his efforts a mile square of territory surrounding his church has for 20 years been absolutely free from the presence of a saloon,” according to an Associated Press article from when he died in 1914.

When McInerney’s handled his funeral arrangements, it was written up around the globe. Ninety-two automobiles were in the procession — not a small thing, considering Henry Ford started producing the Model T only six years before.

Mrs. Siedlecki grew up in Canaryville, attended St. Gabriel’s, and met her husband, Charles, a Polish-American from neighboring Back of the Yards, when they went on an arranged double-date as teens. They were to accompany her sister, Margaret, on a date, because the McInerneys didn’t want their daughters to go out unchaperoned. “My grandmother gave him the money to rent a tux and he got ma flowers,” their son said. They wrote to each other when he entered the Navy in World War II.

“Grandma McInerney wasn’t too pleased because he wasn’t an Irishman, but the marriage went forward and they were married 65 years and they knew each other for 70,” their son said. Celene’s husband, Charles Siedlecki, rose to become a district commander with the Chicago Police Department.

Their other son, Patrick, is developmentally disabled. Wisdom of the day suggested placing him in an institution, but “She just refused to do it, so they cared for him all his life,” Charles Siedlecki said. “He’s with my father, who’ll be 92 in April.” She supported Misericordia and the religious order that runs it, the Sisters of Mercy.

Mrs. Siedlecki and her sister, Rosemarie Barry, studied at the Worsham College of Mortuary Science. The third McInerney sister, Margaret Munley, had a big family. Her husband, Charles Munley, took the lead in directing funerals. Celene focused on accounting and tax preparation, while Rosemarie, who was childless, handled day-to-day details. “Rosie was the lead,” Charles Siedlecki said. “She was a powerhouse.” Garbed in a chapeau, hatpins and an ankle-length black coat of ranch mink or Persian Lamb, sailing around the neighborhood in a Cadillac Brougham, she seemingly could not be intimidated.

At one point, a representative of a conglomerate pitched to Rosemarie Barry the possibility of buying the family funeral home. But he didn’t grasp that McInerney’s is an establishment where amateur genealogists come to study logs that go back 141 years. He didn’t understand tight-knit Canaryville is where birth names permanently succumb to nicknames with long-ago neighborhood narratives, like Sailor, Muscles, Slugs, Chickie, Mixie and Ducky.

Charles Siedlecki described the encounter with his aunt. “The man told Rosemarie in her big kitchen, ‘The family-owned funeral home, they’re going to go the way of the neighborhood drugstore and hardware store, and you ought to sell now, while you can get a good dollar.’ And Rosie patted his hand and said, ‘You’re a lovely man, but you don’t know what you’re talking about. People don’t give a damn where they they get an aspirin or a hammer, but I don’t think they’d come here if it was being run by a big corporation from Texas or Louisiana.’ ”

In addition to her husband and two sons, Mrs. Siedlecki is also survived by three grandchildren. Visitation is 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday at McInerney’s, 4635 S. Wallace. A funeral Mass is planned at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Gabriel Church, 4522 S. Wallace.

Celene McInerney Siedlecki | 1928-2015 Bring out the lace curtains and call McInerney; I’m nearing the end of my life’s pleasant journey. Send quick for the priest, just tell him I’m dying my last minutes on earth so swiftly are flying. Tell dear Father Dorney I’m meeting my maker (He’s losing his old collection up taker.) Then pull down the shades and light up the candles Call the O’Briens, the Caseys and Randalls. The Murphys, the Burkes, the Bradys and all. Tell them your darlin’ has answered God’s call. Call Schultz the fat butcher and order some meat; Let watchers who sit through the night have a treat. There’s good Mrs. Smith who is sure to bring cake, Please ask her advice in conducting my wake. Bring out the lace curtains and call McInerney; I’m nearing the end of my life’s pleasant Journey. By T. J. O’Donnell

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