‘He was a neighbor’ — mourners flock to bid goodbye to cardinal

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Eileen and Joe Yankee, who were childhood friends with Cardinal Francis George, stand in line for George’s funeral services at Holy Name Cathedral on Thursday, April 23, 2015. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media

They came from Mexico, Ireland, Kenya, the Philippines, Poland, Uganda, a Sioux Indian reservation — and Chicago’s white ethnic Bungalow Belt.

They all came to mourn Cardinal Francis George, a product of the Northwest Side who became the intellectual leader of the Catholic Church in America.

But their memories weren’t of church teachings or pageantry. Instead, they recalled talking with him about hot dogs, Chicago politics, fishing, the power of a good joke, and the joy of strawberry-rhubarb pie.

And they praised him for being friendly, down-to-earth, and direct.

Speaking with George “was like talking to your neighbor,” said Ed Quartullo, a parishioner at Old St. Pat’s who was first in line for the funeral mass at Holy Name Cathedral. “He loved talking about the Cubs. He’d talk about going to the Patio theater, hopping on the [Irving Park Road] bus for a nickel” when he was a boy growing up in St Pascal’s parish at Irving and Melvina.

“He was very much a son of Chicago,” said Sister Anita Baird, who was second in line.

The cardinal liked talking about fishing, and he said he used both worms and bait, said Giulio Camerini, 76, a retired surgical technician from Loyola Medical Center. “He was always down-to-earth.”

Like many locals, the cardinal found Chicago politics entertaining. “He was kind of a fan,” said Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, former superintendent of Archdiocesan schools, “suspicious but loving of the body politic.”


Sister Mary Paul McCaughey recalled that Cardinal George found Chicago politics entertaining.

“He loved hot dogs,” said Sister Alicia Torres of the Franciscan nuns at the Mission of Our Lady of Angels, 3808 W. Iowa. When he came for dinner, “he loved strawberry-rhubarb pie,” she said. “That was the pie his mother made.”

Sister Alicia Torres remembers that Cardinal George loved strawberry-rhubarb pie.

In a nod to his roots, for his final arrangements, George chose Gibbons Funeral Home, just a few blocks from St. Pascal’s. It’s the same funeral home that buried his parents. “It’s such an honor and really humbling that he remembered it,” funeral director Colleen Gibbons said as she waited for his casket to be carried down the steps of Holy Name Cathedral.

A modest man, he selected a modest casket, she said.

After his second bout with cancer, the cardinal let it be known that he didn’t wish to be buried at the bishops’ mausoleum at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, said Roman Szabelski, head of Catholic Cemeteries. “He said, no, I would like to be with my family,’ ” at Des Plaines’ All Saints Cemetery.

Coming from a city of immigrants, he recognized the power of ethnic rituals, mourners said. “He brought us together,” said Liz Mugo, an immigrant from Kenya who is a member of St. Malachy’s parish in Chicago.

“He wanted to be sure the Hispanic community would be served,” said Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio, once the cardinal’s liaison to Chicago’s Hispanic community.

At All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Mexican-American mourners waited for the arrival of the cardinal’s funeral procession. They said they were grateful for his longtime support of the nearby Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where the faithful flock every December for her feast day. He decreed it a shrine in 2013. “I’m here because of what he did for us,” said Joaquin Martinez.

Julia Lopez, of Jefferson Park, also waited at the cemetery. “He was very close to the Hispanic community and he has showed us the love,” she said. “He was very kind to us.”

Filipinos welcomed him at Simbang Gabi, the pre-Christmas observance of nine days of masses. “He always attended,” said Angie Sevilla, who came to Holy Name from Holy Family parish in Inverness. “It wasn’t just a casual concept. He believed in ethnic traditions.”

“He was a humble man, and Indian people are humble,” said Susan Power, 91, who walked up the stairs at Holy Name unassisted. A founder of Chicago’s American Indian Center, she grew up on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North and South Dakota. Like some, she believes that the cardinal’s bout with polio sensitized him to others’ suffering.


Susan Power, a founder of Chicago’s American Indian Center, said the city’s Native Americans embraced Cardinal George. Photo: nativeamerica.blogspot.com

“He stepped out—and I never forgot it — my sister was lame, like him,” Power said, “and he came and he took her gently to his seat.”

Barbara Pogorzelska, of Des Plaines, said she traveled to All Saints Cemetery to honor a man Polish Catholics respected. “He was very good to people and especially for Catholics,” Pogorzelska said in Polish.

Tejas Soni, who is Hindu, was at the cemetery with a family member visiting from India. “It’s important for us to come and see this. We studied in a Jesuit school in India, and we just thought this would be a very nice way to respect the cardinal,” Soni said.

“He is a holy character. Yesterday, we decided we’ll come over here to pray to this holy soul,” said Mayank Soni, of India.

Nurse Donna Kamuda, 46, said the cardinal never sought attention when he came to visit the sick at hospitals, but she recognized him “because of his limp. He never had bodyguards . . . never with a flock of people, no media. It was just so beautiful,” Kamuda said at the cemetery. “He came around to visit patients all the time and he never ignored anybody. He talked to the staff, the patients, to the family. He always had time and was never in a rush.”

Patients loved him, Kamuda said. “Even if they weren’t Catholic, they could come up to him and say, ‘Can you give my family a blessing?’ It didn’t matter what color, what race you were, what religion you were, he just embraced everybody.”

Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) came to pay her respects at Holy Name. She said she and the cardinal had “a few heated discussions” on issues important to Mell, who is gay. Still, “I never doubted his passion for Chicago and his love for its people,” she said.  

Ald. Deb Mell (33rd)

“This was a very powerful man around the world,” yet, “everyone felt important in his presence,” said Sister Anita Baird, founding director of the Archdiocesan Office for Racial Justice.

When he became archbishop of Chicago in 1997, George said the church would work to create a neighborhood “in which everyone can be at home.”

“If it is all right with you, I will say that I am Francis, your neighbor,” he said at that time.

People who lived around Holy Name got used to seeing him around the cathedral, stopping to chat with him, said Loyola University consultant Marian Watson. “He was a neighbor.”

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