USML | The Liturgical Institute

Hillenbrand Exhibit

Seminary Rector

Cardinal George Mundelein named Hillenbrand rector of Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary in 1936 at the age of 31. The founding of the seminary was a project dear to Mundelein’s heart, and its leadership no doubt required a man Mundelein could trust profoundly. The intellectual and energetic Hillenbrand wasted no time in bringing new ideas to the seminary program. Putting his beliefs about the corporate nature of the liturgy as an action of the Mystical Body of Christ into action, Hillenbrand brought the seminarians, who had until then worshipped in separate chapels, into a sung communal Sunday High Mass. He urged the use of the “dialogue Mass” so that seminarians could sing the responses, and expected the celebrant of each Mass to preach a daily homily on topics relevant to the scriptures, liturgical feast, or season. Hillenbrand is shown (left) celebrating Mass at the high altar of the chapel at the Saint Mary of the Lake seminary.


Hillenbrand developed and taught a liturgy course for the seminary which addressed the nature and doctrine of the liturgy itself rather than the externals of the ceremonies alone. “The all-essential thing in the liturgy is to understand the doctrinal basis,” he wrote in 1942. For that reason, he studied closely the “divine life and the Mystical Body, because without understanding these it is quite useless to talk about the details of the Mass.” Hillenbrand’s skills as a preacher were legendary. Throughout his life he never ceased to be
bombarded with speaking invitations. Seminarians recalled how even when not attending Mass, they would sneak into the sacristy and listen to his sermons.

Click here to listen to a 1957 sound clip of Hillenbrand speaking

Always a loyal churchman, Hillenbrand’s lectures on liturgy remained rooted in the Church’s official teaching, especially the writings of Pope Pius X, whose 1903 motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini used the phrase “active participation” for the first time in relation to the liturgy. More important to Hillenbrand than classroom time, however, was the students’ lived experience of the liturgy. He insisted they learn the chants of the Mass, that appropriate liturgical colors and vestures be used, and that the Roman Missal be followed carefully.

Hillenbrand was known to students as formal and aloof, yet his ideas and preaching were considered magnetic and charismatic. At left he is shown outside the seminary chapel among students after an ordination ceremony in 1943.

Hillenbrand invited the nation’s leading liturgical minds to lecture at the seminary, including Virgil Michel, Martin Hellriegel, Catherine DeHuech Doherty, Godfrey Diekmann and Dorothy Day, placing the seminary on the forefront of liturgical theology and forming a generation of Chicago priests.

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