“No treasure is too great for Roman Catholics to pour out in their honoring of Christ.”
On June 24, 1926, more than 800,000 people participated in the closing ceremonies of the 28th International Eucharistic Congress in Mundelein, the “largest religious meeting in the history of the Catholic Church in America.” George Cardinal Mundelein, the Archbishop of Chicago, had sent a message to Pope Pius XI, asking for the Congress to be held in Chicago, promising “a million communions as a spiritual bouquet to your august presence.”
Chicago was the first American city to host the International Eucharistic Congress, which celebrates the importance of the Eucharist in the lives of Catholics. The public Congress was not merely intended to create a sense of pride for the Roman Catholic people of the Chicago area, but also to gather people from all over the world to place Chicago on the international stage. This International Eucharistic Congress, along with the World’s Fairs of 1893 and 1933-34, are the three events that put Chicago “on the map” in its early life. This was especially true for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Rome, who had viewed Chicago as part of the unrefined “Wild West,” and considered it a “mission territory” until 1908.
Planning an event of such incredible scale was a complex and enormous undertaking, especially considering the short time frame of two years to plan and prepare. The logistics of transporting, feeding, and housing up to 1,000,000 people required cooperation of everyone from steamship and railroad companies to city, state, and church authorities as well as every person who lived in the Chicago area.
The Congress began with a Formal Opening on Sunday, June 20, 1926, with a procession of 750 students from Quigley Preparatory Seminary, representatives of all participating religious orders, 500 monsignors, 300 bishops, 60 archbishops, and 10 cardinals – allegedly the largest gathering of prelates outside of Rome in modern times. The procession was watched by 250,000 people, many of whom could listen to the ceremony thanks to the latest scientific innovation – broadcasting through loudspeakers, with radio airplay at churches across the nation.
Monday, June 21, 1926 was Children’s Day, with throngs of people converging on Soldier Field by streetcar, elevated train, and car. Around 400,000 people were inside or surrounding the stadium to participate in the Mass, including a choir of 62,000 schoolchildren representing 325 Archdiocesan schools. Seminarians from what was then called St. Mary of the Lake Seminary (now Mundelein) led the procession of monsignors, bishops, abbots, and archbishops, flanked by Knights of St. Gregory and Knights of Malta.
“The masses of people at Soldier Field seem like an ancient rite, the ceremonies liken to a classic pageant of Imperial Rome. At an early hour, the bridges across the smoking canyon of the Illinois Central were like rivers of humanity. With hushed eagerness, the people cut across the open fields south of the Field Museum and congested to the south of the structures, filling its broad steps and balconies until there was an almost solid slope of human faces.”
June 22 began with Women’s Day, a vivid profusion of bright summer dresses surrounded by the black and white habits of women representing various religious orders. Nearly 250,000 women attended, including many teachers, nurses, those who cared for orphans, and administrators of large institutions. The evening’s focus turned to men, when 225,000 men from all stations in life and all manners of dress, each carrying a candle, processed into the stadium, with 50,000 more standing outside. The candles provided the only source of illumination in the stadium, as the men from a variety of classes and ethnicities listened to a series of addresses. The Fourth General Meeting on June 23 was Higher Education Day, again focusing on young people. Education was a significant strategic goal of Cardinal Mundelein along with taking care of the poor.
On June 24, the focus was on our seminary, the pride and joy of Cardinal Mundelein.
“Here, in a setting which is indescribably beautiful, Cardinal Mundelein has reared his diocesan seminary, with seven magnificent buildings and a university faculty of Fathers of the Society of Jesus, the whole making what is easily the foremost Theological Seminary in the world.”
Not only was the setting grand, the closing ceremonies were historic. The movement of people to and from Mundelein that day was the largest transportation effort in American history. All roads, rail and highway, literally led to Mundelein – you could only drive one way north in the morning and one way south in the evening. Approximately 18,000 cars moved in and out of Mundelein within a 24-hour period. Hundreds of police and volunteers monitored 400 miles of restricted highways for pilgrims flocking to Mundelein in cars, on rail, and on foot.
The Solemn Pontifical Mass was scheduled for 10 a.m., but at 4 a.m. when the seminary gates opened, 12,000 people were already awaiting entry. Down in Chicago, large crowds were already gathered to board one of the 820 trains (more than 5,200 cars) that would transport people to and from Mundelein. Temporary train terminals were built to handle the crowds. A loaded train would arrive at the Mundelein station every 40 seconds over an eight-hour span. Refreshments were available throughout the seminary grounds, as were restrooms. Drinking fountains were constructed every 100 feet, and 12 tents were set up for first aid.
The Mass was not celebrated inside our historic chapel, but rather on the front steps, elevated above the rest of campus, so that everyone in attendance could view Giovanni Vincenzo Cardinal Bonzano (Papal Legate) and Patrick Joseph Cardinal Hayes (Archbishop of New York) celebrate the Mass. A massive crimson drape hung in front of the chapel doors, providing a background to the high white altar. Joseph W. McCarthy, architect of the seminary, worked with Cardinal Mundelein to design beautiful decorations for this occasion. The crowd of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder stretched one-half mile from the chapel to the shore of the lake.
The conclusion of the entire Congress was the Eucharistic Procession, starting at the chapel, and winding three miles around the entire lake before ending in the same place. The hundreds of thousands of people who attended Mass spread throughout campus to reverence the Blessed Sacrament and see each of the 12 cardinals in attendance. Cardinal Bonzano carried the Blessed Sacrament for the entire route as Acolytes spread rose petals on the path ahead. The entire procession stretched nearly two miles in length and included 275 archbishops and bishops, 100 monsignors, divisions of bands from area schools, floats representing each country, race, and organization of participants, floats depicting early missionary efforts in the U.S., floats explaining the purpose of numerous Catholic organizations, and more.
The International Eucharistic Congress showcased Chicago as a truly international city, elevated Cardinal Mundelein’s status as both a spiritual and civic leader, and highlighted St. Mary of the Lake Seminary as a world-class place to form priests.
This article featured information found in “A Transportation Miracle: The 28th International Eucharistic Congress in Chicago” (2016), Edited by Norman Carlson. And “Mundelein Seminary: The Campus History Series” (2014), by Gail Kahover. Both books are available for purchase in our bookstore.