Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed: Cupich should embrace Catholic heritage, forgo false humility

By Anatole Upart
University of Chicago Art History Doctoral student
Special for Rorate Caeli

When a leader of a polity assumes the office, the power of the office often comes in a specific architectural form: a residence, headquarters or a palace. Whether that leader personally dislikes old palaces is not important. What is important is that he or she would transition into the role, previously occupied by someone else.

The last thing the new president, king, pope can do is to refuse the symbolic trappings of the office and impose his own personal preferences. That is why Chicago's new Catholic archbishop, Blase Cupich, should move into the official residence, not into the rectory of the Holy Name Cathedral as he recently indicated. It signals the beginning of his new job in the same way the relocation to the White House starts the presidency and the move into Vatican Apartments mark the Papacy.

Imagine how the American public would have reacted if Obama announced his intention to sell the White House because it could generate a good profit for the benefit of the common Americans? What if he simply refused to live there because he was too humble? I wanted to argue here that true humility lies in accepting your predecessor’s home as your own, without reservations or public gestures. The contemporary sentiment is that church hierarchs should not be spending large sums of money on the upkeep of the “nonessential” luxury houses at the time when that money can be “better” spent on charity. Such puritanical viewpoint leads, I think, to a fundamental misunderstanding of why stately residences needed and should remain preserved and occupied.

James Rowland Willett (1831-1907) designed the three-story red-brick residence of the Archbishop of Chicago in 1880. At the time, Catholicism in the United States was a religion of immigrants, often already discriminated at their point of origin, like the Irish, German, and Polish, and faced economic hardships, like the Italian. Upon their arrival to the United States, these immigrants experienced continuous discrimination and insecurity. They suffered from poverty, unhealthy living conditions, and exploitation. Yet it was these immigrants’ small and humble donations that paid for the construction of the Catholic archbishop’s mansion in Chicago’s Gold Coast. Catholic laborers took pride in the fact that the profile of their religion was rising and the American society was becoming accepting of an important political and social role of the Church. The building of the proper residence was a symbol of the changing times.

Today’s hierarchs and laity have a substantially different view of what that mansion stands for. Without realizing to what degree their understanding is conditioned by the consumerist society, critics see the building at the 1555 North State Parkway simply as a “14-million dollar mansion.” To them, the right thing to do would be to sell the building as it was suggested to Cardinal George in the early 2000s, or to turn it into a guest-house, according to the new Archbishop, Blase Cupich. Public and journalists alike welcomed Cupich’s gesture of refusing to reside in the mansion as indicative of his personal humility, in line with regular shows of humility by Pope Francis.

However, what we take for humility is rather a form of populism. The actual humility can instead be found in the lives of previous archbishops of Chicago, residing, whether they personally liked it or not, in the same old mansion. They did not make crowd-appealing gestures of refusing honors that came with the cross of being a shepherd of a large, diverse, and complicated archdiocese. Whether Mundelein or Bernardin, the archbishops tried, each to varying degrees, to live up to the very impersonal position that was less about them personally and more about the task. It was widely accepted that pastors rise up to the requirements of their positions, often despite their own personal preferences. Humility then is found precisely in an understanding that one’s new position of power requires a sacrifice of personal taste.

These days, though, accepting to live in small papal apartments instead of an updated new hotel will not score points with journalists or general public. Similarly, when for the past year we heard from various corners a call for public shows of humility, a simple acceptance to reside in the same old place where your predecessors lived can easily turn into a PR fiasco. Recently, some journalists reported about the precise property values of all major episcopal residences without, unfortunately, making any distinction between the newly-built McMansions and the old structures on the list of the National Register of Historic Places. The latter buildings constitute our American cultural patrimony and should never be considered objects for sale. They are not just million-dollar houses. A profit of $14 million will not repay the humble donations of money and labor that went into building the mansion.

First of all, let us not assume that the mere fact of the archbishop’s life in the Gold Coast residence means he is unconnected to his flock and lives in excessive luxury. He is only a temporary tenant in the mansion, the place that gives him a certain stability for the rest of his tenure. If Cupich wants to live at the rectory of his cathedral, he places himself in the midst of his “workplace,” without an option of removing himself from his colleagues, if only for a short periods. He dooms himself to be without his personal space. His decision to make the rectory his residence also means a likely investment of making the space fit the new function. The old residence, however, already fits the task, without additional expenditures.

Furthermore, Cupich’s move into the rectory is only superficially humble and money-saving. If the old mansion is not to be sold, but instead to be left as a potential guest house, it would still require maintenance, but this time for non-permanent residents. Why would the Church waste Catholics’ donation on keeping an expensive old mansion without anyone actually residing there? Now, that would be an instance of an unnecessary wastefulness. Cupich’s humble gesture may gather him some ovation, but at the end it would cost archdiocese more money. It is time to realize that “humble” actions have additional costs. Chicago is of course a home to such grand populist gestures: remember Jane Byrne’s temporary move into the Cabrini-Green? Cupich, and we as well, need to understand that aloofness or compassion for the poor does not come from the location of archbishop’s residence or its size and market value. It comes from archbishop’s policies and personal actions. I am sure that Cupich can find a successful way of being humble and charitable a pastor of his flock without real estate manipulations or closing of parishes.

When it comes to ecclesiastical buildings, the Catholic Church should act as a custodian of its own specifically Catholic heritage and of the American architectural heritage in general. Both, laity and prelates should make an effort to understand an importance of the culture they inherited. Although I understand the legal extent of the archbishop’s power over diocese’s structures, I would argue that the mansion is not his to sell. It is an old and proper symbol of the importance of the job that Cupich had accepted.

As such, the building should continue to be a habitable home of the archbishop, known to young and old Chicagoans alike. Having lived in Chicago for more than twenty years and an immigrant myself, I am saddened by the steady loss of our city’s landmarks to the ever-renaming forces of capital gain. It is true that Sears Tower and Marshall Field’s are still standing, but the fact of their renaming had already separated their historical identities from new memories. Now younger Chicagoans can see in them only Willis Tower and Macy’s. Do we really want to see the Archbishop’s Residence becoming a Barnes & Noble, a rich man’s condo, or an event venue?

To what extent are we as Chicagoans willing to gamble with our architectural history in hopes of scoring a few populist points here and there. After all, archbishops come and go, while what gives them specific place and continuity is the big mansion of which they are nothing but temporary occupiers.

On the other hand, considering recent reports that Vatican’s Sistine Chapel is now available for corporate events, who are we in Chicago to judge?