Wednesday, September 13, 2006

No, Mother, Chicago’s Catholic Character Hasn’t Changed. The Characters, From the Private Enterprise Boys of Yesterday to the Pols of Today, Are Still Cafeteria Types

Capone’s Tombstone Epitaph “My Jesus Mercy!” Still Applies.

[Another column for the nation’s oldest Catholic national weekly, The Wanderer.]

By Thomas F. Roeser

CHICAGO—When I was young, my Irish Democratic mother who was untainted by racism would continually say about the 1940s black migration from the South to this town: “I hope Chicago doesn’t lose its Catholic character.”

It was true that there was a lot of Catholic character here when I was a kid. Much was involved in private enterprise. The characters are still listed in the city police dossier in alphabetical order. With one exception: a heavily underlined name in the front of the book. He was named Alphonse but called by his parents Albert Capone. Born in New York city he was a twig bent in Brooklyn. His name is still magic here. Tourists visit his tombstone in Mount Carmel cemetery and photograph its inscription: My Jesus Mercy!. His fame is so imperishable that whenever a Chicagoan goes overseas, citizens of Paris, London, Venice or Tokyo grin and yell “Chicago? Capone! Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat!”

It was easy for a Catholic kid in the 1940s to identify fellow laymen in Chicago. They were from popular Catholic ethnic derivatives and the funerals were ornate and well-publicized: In alphabetical order: Tony Accardo; Jimmy Adduci, Louie (Two Gun) Alterie; Samuel (“Samoots”) Ammatuna; Tony Barosso; Louis (“Little Old New York”) Campagna; Anthony (“Tough Tony”) Capezio; Ralph (“Bottles”) Capone, fond brother of Alfonse; James (“Big Jim”) Colisimo; Joseph (“Caesar”) DiVarco; Tony D’Andrea; Willie (“No Nose”) D’Andrea, fond brother of Tony; Sam (“Mad Sam”) DeStefano, Vincent (“The Schemer”) Fischetti; Michael Genovese; Sam (“Momo”) Giancana; Joe (“Machine Gun”) Kelly, Edward (“Big Red”); George Kelly; Pasqualino (“Patsy”) Lolordo; Joey (“The Clown”) Lombardo. We are only down to the L’s for these laity so I will pause for breath.

John (“Machine Gun Jack”) McGurn;; George (“Bugs”) Moran; Frank (“The Enforcer”) Nitti; Dion O’Banion; Al Prignano; James Ragan; Fred Roti; Paul (“The Waiter”) Ricca; Vincent Soldano; James (“The Turk”) Torello; Johnny Torrio; Roger (“The Terrible”) Touhy; John Viche (gunned down prematurely in life in my suburb of Park Ridge). Since the list was compiled I will add John (“Quarters”) Boyle who got off from jail early after hijacking $20,000 in quarters from the Illinois Tollway before he erred once again as a participant in Mayor Daley’s Hired Truck scandal whose brother was a well-known suburban fireman who moonlighted when not in the firehouse by creatively making work for himself and his fellows—by setting houses afire in the dead of night.

All the while in my youth there were notable Catholic laymen involved in the public sector. Such as Mayor Edward J. Kelly (service: 1933-47) who boasted, “I tell a million people what to think and they listen to me” but who, when he tolerated defalcations in the public schools, excesses of organized crime, a corrupt police department, haphazard garbage collection and street cleanings along with high taxes and no apparent return in city services, was deposed by the very Democratic machine he ruled, his subaltern, a Jew, Jake Arvey telling him which was later leaked to the press: “Ed, we’re still solid with the Jews, better than even with the Negroes but everywhere else—the Poles, the Irish even, the Germans—we’re in trouble. When I asked if they’d vote for you they said, `Him? Are you kidding? We’d sooner vote for a Chinaman.’” Arvey didn’t worry that this ethnic slur would hurt since they had very little clout in this city then.

But Kelly was in my mother’s eyes—and viewed by many other mothers—as “good clean, Irish Catholic fellow.” As was Thomas (“Blind Tom”) O’Brien who left a permanent berth as member of the U. S. Congress’ Ways and Means committee from Chicago—a lifetime career—to serve an obligatory one term as Cook county sheriff. Sheriff was limited to one-term in those days because, as he told me in the House cafeteria on his last day in Congress, “four years as sheriff and I will be all set financially after that.” He later earned the nickname Blind Tom because when he visited the Illinois Athletic Club on Michigan avenue where 14 illegal slot machines were running full-tilt on the main floor, he told the media: “I was just there but I didn’t see nothing..”

Other lay Catholic public notables were the late Mayor Richard J. Daley who once in agony cried out, “my enemies are crucifying me. They are even criticizing me!” adding that charges against him were merely irresponsible allegations, damning those who made “allegations here and allegations there”--commanding the his aides to “get me to go face-to-face with the alligators”, a freshly invented word that just missed entry into the Oxford English dictionary. In the city council sat four-feet-eleven-inch Fred Roti a distinguished scion of a prominent private enterprise-baronial family whose unofficial campaign slogan was “Reelect Roti and Nobody Gets Hurt.”

Old man Daley grievously wounded the English language but at least he took his Catholicism as straight as he took his whiskey, without dilution or pick-and-choose nonsense. His son, Richard M., has done more violence to English than any newly arrived immigrant. He took the bar exam three times before passing it narrowly on the fourth. It is wrongly imputed that the city’s four-star flag that flutters from City Hall represents his attempts.

Richard M. believes in abortion and gay rights including gay marriage. He’s counting on his and his wife’s conspicuous Irish-ness and well-publicized attendance at Old St. Patrick’s, the mother-church of liberal Democrats, to get him through reelection next year with the middle class Catholic vote. Daley has the adulatory support of his pastor, Fr. Jack Wall, along with the white oft-demonstrating pastor of a black parish, Fr. Michael Pfleger. Both have been kindly absolved by a benevolent archdiocese from observing the term limits that other pastors, particularly conservative ones, must obey).

But Daley does get the twitches from another Catholic, Patrick Fitzgerald, the New York-born United States Attorney who is unsympathetic with age-old hiring and contractual traditions. Daley sees his once great and good friend, the Orangeman former Republican governor George Ryan, preparing to spend the remainder of his life in stir for doing things not singularly different than Richard M. Daley.

My mother has been gone 34 years now but she would be pleased that Chicago’s Catholic identity has remained with her town. Blacks have moved here aplenty and have been elected to Democratic posts, yes but a surprising number of them are Catholic. One is Emil Jones who is the Democratic President of the Illinois State Senate, a fiercely proclaimed Catholic although he supports abortion on demand and gay rights. But that’s no different than most of the white Democratic Catholics who have resolved to allow their theology to change with current mores. Such as the white Lisa Madigan, the Speaker’s step-daughter, who is state attorney general. And the white Dan Hynes, whose father Tom was pro-life state Senate Democratic president when abortion was not so cutting-edge in politics so that he could slip by while being true to his faith. One can’t do that anymore in the current Democratic party as Catholic Sen. Dick Durbin, a former pro-lifer who changed overnight when he ran for the Senate attests.

And bipartisan Catholic identity continues with Republican gubernatorial nominee Judy Baar Topinka who glories in her Czech Catholic heritage but who felt it necessary to conform with the times, ditch her pro-life beliefs out of concern for being reelected, and play her accordion at gay-rights rallies. But now black Catholic politics has turned special.

The central figures in black Catholic politics here are involved in the Cook county board presidency contest. Catholic John Stroger has been a pillar of the Chicago Roman Catholic church—one who has received numerous awards as a Catholic layman from Loyola University. He has been honored at an annual “Red Mass” celebrated to signify the blood that some lawyers—notably St. Thomas More—have shed for the Church. Fortunately for him, Stroger examined the issues affecting law and the Church and has concluded it is not necessary that he shed any blood so he endorses abortion on demand and gay rights. But that was all right with Loyola University whose board is filled with overstuffed Democratic ultra-pragmatist money-raisers (including the mother of the attorney general) who have not cracked a book collectively in many years, giving new meaning to the word Jesuitical.

Stroger has had one constant all along—and it is not theology. Well, in a way it’s kind of. It’s belief in the omnipresent Daley family. He began as a foot-soldier for the late Daley senior and continues a loyal servant to. Daley junior, running the county government for them, superintended by Richard’s kid brother John who is chairman of the board’s finance committee. Stroger’s tie to the Daley family transcends race. When the first black mayor of this city was elected, Stroger kept his allegiance firm to the Daleys, despite the heat from civil rights sources. He bided his time until the Restoration of Richard II and was rewarded with the presidency of the board.

But as it must to all men, illness and eventual death comes to Daley Catholics. This Spring, John Stroger suffered a stroke—which was first called slight, then very light, then moderately light, then moderately severe and finally, when the media grappled Stroger’s spokesman by the throat, serious.

But not serious enough to warrant old man Stroger’s retirement from the primary campaign, the spokesman. For proof he displayed a statement from the hospital bed signed with a firm hand: “John Stroger.” Stroger handily won renomination but the victor was nowhere to be seen. The news conveyed was eerily like that of the old Kremlin when Leonid Brezhev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko first fell ill. They were reported tanned and rested until one morning the world was told they died. We heard that John Stroger misses all of us and that he desperately yearns to return to his desk.

. We heard that—lo!—he was taken from his hospital room to his apartment albeit while the media weren’t watching. But after he won the Democratic renomination, soberer news came from his spokesman. Now the pretense could be dropped—because the Daley cabal could restructure the result with their own handpicked successor rather than relying on the fickle vote of the electorate. It appeared that John Stroger had decided that it wouldn’t be fair to give the county an extension of his service when there were days he wasn’t feeling completely up to it. There would be a successor as nominee.

The successor was pulled by his ears out of the hat by the Democratic committee and it was the spindly, bespectacled form of John Stroger’s son, Todd. Todd, immediately nicknamed by the press “The Toddler” has a very slight resume and not because he is modest but that he has much to be modest about (as Churchill said of Clement Attlee). He was a nonentity state Rep and is a nonentity back-bench alderman. He was immediately taken into tow by a fellow black alderman close to the Daleys —a former cop with a basso profundo voice that would nobly equip him to sing “Old Man River,” exceeding even Paul Robson’s impressive gravity. William Beavers is this reporter’s favorite alderman: delightfully non-pompous or strait-laced. He believes in the Chicago Trinity: jobs, contracts and elective power. To this reporter he held up three massive, well-ringed expensively manicured fingers and said, “That’s the key, Roeser. The Trinity.”

Beavers has taken The Toddler into tow lovingly as one would a young child. For those who wondered how the county was doing its business with a mortally ill president, a letter transmitting business was produced for the press signed by Stroger. Well, perhaps it was: the scrawl was indecipherable—just a few strokes that would take a lot of imagining said “John Stroger.” There was an uproar. People wondered if in fact Stroger had chosen his son as his successor.

To answer that nagging question, another letter was produced anointing The Toddler asJohn Stroger’s choice. The signature was affixed with a flourish as of old: “John Stroger.” The difference in signatures worried the press. Media asked Beavers how Stroger could write his name so legibly now but so imperfectly the previous week.

“He practiced,” said Beavers. The tame Chicago press was mollified.

The Toddler, as pro-abort and pro-gay rights a Catholic as his father, is now taking his first baby steps in the campaign, his hand held tightly by his guardian, Alderman Beavers. But strangely enough, the Republican president nominee, has resolved not to be an also-ran and is capitalizing on the disarray in the Democratic ranks. Tony Peraica, also a Catholic who immigrated here from Croatia at the age of 13 without knowing a word of English, is a lawyer, pro-life and not enamored of gay rights. There is some stirring in Democratic ranks that once Alderman Beavers’ hand releases The Toddler, he will not be able to walk on his own—much less be able to debate Peraica. This worries the Daleys since there has not been a Republican county board president for forty years. But for now, two Catholics are seeking the county’s biggest job.

Thus those who shared my mother’s concern that Chicago might lose its Catholic character, please note it has not.

Definitely not.


  1. Surely, you're not complaining when public figures annoint their sons, daughters, or sons-in-law to assume "elected" office, are you Mr. Roeser? I thought the "Divine Right of Kings" was a concept accepted and encouraged by the Catholic Church at one time....

  2. On the other hand, the principle of hereditary succession made Henry VIII so determined to sire a male heir that he was willing to break with the Catholic Church over its refusal to grant him an annulment - no doubt, an inspiration to today's hereditary cafeteria Catholics.

  3. Tom, no need for your mother to have been concerned about Chicago losing its Catholic character/(s). All within and well beyond the city limits continue, for better or worse, to fall short of their teachers lessons, religious or otherwise. Novak's observation -- "an organization can survive under leadership like that against all the odds, that Church truly must be divine" -- is not cause for conversion, but another example of our retaining this catholic or universal aspect of our character.