Cardinal George and the house of 19 chimneys

December 18, 2012

Rick Kogan

AP/File
Cardinal Francis George speaks at the City Club of Chicago Thursday, April 6, 2006, in this file photo.

I have never been invited to a party at the three story red-brick mansion that sits imposingly on North Avenue between State Parkway and Astor Street. This is the home of Cardinal Francis George.

This building, often called the "House of 19 Chimneys," has been the official home of all of Chicago's Roman Catholic leaders (does it surprise you that there have been only eight?) since it was built in 1885. Their names: Archbishop Patrick A. Feehan, Archbishop James E. Quigley, Cardinals George Mundelein, Samuel Stritch, Albert Meyer, John Cody, Joseph Bernardin and, since 1997, Francis George.

At the time the mansion was erected it was one of the first homes in the Gold Coast neighborhood. Back then, Archbishop Feehan headed an Archdiocese in which most Catholics were immigrants struggling to find their way in a new nation and culture. In building such an impressive house amid the similarly impressive homes of the city's elite, Feehan was making a very public statement about the church's membership in Chicago's power structure.

More than a century later, however, the mansion has come to seem, to some people, including Cardinal George, who has taken a vow of poverty, as more than a bit too ostentatious.

"How do you live in a way that appears simpler when living in that house?" the cardinal said in 2002 when he suggested it should be sold. His advisers, though, dissuaded him, citing its historical significance.

City light bandleader Rich Daniels gets invited to many fine houses. He's usually in the company of many musicians, especially over the years he and his band have played at the cardinal's Christmas party.

Daniels says of the cardinal’s house: “Much like any other respected building in Chicago, you feel a sense of history all around you. This home was used by Franklin Roosevelt as a retreat while he was president, not to mention the fact that pope John Paul II stayed and prayed here on his Chicago visits. The home screams respect, dignity and history."

Over many years, saxophonist Daniels has filled this house (or at least some of its rooms) with music at Christmas time. There is no doubt that when he does so, he remembers growing up as the only child of Richard and Virginia Daniels in the Wrightwood neighborhood and attending St. Thomas More Catholic Church.

So, how is the cardinal's Christmas party?

"Everyone, including the cardinal, could not have been nicer to us," Daniels says. "It was terrific and packed with good-spirited guests. It's always a wonderful event. The cardinal personally greets all of the guests, about 250 people, and takes photos with them near his Christmas tree."

I ask him: anybody get drunk and act crazy?

There was no answer; leading me to the realization that part of being a big band leader is knowing when to be quiet.