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Features

From a Depression-era technical school to a Romeoville university

Lewis University's roots start with a Chicago bishop dedicated to Catholic social justice

The roots of Lewis University start during the Great Depression when a bishop, passionate about for Catholic social teaching, had a vision to provide work skills and Catholic values for disadvantaged boys .

That bishop was Most Rev. Bernard J. Sheil, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago,

On Feb. 24, Timothy B. Neary, professor of history at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, will discuss how the former Holy Name Technical School, located on a farm near Lockport, eventually became Lewis University in Romeoville.

At Salve Regina, Neary teaches the U.S. history survey, American studies seminars, and courses in African American, civil rights, immigration, modern American, public, sports and urban history at Salve Regina, according to his biography.

He recently provided a glimpse into his research in Sheil, which led to learning more about Lewis University, through a recent email interview with Herald-News features editor Denise M. Baran-Unland.

Baran-Unland: When did you first learn about the back story of Lewis University?

Neary: I’m a native of Omaha, who attended Georgetown University for my undergraduate degree, then taught middle school in Baltimore for two years, moving to Chicago in 1995 for graduate school. I only learned about Lewis University and its origins after beginning my research on Bishop Sheil.

I first heard about the origins of Lewis University when I was working on my doctoral dissertation at Loyola University Chicago in the late 1990s. My dissertation was on Bishop Sheil, the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), and Catholic-sponsored interracial programming by the CYO during the Great Depression, WWII, and early postwar period (1930-1954).

Eventually, my revised dissertation was published as a book by the University of Chicago Press in 2016:"Crossing Parish Boundaries: Race, Sports, and Catholic Youth in Chicago, 1914-1954:" a paperback version came out in 2018.

Baran-Unland: How much research did it require to learn the rich details regarding Sheil's vision?

I have been studying Bishop Sheil for the past 20 years. For my book, I conducted extensive archival, newspaper, oral history, and secondary research.

With the help of resources made available by Lewis University, I have learned a great deal more about Lewis University in the past six months.

The book "Lewis University" by Kurt Schackmuth and Carol Wassber (Arcadia Publishing, 2002) has been very helpful. Dr. Kurt Schackmuth is Vice President for Mission and Associate Provost for Student Success at Lewis. And I believe that Carol Wassber was previously a special assistant to the president at Lewis.

Baran-Unland: Why was his vision significant and what can people learn from it today?

Sheil’s vision for the CYO, education in general, and Lewis, specifically, was fundamentally shaped by his understanding of Catholicism, especially the concept of Catholic Action, which comes from St. Paul’s notion of all Christians being parts of one body in communion with Jesus Christ.

Catholics refer to this Pauline notion as the Mystical Body of Christ. That’s why I titled by talk “Education Sacred and Practical”: Bishop Sheil wanted a practical education in the growing field of aeronautics, but he also wanted a sacred education, rooted in Catholic Christian principles of community, charity, and justice.  

Baran-Unland: Why should the general community come out to hear this lecture?

Today, as Americans debate the necessity and cost of higher education, I believe it is vital to examine the importance of higher education’s role in not only helping young people find a way to make a living but also to think about how universities like Lewis help students discover what it means to lead a good life and work for the common good in our society.

Baran-Unland: As you researched this topic, what point stood out to you?

I have been most impressed with how Lewis, from its beginning to the present, has remained true to its mission to educate young people in a way both practical and sacred. In its nearly 90 years, Lewis has changed a great deal— from an all-boys technical high school with 15 students to a well-respected comprehensive university ranked 20th in the U.S. News and World Reports category of Regional Universities Midwest—but it never lost sight of its mission.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “Education Practical and Sacred: Bishop Bernard J. Sheil’s Vision for Lewis University”

WHEN: 3 p.m. Feb. 24

WHERE: Lewis University, Sancta Alberta Chapel, Romeoville.

COST: Free and open to the public

ETC: To buy Neary's book "Crossing Parish Boundaries," visit bit.ly/39zYTPF.

INFORMATION: Contact Margaret Grabowski at grabowma@lewisu.edu or 815-836-5944.

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