From the archives: Muldoon

Author’s note: Between July 2010 and February 2011, I wrote a series of posts for the old Underblog of the Chicago Underground Library, now the Read/Write Library. “From the CUL Stacks: Muldoon, more than just a Chicago ghost story,” was published July 5, 2010 as part of the Chicago Underground Library’s Printers’ Ball 2010 Blog-Down.

When Rocco Facchini was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1956, he was charged to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church. According to those teachings, ghosts don’t exist.

But then, Facchini hadn’t lived at St. Charles Borromeo, yet. 

His first job was associate pastor of St. Charles, a Near Southwest Side parish. There, Facchini watched mysteriously blinking lights and listened to inexplicably shrieking radios. Sonic booms jolted him and a fellow associate out of their beds late one night.

And then there were the guests who wanted to know who that nice old priest was who sat in a back parlor, near the bathroom, smiling cheerily as they went in to do their business, and then disappearing.

It bore the imprint of the Right Reverend Peter James Muldoon, builder of St. Charles, and first bishop of Rockford, Illinois. Life took him far from his old parish, but his death thirty years ago must have brought him back. That was exactly when the weirdness started.

So who was Muldoon? What accounts did he have to settle? Facchini spent 40 years—even after leaving the priesthood—observing, researching, and talking with anyone who knew anything. Finally, with the help of his family, he wrote it all down, and Muldoon: A True Chicago Ghost Story is their product.

Facchini was a stone-cold believer in the ghost. He argued that Muldoon had reason to be agitated: a stalled career and a neglected parish.

Muldoon, son of Irish immigrants, was born in 1862 and ordained in 1886. Within two years, he was secretary to Chicago Archbishop Patrick Feehan and archdiocesan chancellor—an explosive rise.

In 1895, Muldoon became pastor of St. Charles Borromeo, and this without giving up his other jobs. He loved his flock, and they him. He tore down the makeshift church at Roosevelt and Hoyne, replacing it with a towering neo-Gothic monolith. In 1901, Archbishop Feehan asked the pope to make Muldoon his auxiliary bishop.

Then the gates of hell swung open.

Feehan offended many of his clannish, Irish-born clergy by choosing an American-born “narrow-back.” About thirty of them formed a coalition, protesting Muldoon and nominating one of their own. Then they smeared Muldoon in front of everybody they could find: Feehan, Vatican diplomats, newspaper reporters.

Muldoon survived the immediate scandal and became auxiliary bishop, but lived under a cloud for the rest of his life. He was archbishop and cardinal material, but never rose higher than bishop of Rockford, then still the hinterlands. And once in Rockford, he was effectively exiled from the only place he really called home: his masterpiece, St. Charles. Facchini suggests it must have gnawed at him. Probably it did.

Muldoon died in Rockford in late 1927 at the age of 64. Groaning and banging noises began at St. Charles Borromeo almost immediately.

Facchini writes that Muldoon’s ghost must have wanted to clear his name, but probably cared especially about his church. Paranormal activity was at fever pitch when Facchini was there, a period coinciding with the tenure of “Pastor Kane.” Kane had no interest in St. Charles, only in his dog, bingo proceeds, “spending quality time” with his housekeeper, and running a bogus but profitable shrine out of the basement. Only ten or fifteen people showed up at each Mass, devastating for a church that seated more than a thousand, but Kane remained impassive.

Facchini believed Muldoon was warning that St. Charles would close unless Kane shaped up or shipped out. Kane eventually left, but in 1969, the archdiocese bulldozed Muldoon’s magnum opus, which is now a parking garage. No word on whether Muldoon strolls through the parking garage.

But in any case, the rich background makes Muldoon more than typical Halloween drivel. It explores the roots of Chicago Catholicism, from the time of explorers Marquette and Jolliet to the Great Chicago Fire. It is a story of great achievement: how Muldoon helped his superiors build the devastated, post-fire Catholic community into one of the most powerful in the world.

Above all, this is the story of the St. Charles Borromeo that Rocco Facchini knew. Facchini writes sensitively about Muldoon because they shared not only a parish, but similar priorities. The neighborhood, called “the Valley,” was by the 1950s an imploding hovel. Kane ignored the poor, which scandalized Facchini. And Muldoon, who spent much of his career organizing charitable efforts, would have loathed Kane.

But Facchini’s St. Charles did have good priests, especially Father Bill Schumacher, a brilliant scholar who was equally at home cleaning up the urine of a homeless man or wielding a revolver to protect the bingo dollars. Facchini dedicated Muldoon to him.

Characters are drawn simply but vividly—even those who appear briefly, like Facchini’s archbishop, Samuel Cardinal Stritch. Facchini relates the rumor that Stritch assigned new priests to their first parishes by hurling darts at a map.

“I don’t know if I can muster enough words to captivate a reader,” Facchini fretted. No worries—you did fine.

— Justin Sengstock

Muldoon: A True Chicago Ghost Story. By Rocco A. Facchini and Daniel J. Facchini. Art by David Facchini. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 2003. 268 pp.

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