Mundelein College and Prince the Collie

 

The Art Deco Skyscraper building under construction in 1930.

Mundelein College was founded in the same year that the stock market crashed. In 1929, while the American economy was crumbling, Mundelein College and its unique home, the Mundelein skyscraper, was rising. It took an indomitable person to see that it was done, and the college’s co-founder, Sister Justicia Coffey, BVM, was just such an individual. Sister Justicia had a vision which included a superior Catholic education for young modern urban women. The skyscraper was the setting for that vision, but Sister Justicia knew that an excellent education required exceptional teachers. Sister Justicia approached the construction of both the building and the faculty with equal vigor and procured whatever either task demanded. While blueprints and the careful inspection of steel beams were imperative for the building, the teachers required a rapid accumulation of graduate degrees and for the elevation of their spirits, Prince, a tri-color collie.

This summer, my colleague, Nathan Ellstrand and I have been building “Voices from Mundelein,” a web media portal which highlights the staff, alumnae, and faculty of Mundelein College. It includes oral histories which feature the earliest years of Mundelein College. In her rich oral history, long-time Mundelein faculty member, Sister Irma Corcoran reflects fondly on memories as wide ranging as Sister Justicia Coffey’s unique style of leadership and the college’s pet collie, Prince.

In her 1997 audio interview, Sister Irma Corcoran, BVM, claims that she was a member of the college community for the entirety of Mundelein’s sixty-one year existence. Sister Irma arrived as a faculty candidate in 1929 when the skyscraper was dedicated and left in 1991 when Mundelein affiliated with Loyola University Chicago. She recalls that Sister Justicia created a significant portion of her coterie of faculty members by gathering young novitiates of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) who had completed college degrees, a rare commodity indeed. She then sent them to distinguished universities to complete their graduate studies with an injunction to return to Mundelein and disseminate their new-found knowledge. Sister Irma was one of those novitiates. She was sent to Columbia University to study English, one of the few women, and the only sister in the student body. Ultimately Sister Irma returned, taught, and became a renowned Milton scholar.

When Sister Irma first arrived, the skyscraper was not yet completed and she and her fellow graduate school headed novitiates were quartered in what she calls “the little green house” next door. As did all of the founding faculty members, Sister Irma wore many hats and in addition to teaching, she served as a general porteress for the college. She brokered purchases from coal to eggs and dealt with contractors, visiting clergy, and what she calls insistent BELLS. She especially remembers her fellow porter of the canine variety, Prince. Sister Irma reports that the black and white collie pup had a bark that “would intimidate an army.” Prince took his responsibilities seriously, and guarded the little green house assiduously. One time, Sister Irma recalls, he barked “terribly” and she went to the front door and found the postman pinned to the porch railing with his heels in the air.

Photos of Prince are featured prominently in the Mundelein College Yearbook of 1931.

Guarding the porch was not Prince’s only function, it can be inferred from Sister Irma’s interview that he walked the sisters each day after breakfast, in the company of Sister Justicia Coffey. Sister Justicia made it a point to get acquainted with each new novitiate and the latest to arrive was always the chosen companion for the daily morning walk. They would walk the city streets from Kenmore to Rosemont to Sheridan, and finish by looking over the lake and then turn toward the skyscraper which Sister Justicia inspected with a gimlet eye assessing the days’ construction. Often, Sister Irma recalls, Justicia would chat with the workers, whom she knew by name, inquiring about orders and making suggestions.

Sister Irma’s memories conjure up the image of two habited sisters, one middle aged the other, young, pausing on a Chicago street corner, engaged in deep conversation, perhaps about construction, teaching, or the persistent BELL with Prince tugging at his lead, distracted by the prospect of the postman’s anticipated daily arrival. Sister Irma reveals that Justicia understood the importance of foundations whether they were made of steel or of individual characters. She knew that both required a detailed understanding that springs from the constancy of daily rituals like a brisk morning walk with Prince.

An image of Prince guards the final page of the Mundelein College Yearbook of 1932.

 

More information about Sister Justicia Coffey and Mundelein College is available online through the Loyola University Libraries Digital Special Collections or in person through a visit to the Loyola University Chicago Women and Leadership Archives.


Bruce, pictured here, is the current canine porter and guardian of the door for the author of this blog, Janette Clay. Besides being an inveterate daily walker, Janette is a PhD student in the department of history at Loyola University Chicago and member of the summer staff at the WLA.

 


Loyola University Chicago’s Women and Leadership Archives Blog is designed to provide a positive environment for the Loyola community to discuss important issues and ideas. Differences of opinion are encouraged. We invite comments in response to posts and ask that you write in a civil and respectful manner. All comments will be screened for tone and content and must include the first and last name of the author and a valid email address. The appearance of comments on the blog does not imply the University’s endorsement or acceptance of views expressed.


Acting Up: Mercedes McCambridge and Sister Mary Leola Oliver

Mercedes McCambridge pictured with Sister Mary Leola Oliver, B.V.M., in front of her awards.

The large majority of students at what is now Loyola University Chicago walk around the Mundelein Center for the Fine and Performing Arts without realizing its former significance as a Catholic women’s college, let alone the former training grounds of an Academy Award and Golden Globe-winning actress.  Indeed, the main building of what was once Mundelein College had a rich legacy of teaching students the fine and performing arts, including one such alumna, Mercedes McCambridge. McCambridge received formal acting training from Sister Mary Leola Oliver, B.V.M., who not only served as her teacher, but as a lifelong mentor in shaping her career as an actress.

This summer, my colleague Jenny Clay and I have been working on creating a web portal to showcase media featuring the reflections of Mundelein College alumnae, faculty, and staff from their time at the school.  As part of the research for this project, I had the opportunity to listen to an oral history that McCambridge recorded herself where she reminisced about the impact that Sister Mary Leola had on her.

McCambridge was born in the Chicago area in Joliet, Illinois in 1916.  She attended high school at St. Thomas Apostle School run by the Dominican Sisters on the South Side of Chicago.  The sisters wanted her to attend Rosary College (now Dominican University), where she spent her first year. Following an examination with Mundelein College instructor Sister Mary Leola, she entered the college after her freshman year.  

McCambridge recalls how sister demanded the best from her students as someone who knew theater inside and out.  The petite instructor with sparkling eyes and notes pinned to her blouse was an actress herself who had pride in Mundelein College.  Sister stressed the importance of diction and body movement in acting. She also knew everything about stage design. If sister saw herself in a particular role in a play had she been a student, she would make the student’s time in that position extremely difficult.  

Students Margaret Cleary (left) and Mercedes McCambridge perform as Genesius and Pappaea in The Comedian.

Sister Mary Leola came up with the concept of the Mundelein College Verse Speaking Choir.  Editors of the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Tribune would come up to campus, and were impressed by the choir.  NBC Radio heard about the group, inviting them to record one of their poems into microphones.  NBC signed the choir into a year contract with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. McCambridge, in particular, received a five year contract with the company as a result of her involvement in the Verse Speaking Choir.

Mercedes McCambridge posing for a radio stock picture for NBC.

McCambridge explains how her fame only grew from there.  She played roles in theater, film, and radio. The Chicago Tribune wrote that she was the best non-traditional interpreter of Shakespeare.  She claims her success not to be attributed to herself, but rather to sister.  When McCambridge won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in All the King’s Men, she sent the award to sister at Holy Family School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who had it on display at a local theater.

Mercedes McCambridge closes her oral history, owing her career to Sister Mary Leola Oliver.  Sister not only changed her life through Mundelein College, but made her life as an actress. McCambridge signs off by saying, “Thanks sister, Mundelein, God, and the listener.”

 

More information about Mercedes McCambridge is available online through the Loyola University Libraries Digital Special Collections or in person through a visit to the Loyola University Chicago Women and Leadership Archives to view her papers.


Nathan Ellstrand served as a summer staff at the Women and Leadership Archives during the summer of 2018.  He is a third year PhD student in United States History, interested in twentieth century U.S. political history with connections to Latin America.  Away from campus, Nathan enjoys eating (he’s a foodie!), traveling and riding his bike.

 


Loyola University Chicago’s Women and Leadership Archives Blog is designed to provide a positive environment for the Loyola community to discuss important issues and ideas. Differences of opinion are encouraged. We invite comments in response to posts and ask that you write in a civil and respectful manner. All comments will be screened for tone and content and must include the first and last name of the author and a valid email address. The appearance of comments on the blog does not imply the University’s endorsement or acceptance of views expressed.