“Big ideas raise big dollars,” goes the old fund raising maxim. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, the big ideas of a turn-of-the-century visionary are still raising hundreds of millions of dollars today.
Known as “the consecrated blizzard of the northwest,” John Ireland, who served as Catholic archbishop of St. Paul from 1884-1918, churned out big ideas at a record pace. He founded a university, built two cathedrals at the same time, advised presidents, speculated with the barons of the Gilded Age, and was a leader in immigration policy and an outspoken maverick on civil rights. He did it all with a zeal reminiscent of his friend, Teddy Roosevelt.
Eight decades after Ireland’s death, philanthropists are still making record investments in the institutions he built. Earlier this year, the University of St. Thomas, founded by Ireland in 1885, announced a $50 million unrestricted gift from entrepreneur Richard Schulze and his wife, Sandra—the largest individual gift ever to a Minnesota college or university. Schulze, founder and CEO of the electronics retailer Best Buy, didn’t attend college. But he did grow up in a St. Paul neighborhood and always admired the impact the University of St. Thomas had on its students and the local community. When the gift was announced, Schulze said, “This institution shares our entrepreneurial approach to life. It is an extremely rare quality among colleges and universities.”
Schulze’s entrepreneurial approach to life was certainly a major part of John Ireland’s personal credo. Born in 1838 in County Kilkenny, Ireland, he witnessed the horrors of the Irish potato famine before his family escaped to Minnesota. He embraced his new country as everything his birthplace was not and could not be. America gave him the opportunity to enter the seminary and later study in France before serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. He also was important on the international scene. His mastery of French would later help him gain favor with the Pope, who chose Ireland to mediate issues with French clerics.
One institution John Ireland did not found is the College of St. Catherine, now the largest Catholic college for women in the country. He left that job to his sister, Mother Seraphine Ireland. While the once all-male University of St. Thomas went coed in 1977, St. Catherine has thrived as a single-sex school. It recently announced the largest gift in its history—$20 million for its capital campaign.
Past Projects, Future Investments
Schulze is the most visible of the many major donors cultivated by University of St. Thomas’s current president, Fr. Dennis Dease. The university’s growth under Dease has been impressive, with a record enrollment of more than 11,000, the expansion of both its main St. Paul campus and its downtown Minneapolis campus, and the fall 2001 opening of a new law school. Fueling the growth is the more than $250 million raised in what was originally a $120 million campaign. Whereas Bishop Ireland’s donor prospect pool was mostly the immigrant poor, Dease has engaged many affluent Catholics in his ambitious vision for the university.
Not that the University of St. Thomas is, or ever has been, entirely dependent on the philanthropy of Catholics. Indeed, Archbishop Ireland himself realized many of his projects through his relationship with James J. Hill, the head of the Great Northern Railway, which was based in St. Paul. Hill, a Protestant with an Irish Catholic wife, fully funded and endowed Ireland’s seminary in 1890 with a gift of $500,000—one of several Ireland-inspired projects to which the railroad tycoon gave. He even raised funds on Ireland’s behalf from department store magnate Marshall Field, William K. Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and other barons of the day.
Ireland’s charm, national stature, and politics appealed to these industrialists. Unlike the vast majority of Irish immigrants, he was a staunch Republican. On one memorable occasion, he provoked the ire of New York City’s Tammany Hall, the Irish-dominated Democratic machine that ran the city, by preaching against the city’s endemic political corruption right before a key election. He was an outsider, the shepherd of a flock in some distant outpost that much of his New York audience probably couldn’t find on a map. Yet this spellbinding speaker stormed into town, caused a stir, and promptly hopped a train back to St. Paul, leaving one New York bishop to sputter from the pulpit that Ireland’s performance was “undignified, disgraceful to his episcopal office, and a scandal in the eyes of all right-minded Catholics of both parties.” It was too late: Republicans won the city elections of 1894 decisively.
Ireland encouraged Catholics to live as he did—engaged in the issues of the day, seeing Catholicism and American patriotism as natural complements. He eschewed Catholic separatism, which he saw as damaging to the immigrant, the Church, and America. Perhaps it was easier to believe this out on the prairie, where the social pecking order was still being formed, influenced more by talent and determination than by bloodlines.
Nevertheless, his views on assimilation distinguished him among American bishops. And his views on racial discrimination separated him from most other white Americans. Seventy-five years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Ireland noted that
In many states the law forbids marriage between black and white—in this manner fomenting immorality and putting injury no less upon the white, whom it pretends to elevate, than upon the black, [for] whose degradation it has no care. Let the negro be our equal in the enjoyment of all political rights of the citizenÉ. I would open to the negro all the industrial and professional avenues—the test for his advance being his ability, but never his color. I would in all public gatherings and in all public resortsÉ and hotels treat the black man as I treat the white.
Ireland practiced what he preached, enrolling a black student in his seminary in 1888, an unheard of practice at the time.
Like any powerful personality, Ireland attracted powerful enemies, which probably cost him the achievement he sought his entire adult life: an appointment as Cardinal. Ireland angered Catholic segregationists with his frequent and blunt criticism of racial discrimination, and his political beliefs ran contrary to those of most American Catholics. He also crossed the Jesuits, the powerful religious order, in a heated battle over education reform. Add the inevitable jealousies of those who were neither as ambitious nor as successful as Ireland and the result is a brilliant man who never got the promotion he probably deserved. However, the legacy of his institutions has been far more lasting than a mere title. Few of the Cardinals of his era are remembered as more than names on a list, while the institutions he created touch the lives of tens of thousands every day.
Repairing the Dream
Fr. Dennis Dease has made a career out of leading institutions that John Ireland built. Prior to becoming president of St. Thomas, Dease was the rector of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. This grand church was one half of Ireland’s most ambitious building project—the simultaneous construction of cathedrals in St. Paul and Minneapolis.
From his eight years of study in France, Archbishop Ireland had become a Francophile, fluent and quite eloquent in French. So it was only natural that for his two great churches he turned to a French architect, Emmanuel L. Masqueray, whose work Ireland had admired at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Masqueray, who graduated from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, delivered two masterpieces for Ireland—the St. Paul Cathedral in St. Paul and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. Ireland collaborated with Masqueray on design, oversaw construction of the church, and ceaselessly raised funds for this unprecedented project.
No other American bishop, before or since, has ever attempted to build two cathedrals at the same time. Ireland did it in what was then the middle of nowhere. The grandeur of the two buildings and their prominent locations in each growing city captured in stone and stained glass Ireland’s belief that his flock of immigrant poor would eventually add much to the life of the United States.
However, by the time Dease became rector of Minneapolis’s Basilica of St. Mary in 1985, the building had fallen into disrepair. Masqueray’s roof and copper dome had massive leaks, the victim of too many fierce Minnesota winters. Additionally, parish life had dwindled with the post-war exodus of city dwellers to the suburbs. Some counseled Dease to raze what they saw as an anachronistic money pit. Others warned that if he did nothing, the basilica’s dome would eventually crash 280 feet to its marble floor.
Dease acted decisively, raising funds to replace the entire roof and stabilize the structure. What Dease began was completed by his successor, Fr. Michael O’Connell, who raised the bulk of the $19 million to replace the dome and subsequently finish the undercroft of Ireland’s monument.
These campaigns have ushered in an era of tremendous growth for the parish that continues today under O’Connell’s leadership. Parish membership has gone from 800 households to 5,000 in the past several years, with the congregation filling what was once the widest nave of any church in the world. And the growth of annual contributions has helped the basilica parish earn several national religious fund raising awards.
Leaks in the St. Paul Cathedral’s dome prompted the current $35 million restoration campaign. Emmanuel L. Masqueray’s training as an architect in Paris most likely did not include course work on weatherizing domes for near-Arctic winter conditions. The venerable green patina top is now being replaced with a new copper dome built to today’s specifications, one that will shine for a while like a new penny.
Perched on a hill overlooking downtown, the cathedral is still the grandest element of St. Paul’s skyline. Ireland made sure that its height and location would trump the state capitol building, which sits a half-mile away on what is now called John Ireland Boulevard.
Just across the street from the St. Paul Cathedral is the mansion of Ireland’s longtime friend and patron, Great Northwestern Railway chief James J. Hill. Hill’s manse (St. Paul’s greatest home) and Ireland’s Cathedral (its greatest church) anchor one end of St. Paul’s most prestigious street, Summit Avenue. The current campaign to replace the cathedral dome thus appeals enormously to civic pride. Ireland understood the value of location.
Building in Ireland’s Name
When Archbishop Ireland died in 1918, the interiors of the two great churches were incomplete. The buildings were functional, finished on the exterior and used extensively. But the duty of completing what Ireland and Masqueray began would fall on the shoulders of succeeding generations, much like the great cathedrals of Europe. The recent campaign to repair the undercroft of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis is a case in point—the once-dank basement has been transformed into a beautiful, multi-functional series of rooms.
In several instances, the continuing work in St. Paul and Minneapolis is not merely restoration and renovation. Take the two new large frescoes inside the St. Paul Cathedral. Mark Balma, a Minneapolis-raised, Italian-trained artist who has sparked a revival in the ancient art of fresco making, painted them in 1996.
Balma’s biography oddly mirrors Ireland’s. Both were raised in Minnesota and were deeply affected by study in Europe. While Archbishop Ireland was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and other presidents and politicians of his day, Balma has painted the official portraits of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Margaret Thatcher. And just as Emmanuel Masqueray was Archbishop Ireland’s architect of choice, Balma is the artist who has guided the aesthetics of the recent expansion of Ireland-founded institutions.
Mark Balma’s spectacular, 1,900-square-foot masterpiece, entitled The Frescoes of St. Thomas, is the second largest fresco in the U.S. and was the subject of a 1999 PBS documentary. Painted in 1995 on the lobby ceiling and pillars of a new University of St. Thomas building in downtown Minneapolis, the design blends contemporary images with symbolism from classical mythology, modern life, and Christianity. The Frescoes of St. Thomas illustrates philosopher Thomas Aquinas’s seven virtues of faith, hope, charity, justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude.
John Ireland was certainly ahead of his time. And perhaps Minneapolis and St. Paul have spent the last hundred years working to catch up with this blizzard of a man, whose legacy continues to shape the descendants of his flock.
Patrick Dewane is director of institutional advancement at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and teaches in the arts management graduate program at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.