In memoriam: Robert McClory (1932-2015)

On Good Friday, I boarded the Metra Electric train to the Chicago Loop. There, I represented Call To Action at the annual Good Friday Walk For Justice, which is sponsored by the 8th Day Center For Justice.

The walk is a modern-day Stations of the Cross that examines contemporary social issues at each station. Each station has a different organization presenting it. With CTA program director Ellen Euclide, I read for the Fourth Station, “Helped In The Struggle.” It focused on the struggle for justice within the church.

Other Call To Action folks were there. They included our colleague, retired chapter liaison and development director Bob Heineman. As Ellen and I completed our station, near the Chicago Board of Trade, Bob looked grim. He told us he had a new message on his voice mail. He needed to check it now. 

I knew, at once, what the message would be. I had known since earlier in the week, when I’d heard that the infection was just too much, and that hospice care had taken over.

We were into the Fifth Station (“Weeping Women”), with cold wind whipping around us at Federal Plaza, when Bob got off the phone and confirmed my intuition. Another Bob, our friend Bob McClory, was dead.

*****

Robert J. McClory was born in 1932 to that inimitable breed: the Chicago Irish. He attended Quigley Preparatory, a high school seminary that bred generations of local priests before closing in 2007. The building now serves as the administration center for the Chicago archdiocese. In 1958, Bob graduated with an M.Div. from St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, and was ordained to the priesthood.

By 1964, Bob was associate pastor of St. Sabina’s Church at 79th and Racine, in the South Side’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. A historically Irish parish in an area increasingly ridden with racial tension, St. Sabina’s was losing its congregation to white flight. Decades later, Bob would document the death and resurrection of both neighborhood and parish in his book Radical Disciple: Father Pfleger, St. Sabina Church, and the Fight for Social Justice.

Much was changing in those years, and not least for Bob personally. As per Alex Kotlowitz:

Father McClory oversaw St. Sabina’s School and he learned that the school had been assigned a new principal, a 35 year-old Dominican nun: Sister Margaret [McComish]. Father McClory was incensed. What would a nun from rural Wisconsin know about running an urban school? Turns out she did, and what followed changed everything.

In 1971, Bob left the priesthood to marry Margaret. They would have a daughter and a grandchild.

Needing to earn a living, but at heart still a churchman–and, for that matter, a churchman who grew to maturity amid Vatican II–Bob became a journalist for a new kind of publication, one that could only have emerged from the spirit of the Council. It was called the National Catholic Reporter. NCR had a distinct voice: clearly critical, clearly faithful, clearly lay-run. Bob fit in well.

According to the Twitter account of NCR editor Thomas Fox, the prolific Bob filled 38 envelopes of clips even before the paper went online in 1999. He continued reporting and blogging until last fall. In 1983, he became a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where he taught for a quarter century.

I am very proud to say that for a couple years, Bob and I were colleagues, of a sort. We were both columnists for Chicago Catholic News, a now-defunct online offering of Niche Chicago News Corp. Both of us also had pieces published in the same anthology, An Irrepressible Hope: Notes from Chicago Catholics. I’m still awed to have kept such company.

*****

In 1978, Bob was one of the founders of Call To Action. He belonged to the original Chicago cohort that carried on the reform proposals emerging from the 1976 Detroit conference of the same name.

The bishops who called and attended that lay-and-clergy gathering quietly disowned it once it was over. But a small group of laity, nurtured in the distinctive culture of Chicago Catholicism with its characteristic educated, socially-engaged, do-it-yourself brashness, took up the mission. They transformed it into a nationwide organization that now has 57 chapters.

The first CTA conferences were at the White Eagle, a Polish-American banquet hall in the northwest Chicago suburb of Niles that plied the nascent movement with pierogi and kielbasa. Bob was a fixture at those events, and also on the CTA newspaper, which helped expose the misdeeds of imperious, maladroit Chicago archbishop John Cardinal Cody. (In some ways, the hapless, tactless Cody–who spied on his priests, kept an enemies list, and was plagued by financial scandals in the late 1970s and early 1980s–was himself an unwitting founder of Call To Action.)

Bob went on to join the CTA board of directors. He was a frequent presenter at the national conferences, which he never missed until the last year of his life.

But it was for his writing and reporting that Bob will be most remembered. More than a journalist, he was a church historian with several books to his credit. Besides Radical Disciple, Bob wrote As It Was in the Beginningwhich argued that the church has not always had a top-down hierarchical model, and that we have ways to take our community back. There was also Turning Pointthe story of Patty Crowley, another prominent Chicago Catholic and early Call To Action luminary, who sat on the semi-secret papal birth control commission in the 1960s. Another book was Faithful Dissentersa selection of biographies of Catholic reformers: mystics like St. Catherine of Siena and St. Hildegard of Bingen, the English intellectual Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman, and others.

Bob McClory represented the gold standard of his trade, and of post-Vatican II lay engagement, when he died at the age of 82 on April 3, 2015: the day commemorating Jesus’ own death, two weeks before a gala dinner celebrating the founding generation of CTA, and at the very moment I sat on a commuter train, riding up to Bob’s hometown to represent the organization he had helped create.

*****

I’ll remember his sense of humor. In 2011, I invited Bob to what is now my parish, there to speak about Radical Disciple and sign some books. When he arrived, Bob wryly observed that I was one of the few writers he’d ever met who actually looked like his headshot.

The previous November, I was there when Bob presented on Catholic media for the CTA conference in Milwaukee. He told us how it was before Vatican II, when Catholic journalism was tightly controlled and, above all, boosterish. As an example, Bob cited a famous cartoon that got widely syndicated in diocesan newspapers. It featured a Catholic fireman who was always fetching Protestant children from burning buildings. And not only that, Bob told us in deadpan tone: “His hose was longer, and shot farther, than any other fireman.”

The room cracked up. I still crack up thinking about it.

But most of all, I will remember that he followed and encouraged my writing. When I reviewed Radical Disciple for a local library blog in early 2011, Bob emailed to tell me he liked my piece on its own terms:

Incidentally, your review of the book in the underground Library was a masterpiece — and not because you called me a genius. [Well, the book was good. –Justin] I’ve gotten a lot of reviews (Tribune, Sun-Times, Reader, etc.) and yours was, clear, concise, on the subject and a smooth read. Have you thought about going into journalism? You have a knack that is not all that common. I taught Journalism at Medill for 25 years and I have nose for talent in that area.

It was encouragement for my writing at a time when I very much needed it. Hard years were coming. I needed a rope to cling to. And my encouragement came from someone who, more than almost anyone else, had earned the right to pass on the torch. Four years later, Bob’s email is one of the reasons I keep going.

Rest in peace, Bob. With all my thanks.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “In memoriam: Robert McClory (1932-2015)

  1. What a beautiful remembrance — I’m so glad you wrote it. I know Robert McClory only by his work, but his work speaks for itself. I have “Faithful Dissenters” and “As It Was in the Beginning” on my bookshelf. Tomorrow I’m going to a booksale at a seminary that tends to have lots of great religious non-fiction. I’ll bring home any of his other books I find in remembrance.

    • Thanks, Lacey. Indeed, the work speaks for itself. I recommend “Radical Disciple,” of course. And “Turning Point,” I know, is considered something of a classic in the church-reportage genre.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s