With greater privilege comes a greater duty to serve. --Lizzy Seeberg
On the statue [of Lizzy at ND] idea - powerful, but never going to happen... --Tom Seeberg
Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail. --the inscription on Notre Dame's Laetare Medal
It was a beautiful, if already hot, Chicago summer morning and since my daughter, home for the summer from college, wanted the car, I decided to take public transportation down to the West Side of the city to visit with Tom Seeberg and accept his invitation to see the latest edition to Christ The King High School, The Lizzy Seeberg Volunteer House. So after taking the train from Elmhurst to the Windy City, I hopped on the "L," taking the Green Line and getting off on North Laramie and walking south to West Jackson. The transit website estimated my walk at eight-tenths of a mile, and while the map portrayed the distance accurately, it could not convey the difference between the neighborhood I entered and the one that I had left. For unlike Elmhurst, I had entered a village of few stores but many storefront churches, few places to eat but many to drink, few hurried businessmen but many casual pedestrians, none of which happened to be white. Arriving at my destination after a walk that, due to both the heat and the many pairs of staring eyes, seemed longer than it was, my hosts greeted me (and my journey) with both kindness and amazement.
"So you didn't drive here?" said Mr. Seeberg, simultaneously shaking my hand and his head.
"Well, that's one good way to get a feel for the neighborhood," greeted Stewart A. Schoder, chief financial officer of Christ The King Jesuit College Preparatory School and my tour guide for the day.
"Yes," agreed Tom, "but don't try that at night."
If Disney has the patent on "high school musicals," the Jesuits, through their Cristo Rey Network of college prep schools, may have corned the market on high school "miracles." Now boasting of twenty-four schools around the country, their mission of providing quality Catholic high school educations "for urban young people with limited options" (or, in street lingo, good schools usually in bad neighborhoods where kids would often otherwise end up in gangs), Cristo Rey is an almost unqualified success story, and its newest Chicago member (Christ The King will be entering its fourth year, and first graduating class) appears to be no different. But as Tom Seeberg and I began the tour of Christ The King, it seems we felt his daughter Lizzy's presence in every corner.
"How did you--and Lizzy--first get involved with the CTK project?" I asked Tom as "Stu" brought us into one of the classrooms.
"I work with Fr. Chris' brother, and he told me how Fr. Chris [currently the president of Christ the King] was the priest assigned to get Cristo Rey started in Chicago. He was the one who told me about it," Tom answered as Stu pointed out the state-of-the-art ceiling projectors that beamed everything from movies on CDs to online textbook assignments to the screen for the students.
"Tom, I went home one night and mentioned the idea and immediately Lizzy asked, 'What can I do to help?' She then came up with the idea to have a fundraiser with her youth group, and they made--and sold--picture frames and mini-message boards to raise money for the school."
"Still as helpful as that was, I'm sure the craft money was only a drop in the bucket compared to what the project needed to get off the ground," I said.
"True," said Tom, "and that's exactly what I told Lizzy," as our trio reverently entered the chapel. It was built into the corner of the building, with full windows on two sides and a high glass ceiling in the middle, underneath which the altar stood.
"I'm not usually much for modern churches, but the way the sun illuminates the chapel without being overwhelming is pretty cool," I told Stu. "Do they use it much?"
"I believe they sometimes use it for talks, and they also have Mass for the students once a month."
"Only once a month? Is that because many of the students aren't Catholic?" I wondered.
"Last year, out of nearly four hundred students [with seniors for the first time, enrollment is higher for 2011-12], I think there were three Catholics," Stu stated.
"Wow! A Catholic high school with three Catholic students!" I marveled.
"We are not here because they are Catholics; we are here because we are Catholics," Tom reminded. Still, although the main mission of Christ The King was to prepare the students for college and the workforce (no easy task considering the majority of the kids' parents did not attend college, and with the downturn in the economy, many were also unemployed) it reminded me just how much a missionary territory this was, and how much more needs to be done...
"So what was your next advice to Lizzy?" asking Tom about the next money-raising stage as we peered into a science lab Bill Nye would be proud of.
"I told Lizzy if we really wanted to raise serious money, we would have to host a cocktail party," Tom recalled, smiling at the memory. For although Tom provided a list of invitees, Lizzy and her friend, Cristin Monaghan, did the rest, from sending out invitations to giving talks to introducing the video--and Fr. Chris--to working the crowd. By the time it was over, Lizzy-inspired donations had gone from a few hundred dollars to a few hundred thousand, and although later corporate contributions topped that figure, Lizzy's big day definitely helped Christ The King go from dream to reality.
"Lizzy was a doer more than a talker," Tom explained. "When [Tom's wife] Mary and I introduced the CTK idea to Lizzy, we were only prepared to get involved in our usual passive manner--writing a check. Lizzy inspired us to give of ourselves, to be active in our faith, to be what St. Ignatius called being "men for others," said the man who now served on the school's President's Advisory Council, as he held the door open for us to enter the CTK library.
While the library was a room we could have easily passed, I soon realized it was no coincidence that this modest room was shown to this journalist. Although the layout was impressive enough, it lacked the one commodity a Catholic English major knew in his heart must still have--books! As if drawn, I wandered over to the fiction section, and though to its credit I saw the sparse selections contained a decent amount of Dickens, it also had a fair selection of that vapid new teenage vampire series. My literary friend, Michael O'Brien, had recently written about how this seemingly innocuous series (along with Harry Potter) was enough to lead the unsuspecting reader from an interest in the sacred into a desire for the occult, and since he was a much better Catholic and writer than me, I tended to believe him. Realizing that Fr. Chris, Tom Seeberg, and the rest were still too busy worrying about the big picture of corporate sponsorships and student scholarships to have time for fiction, I resolved at that moment not to be my usual "Thomas the Dreamer" self but to ask "Lizzy the Doer" to help me get a hold of O'Brien and my other Catholic author friend, to see if they wouldn't donate some of the inspiring (and orthodox) books they've authored to a truly worthy cause. But right now, my tour was about to take another interesting turn...
Certainly no one would suggest that the magnificent structure that has become Christ The King High School was anything short of inspired, but today it was to take second billing to a weather-worn dwelling across the street. For this unassuming three-flat the three of us were about to enter was soon to be transformed into the Lizzy Seeberg Volunteer House. To the naked eye, it appeared to be the typical landlord purchase that would need the usual paint and maintenance update before the tenants could move in. But to those with the eyes of faith (not only the Seebergs, but also several couples that Lizzy had touched who put up the money to purchase it) it was the sacred place from which Lizzy's work could continue.
"So there will be recent college graduates, living here on an internship basis, giving their time to the school?" I asked.
"That's right," confirmed Stu. "We already have seven volunteers lined up for the the fall."
"Will they be student teachers, or teaching assistants?" I asked as the duo took notes on what was needed to bring the bathrooms and kitchen up to snuff.
"Not only that, but since every student at Christ The King is part of a work-study program, the interns are also needed to bring them to job sites [for example the Chicago Blackhawks is one of the organizations that is part of the program, and which several students travel to daily] not to mention help out with sports and other extracurricular activities. The average CTK student arrives before seven in the morning [over eighty percent of the students qualify for the government's free breakfast program] and don't leave until six or seven at night, so there's a lot for the volunteers to do."
"I'll say. Well, it sure sounds like the "LSVH" is the perfect way to honor Lizzy," I said while exiting, as the others nodded in agreement.
I assured Tom that, unlike the "L," the #126 bus came right to the corner of West Jackson, so I wouldn't have to walk through town, but he explained he was going back to his office in the "Loop" anyway, and his offer of a ride was gladly accepted. Tom's kind (and comfortable!) escort should have been a perfect ending to an inspiring afternoon, and yet, when he dropped me off at the train station, something was still bothering me, and probably Tom too. For if Christ The King upheld Lizzy's legacy as that of a hero, and very nearly a saint, Notre Dame buried her memory as that of a beggar, or even a common criminal, and I could not get past this contrast...
"I'd prefer not to discuss our issues with Notre Dame [reads the note Tom gave me after my visit], except to say that we remain profoundly disappointed with their response to Lizzy and our family. We expected much more from Our Lady's university, a place that our family has loved for nearly one hundred years. But we need to direct our energies to more positive endeavors - to embracing Lizzy's giving spirit by helping others. Our tragedy leaves us with many scars, and certainly ND's failure to live its values is one of them. The key is to wear those scars with grace and dignity. Focusing on the positive life messages Lizzy gave us helps us do just that." --Tom Seeberg
After reading this, I realized why my statue idea (I had proposed putting a statue of Lizzy outside Sacred Heart Basilica, at the door the players exit their pre-game Mass, so they could look at her as they began their walk to the football stadium) may have been a bit much, but to me the fact that it had been nearly a year since Lizzy had died and Fr. Jenkins still hadn't met with the Seebergs, was incomprehensible. And, if Jenkins' official "legal advice" silence wasn't enough, sources inside the inner circle tell of several Notre Dame Fellows trying to discredit the Seebergs by whispering that Lizzy's sexual molestation "ploy" was all a play for money, when they knew that nothing was further from the truth. And speaking of Truth, some of these Fellows were Laetare Medal winners, which, considering the medal's motto, makes it all the more ironic--and the refusal of the medal by its last fitting nominee, Mary Ann Glendon, all the more apropos.
But if many now acknowledge that the Notre Dame faculty has been compromised by those who disdain Christ, and the administration seemingly now controlled by lawyers and liars, at least the athletic teams still had integrity--at least, until now. While the great majority of Fighting Irish fans (at least those who remember when Notre Dame football was special) were aghast when they read that star wide-receiver Michael Floyd was reinstated to the team after three separate alcohol violations without being suspended for even a single game, few even realized that Lizzy's "alleged" molester (although he admitted to groping her, he said it was consensual) or a fellow player accused of rape (unlike Lizzy, his victim was later too afraid to testify against him) got back on the team without missing a single practice. And Coach Kelly still has the audacity to claim these hoodlums are "playing for Our Lady."
And so, as I end this tale of two Catholic institutions, two contrasting conclusions remain. Without Lizzy's vision and tireless efforts, Christ The King College Prep may have never been born, whereas without the Truth of the Lizzy Seeberg saga, the University of Notre Dame (at least as a Catholic entity) will surely die. First, I hope that all Catholics and men of good will honor her father's wishes and contribute to the various legacies Lizzy has left at Christ the King. But as for those who still flock to Notre Dame on those gorgeous autumn afternoons and, after seeing the band still playing, the Dome still shining, and the Grotto and Basilica still filled with Irish pilgrims, doubt my apocalyptic claim for Notre Dame, I ask you to consider this.
If it were merely a middle-aged sports writer Our Lady had sent to warn you of Notre Dame's impending doom, it would be one thing. But when She sends the lovely young Elizabeth Anne Seeberg to help save the campus, and within days she is found dead, it is quite another. Yet even now, if those associated with the Fighting Irish make it our duty that Lizzy's message to Notre Dame be remembered, not only will her death not be in vain, but Our Lady's university will still be spared--at which point a Lizzy statue (or volunteer house) on campus won't seem so far-fetched after all.
To donate to CTK Jesuit College Preparatory School, please click here. To donate to the Lizzy Seeberg Volunteer House, please click here. The author does not encourage donations to the University of Notre Dame at this time.
Tom O'Toole is a proud Notre Dame alumnus and a syndicated columnist. See his website FightingIrishThomas.