Background: The Times in Which They Lived: George Higgins


George Higgins with his mother, Anna Rethinger Higgins, ca. 1940.


George Higgins' Father, Charles Vincent Higgins

Born on January 21, 1916 in Chicago, George Gilmary Higgins attended the city’s Quigley Preparatory Seminary, then went on to St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois.  One of his classmates at St. Mary’s, civil rights activist John Egan, said that “There was a certain conscience that George had already developed through his years in the minor seminary, because of his dad’s influence, but it didn’t emerge fully until he was in the major seminary.”  When he attended seminary, “through his studying, his reading, his conversations, he began to develop this overwhelming interest in the social teachings of the church, in economics, in laws governing everything from wages to working conditions.”  As Egan noted, the 1930s context was a hotbed of such thinking, the influence of “Monsignor John A. Ryan in Washington, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, all of the things that were going on with organized labor and the New Deal, the papers were full of this, day after day, the Wagner Act, the NRA [National Rifle Association], the sit-down strikes.”  Through his father’s influence, young George had already become well-versed in these topics, and he followed up on them quite naturally.[1]

Higgins’ interests and intellectual abilities attracted the attention of his seminary teachers, including Monsignor Reynold Hillenbrand, who taught at both Quigley and St. Mary of the Lake.  A classmate of Higgins’ said that Hillenbrand’s influence of all of them was “phenomenal,” “the priests of the diocese regarded him as a kind of saint.  He was in the middle of all the great movements.  And he recognized George’s potential, too.  He had a special regard for him.”[2]  

[1] Gerald Costello, Without Fear or Favor; George Higgins on the Record (Mystic, CT: Twenty-third Publications, 1984), 7-8.

[2] Costello, Without Fear or Favor, 7.

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