An American Cardinal: The Biography of Cardinal Timothy Dolan

An American Cardinal: The Biography of Cardinal Timothy Dolan

by Christina Boyle


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250032874
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 11/04/2014
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

CHRISTINA BOYLE is a British journalist living in New York City. She spent seven years working as a staff writer at the New York Daily News. She extensively reported on the 2013 papal conclave in Rome. Prior to moving to New York, Christina was a reporter for the London Evening Standard.

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Dinner is bubbling away on the stove, and Shirley Dolan, a soft-spoken Missouri native, pops her head into the living room, where her husband is jovially chatting to friends on the sofa, beer in hand. The children can be heard playing games in a bedroom at the end of the short hallway. Their meal is almost ready and soon the family will gather around the table to say grace, as they do together every night. Their home, 229 Victor Court in Ballwin, Missouri, does not look like much from the outside, but inside this one-story house at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, an extraordinary person was being shaped: Timothy Michael Dolan. One day he would leave this close-knit community epitomizing 1950s small-town America and become the most prominent Catholic in the United States.

The future cardinal was born to Shirley Jean (née Radcliffe) and Robert Matthew Dolan on February 6, 1950. Named after his paternal grandfather, he was the first child for the young Catholic couple who had met less than two years earlier on a blind date. Dolan’s parents were both born and raised in Maplewood, a suburban town on the border of St. Louis’s city limits. His father had enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1943, immediately after graduating high school, and served as a radioman on the cruiser USS Cleveland in the Pacific Ocean. Robert Dolan, who was known as Bob, was the middle of three children, and his older brother, Bill, also served his country in the U.S. Army. When the young men returned home at the end of World War II, Bob was deaf in his left ear and reluctant to talk about his experiences, but he and his brother were otherwise unscathed. Their younger sister, Frances, doted on her popular and protective older sibling, who loved baseball, fishing, and hunting excursions.

Like many of the young men who had gone to war at the time, the experience made Bob realize life was short and instilled in him a new sense of purpose. So, when Frances gave her brother a nudge about a pretty young girl in the neighborhood she remembered from grade school, and whom she regularly saw walking to church with her sister, he took note. Coincidentally, Shirley’s pals also had ambitions for her to meet this local boy named Bob Dolan. Her older sister’s best friend was dating one of Bob’s pals, and the friend invited Shirley along to a group picnic by a lake. It was July 4, 1948, and the attraction was instant. Shirley was drawn to the twenty-one-year-old’s sense of humor, and he was equally taken with this cute eighteen-year-old. “Life was so simple in those days,” Shirley would later recall. “That’s all we wanted. That was it.”

Although Bob and Shirley had been raised in the same community, their paths had not crossed prior to that first meeting. Shirley and her older sister had been raised in a home on Saint James Square by their single mother, Lucille Radcliffe, who was originally from Arkansas. Lucille had started working as a switchboard operator when Shirley was in third grade and was also a seamstress who made all her children’s clothes and coats. Their wayward father, Thomas Radcliffe, was of English heritage and an abusive alcoholic who walked out on his wife and was not present in his daughters’ lives. He was born Catholic, and Lucille had converted because of him after their daughters were born. She became an exemplary churchgoer and very proud of her adopted faith. Bob’s ancestry and home life was more typical of the local families in Maplewood at that time. His parents were both born and raised in Missouri, and his great-grandparents traveled over from Ireland in a wave of immigration in the 1800s. Bob’s father, William Timothy Dolan, worked as a delivery-truck dispatcher at the Shell Oil Company’s refinery. He left for work at four A.M. and walked at least a mile to catch a streetcar the rest of the way, typically not returning home until at least three P.M. Bob’s mother, Martha Troy Dolan, stayed home to raise the kids in their Anna Avenue house, situated across from the school where Frances first came to recognize Shirley, even though they were in separate grades.

From the moment Bob and Shirley met on Independence Day, 1948, they were inseparable. Shortly before Christmas, Bob turned to his girlfriend after an evening at the bowling alley and asked, “Do you think it’s about time we set a date?” There was not a flicker of doubt in her mind, and she instantly said “yes.” Being a wife and a mother was every young girl’s dream, and this was the man she loved. The couple married in May at their parish church, Immaculate Conception, in Maplewood just eleven months after they first set eyes on each other. Both families were thrilled at the union. Shirley wore a floor-length white lace dress for the ceremony and chose three women as bridesmaids: her best friend; her sister, Lois; and Bob’s sister. Bob’s brother, Bill, served as best man. The newlyweds headed straight for their honeymoon at Pere Marquett, a beautiful lodge in a state park overlooking the Illinois River. They spent three romantic nights in a bungalow and happily returned to Maplewood as Mr. and Mrs. Dolan.

*   *   *

The 1950s was a decade of rapid change in St. Louis, as in other cities around the United States. Streetcars and commuter railroads grew in efficiency, which started to eliminate the need for employees to live close to their place of work. New highways were being constructed at a brisk pace, and increasing numbers of people began to own cars. These developments, coupled with the postwar baby boom, led many young couples to make a beeline for suburbia. Previously the countryside had been predominantly the domain of the rich, but now small urban hubs were springing up, offering more space for expanding families and cheaper, affordable homes.

Eager to have a place of their own, but still contemplating where to lay down roots, the newlyweds rented two rooms in a private family house in Maplewood. This was where their first two children, Timothy Michael and Deborah Ann, were brought home as newborns, and they were baptized at the same local parish church where the young parents had exchanged vows.

*   *   *

Timothy Dolan was four years old when Shirley’s father mentioned a new subdivision in a place called Ballwin, about thirteen miles farther west. The couple was just starting their lives together and didn’t have enough money to buy a property on their own, but Bob was eligible for a G.I. loan, which enabled them to get a low-interest mortgage with zero down payment. Full of anticipation, they drove out to Ballwin to take a look at this new community in the countryside. At the end of a cul-de-sac they spotted a plot of land laid out with only the foundations of a new home. It felt ideal. They would have a huge yard and neighbors on just one side, and Shirley was able to pick out all the colors just to her liking. The property cost $11,500. All of a sudden, 229 Victor Court was theirs.

Today, Ballwin has a population of thirty thousand and the city is divided by the four-lane Manchester Road, which stretches west from St. Louis. The busy thoroughfare is lined with car dealerships, fast-food restaurants, and strip malls housing chain superstores like Lowe’s, Target, and Walgreens. Hundreds of vehicles speed past every minute, and vast new housing developments and mansion-style homes account for the majority of the residential subdivisions. When the Dolans moved to the neighborhood in 1954 with two toddlers and a car full of suitcases, it was a very different scene. Ballwin was barely on the map, having been incorporated only four years prior with a grand total of 750 residents. Manchester Road was a two-lane route with no streetlights, and beyond the perimeters of the city were rolling hills as far as the eye could see. The city was about as far west as anyone migrating from the St. Louis area was likely to go. It felt very provincial but it was a city on the cusp of big change, and a place that held much promise. Fields had been cleared to make way for the new homes, which were arranged in neat gridlike patterns on large lots. Short, private driveways led to newly paved streets with pretty-sounding names like Nancy Place and Dennison Drive. As for the buildings themselves, they were all strikingly similar: small, simple, wood-framed structures with clapboard siding and a shingle roof.

The home the Dolans chose for themselves was 925 square feet. The front door opened directly into an L-shaped dining room and living room. A little kitchen was around a small corner with an exit into the backyard. A short corridor to the left of the living room led to three bedrooms and a bathroom. There was also a basement used for storage and to house a washing machine where Shirley did the laundry once a week before hanging the clothes on a line outside to dry. The home’s biggest selling point was the yard, which measured nearly half an acre and wrapped around from front to back. It was packed with midsized oak and hickory trees that grew to soar over the house in later years. The family also planted three beautiful pine trees, and a creek with a small bridge ran along the southern perimeter of the property.

Although Bob and Shirley had left behind their families in Maplewood, it was not long before they spotted some familiar faces. Unbeknownst to them, three couples moving into properties on their road had been to high school with Bob, and they soon began forming friendships with these neighbors, and others, that would span a lifetime. There was an instant feeling of camaraderie among the new residents who had fled the city with their hopes and dreams. People were excited about their future and shared core similarities, too: the majority were young blue-collar families of Irish Catholic heritage. The shared history and spiritual outlook made bonding that much easier.

Jobs were hard to come by in the postwar era, and the men, mostly war veterans, took what they could find while the wives stayed home to raise the kids. Back in Maplewood, Bob had worked for a friend who ran a business rebuilding car generators, earning $50 a week. Once they moved to Ballwin, he wanted something that paid a little more and found work as a foreman at McQuay-Norris and later Emerson Electric. He lost both those jobs over the years and finally found another job at McDonnell Douglas Corporation, an aerospace manufacturer and defense contractor that built commercial and military aircraft. It involved long hours and the money was far from rolling in, but living paycheck to paycheck was the norm for most families in the community and was even considered lucky by some. Bob was a diligent employee and wore a suit and tie to work every day. His hour-long drive to the office began shortly after 4:30 A.M., when his bedside alarm clock rang. He liked to be the first person at his desk but never failed to leave a note for Shirley on the table before heading out the door and always phoned to check in on her during his coffee break. He always took a brown-bag lunch from the cool box, and when he returned home around five P.M., the couple stole an hour of precious time together, just the two of them. It was a chance for Bob to offload some of the frustrations of his day and shift focus back to what was really important in his life: his wife and kids. As the children got older, they knew better than to intrude on these private moments and left Mom and Dad alone before bounding into the kitchen for dinner.

*   *   *

The women in the community were responsible for keeping the family affairs and children in order. On days Shirley needed the car for errands, she woke up early and drove her husband to work. Bob taught her how to drive, and she piled the youngsters in the back. There were no car seats in those days, and she quickly developed a reputation for being heavy-footed on the brake. “Mom, please don’t throw us on the floor,” the children often pleaded before clambering into the vehicle. When they first moved to Ballwin, Shirley had only Timothy and Deborah to manage, but it was not long before more babies arrived—first Robert Matthew in 1960, followed by Lisa Marie in 1962. The youngest of the five, Michael Patrick, who goes by his middle name, was not born until 1964, when the future cardinal was already fourteen. The home should have felt like it was bursting at the seams by this stage, but the family found a way to make space for the latest arrival to the Dolan clan. Bob and Shirley shared the master bedroom, the girls shared one room, and the three boys had bunk beds in the third. In a neighborhood where families with ten or eleven kids was common, having five children failed to raise any eyebrows.

Dolan’s section of the room was always immaculate, and he urged his brothers to keep their belongings just as orderly. Fights among the siblings were infrequent, though the kids took great pleasure in playing pranks on one another and evenings were often consumed with games. Bob used the hallway as his private bowling alley; Deborah and Lisa whipped out jacks or played dress-up. The boys crawled around in the yard and hid in the bushes playing war or Cowboys and Indians. The family had a black-and-white television set and one phone hooked on the wall in the kitchen, but they placed great importance on all sitting down to eat together without distraction. If the phone rang during dinner it was left to ring off the hook. When the entire family sat together outside mealtimes, board games were one of their favorite pastimes, especially Battleship, Risk, or Monopoly.

On weekends Bob frequently drove back to the Maplewood area to bring his mother-in-law, Lucille, to the house for the day, and drove her home again in the evening. She was a gritty, strong, and independent woman who doted especially on Dolan, her first grandson. Every few weeks, other relatives also made the trip out to Ballwin to visit. Fish was on the menu on Fridays, and on Sundays there was always a roast. The leftovers were made to stretch the rest of week. On Saturday, Bob often picked up a shift bartending to bring in a few extra dollars, or helped a friend with an odd job for cash. He sometimes had to work a “7/12,” which meant heading to the office seven days in a row for twelve hours at a time, but despite his conscientious attitude the bills kept piling up, along with the repairs. The basement typically leaked during a heavy downpour, or sometimes when the shower was running, and despite Bob’s attempts at basic car maintenance and mechanics, the family’s vehicle was prone to breaking down. There simply wasn’t the money to fix these things.

For the most part, the kids were blissfully unaware of the financial pressure their father was under and never heard him complain about his long hours or inevitable fatigue. Occasionally, they’d spot a pile of bills on his desk or hear their parents quietly discussing: “We better pay this one next” or “Put this one at the top of the list.” When the bill collector phoned, Bob would blame the delay on the slow mail or buy more time saying he was just about to write that check. Every household in the community was in similar financial difficulties, so the only time the Dolan children got a glimpse that others might have more than they did was during visits to their aunts and uncle. They lived in much bigger homes in nicer, more affluent neighborhoods, and the families typically got together on Christmas Day or Easter for a few hours. Young Dolan and his older sister, Deb, looked in awe at their cousins’ new skis or the bicycle they had received as a gift. The Dolans’ presents tended to be coloring books or Hardy Boys books, which were the cardinal-to-be’s personal favorite. Maybe in a big year he received a new baseball glove, and there were always the customary slippers and socks or some item of clothing the children had to pretend to like but secretly hated. Looking back, the Dolan kids never remember the wealth disparity between cousins ever making them feel jealous or deprived, but being poor was a daily reality they could not ignore. Growing up without money became an important lesson as they matured. “It taught us to be appreciative and humble later in life,” Bob, Dolan’s middle brother, explained. “And to place very little emphasis and importance on material things.”

*   *   *

Part of the allure of moving to Ballwin was the promise of a new Catholic parish with a young congregation and a good Catholic school. The idea of living in a community that revolved around church life and religious education was inherently familiar to Bob and Shirley, and, around the exact time they relocated, the parish of the Church of the Holy Infant was established. The Reverend Robert J. Schwegel, a dashing and athletic priest who loved outdoor activities like hunting and fishing, was appointed founding pastor. The newcomers and parish priest were eager to have a permanent place of worship to serve as a focal point for their community, so he immediately began searching for a plot of land on which to build. However, these things took time and, spiritually speaking, it was a disjointed period. In the interim, the congregation started celebrating Mass inside the Ellisville Athletic Building on nearby Clarkson Road, and Schwegel spent a year commuting back and forth between his room at the rectory at St. Joseph Parish, about two miles farther east, until he could live among the parishioners he served. A six-acre plot of land on New Ballwin Road was eventually selected as the site of what would become Holy Infant School and Church, and a group of parishioners gathered there for a small groundbreaking ceremony in July 1955. It was about a half mile south of Manchester Road and, as luck would have it, a five-minute walk from the Dolan family’s front door.

Construction came together quickly, but building work could still not keep pace with the ever-expanding numbers of new parishioners who kept arriving from the city. As the congregation outgrew the athletic building, Mass moved to a big old white farmhouse down the road from where the school was taking shape, but soon this also became standing room only. As soon as the school’s basement was completed, it was turned into a temporary church and Mass was relocated yet again until the remainder of the building became habitable. Some of the older children in the neighborhood celebrated their First Communion in what would later become their cafeteria. Finally, on Mother’s Day 1956, the wait was over and Holy Infant hosted a symbolic cornerstone-laying ceremony. The first students were accepted in September of that year.

Six-year-old Timothy Dolan was enrolled in first grade and his class was the first to go through all eight years at Holy Infant. Initially, Shirley accompanied him to school. In later years the kids walked themselves, with the older siblings watching out for the younger ones. It was an easy stroll, across the bridge that traversed the creek bordering their property and up a short hill to a tranquil country road, which led a few hundred yards to the entrance. The weekly meager contributions of the Catholic families had been used to help cover the building costs, and everyone pitched in however they could. The women gave a hand with cleaning, cooked treats for bake sales, or supervised recess, while the men ushered at Mass and coached soccer teams. However, there was still one thing missing: nuns.

No Catholic school in that era could operate without the presence of sisters, and a hunt was already well under way to find some. The plans were initially set in motion by the then-archbishop of St. Louis, Joseph Ritter, who realized the Catholic Church needed to adapt and expand to meet the religious needs of parishioners leaving in droves for the suburbs. When he dispatched Rev. Schwegel to Ballwin to establish the new parish, part of his remit was to find nuns who could serve as teachers. As Schwegel scouted for land and set about getting to know his parishioners, he spoke to his good friend and former classmate, Father Glennon Flavin, who was auxiliary bishop of St. Louis. Flavin had previously worked as secretary to Ritter’s predecessor, Cardinal John Glennon, who had been born in Kinnegad, Ireland, in the Diocese of Meath. As a result of his work, Flavin had established good contacts in that part of Ireland and Schwegel asked him to put in a request: “Please send us sisters.”

As the sisters would later remember the chain of events, Flavin eventually made a personal trip to the Diocese of Meath with another former classmate, Father Jack Freiberger, to seal the deal. The pair went to see the mother superior at the convent in Drogheda, but she did not think they could afford to part with so many sisters when their own community needed teachers also. She consulted with the bishop of Meath, John Kyne, who pondered the issue and finally gave the definitive answer: “The sisters shall go to St. Louis.” In their absence, lay teachers had been brought in to teach the Holy Infant children, but the buzz was all about four nuns from Ireland soon crossing the Atlantic to take up posts.

*   *   *

With the school doors flung open and a permanent parish church in which to worship, Bob and Shirley Dolan felt like the community they had dreamed about was finally becoming a reality. Ballwin was slowly establishing its own identity, and the population continued to expand at pace. By 1960 the city had swelled to five thousand residents; by 1970 it had doubled again and Manchester Road was now a bustling four-lane highway. Despite its growth spurt, Ballwin retained a country-town feel—one of its most appealing characteristics. A couple of family-run businesses became the destination for the weekly groceries, and Schroeders drugstore was a favorite for the kids. It was walking or cycling distance from Victor Court, and a food counter at the back of the premises sold coveted cheeseburgers and chocolate malts, which the youngsters in the neighborhood devoured.

Society was on the cusp of big change. Women were entering the workforce in droves and a series of federal laws introduced equal pay and penalties for gender discrimination. Industry was thriving in the post–World War II economic boom, aiding an urban sprawl and massive suburban development. The 1960s also introduced ideas about social justice, sexual liberation, and civil rights, which beckoned radical political change. Pope John XXIII was elected in 1958 and convened the Second Vatican Council four years later, which would bring its own dramatic changes to the way the Catholic hierarchy interacted with their flocks. These societal shifts were slower to take effect in places like rural Missouri, so there continued to be a reassuring predictability to daily life and, for the moment, one of the strongest things that pulled the community together remained the church. Social events revolved around the religious calendar. It dictated what people ate, what they wore, how they spent their Sundays and occasionally their evenings. On Tuesday nights there were devotions to honor Our Mother of Perpetual Health at the church, which was always packed with familiar faces. As an added incentive, attendance got students out of their evening homework assignments. During Lent there were fish fries, where the men knocked back a couple of beers while standing over a huge vat of boiling oil, and the women made coleslaw. Advent and feast days were opportunities for people to get together, and civic clubs emerged as a place where the young Catholics could meet in a casual way and get to know one another. The Men’s Club and Women’s Sodality Club convened monthly. The women played cards, planned events, or sat and talked. Given the community’s strong Irish roots, soon to be strengthened by the arrival of Irish nuns, Saint Patrick’s Day became one of the biggest celebrations of the year. The school closed for the day and residents gathered for Irish dancing and a meal of corned beef and cabbage. Around Thanksgiving, the person with the best shot on a target could win a turkey, and the parish organized a big jamboree with skits and dancing as a fund-raiser one year where Bob Dolan reluctantly agreed to be master of ceremonies. The Dolan family was not overly pious or devout, but they were intrinsically culturally Catholic, and far from being a burden on their daily routine, it was comforting and liberating to have the church guide them in this way.

*   *   *

Bob and Shirley were an affable couple who found it easy to make friends and, outside of the church, their Victor Court residence became a center of activity for many social gatherings. Bob was an unassuming man who did not thrive on being the center of attention. He was not loud or boisterous in a large crowd, but when he was in the comfort of his own home, he was the ultimate host. Any visitor that stepped over the threshold received the red-carpet treatment, which included making sure they had a beer in their hand at all times and a full belly when they headed home for the night. It also went without saying that no one would ever leave the Dolan home without having had plenty of laughs. The grill was always being fired up in the backyard for an impromptu cookout and loaded with hamburgers, pork steaks, and chicken. The radio was tuned in to the ball games as the men played horseshoes and croquet, or sat around smoking cigarettes. The women, meanwhile, prepared more food in the kitchen and gathered around the table or on lawn chairs outside to talk, occasionally calling upon the children to help with chores. Neighbors helped each other with yard work and knew each other’s names. Doors were left unlocked, sometimes even when families were on vacation.

During the long, hot summer months, the entire neighborhood became a playground for the youngsters. The cul-de-sac at the end of Victor Court provided a perfect car-free play area where the boys set up games of dodgeball, kickball, soccer, and Wiffle ball. Balls flew in all directions. The girls sat in small huddles on the curb, chatting. Groups cycled with packed lunches to nearby Castlewood State Park, where they spent the entire day swimming and hiking through the woods. When autumn arrived the children raked the fallen leaves in the yard into a huge pile for a bonfire. The aromatic smell of the burning leaves wafted across the neighborhood at night. In the winter, the kids had their favorite haunts to go sledding, or occasionally one local family with a huge pond on their land opened it up for ice skating. Going on a real vacation beyond the confines of Ballwin was a rarity. A trip out of state was uncommon, and heading overseas was out of the question financially, but when the weather was warm, Bob Dolan took time off work and drove the family a couple of hours to Lake of the Ozarks or Kentucky Lake for the day. They piled into the car early in the morning with a packed lunch and arrived back home late at night exhausted but happy from the day spent jumping in freshwater lakes and running through the state park. A couple of times, when there was enough money to spare, the trip spanned an entire week. It was on one of these excursions that a teenage Tim Dolan cannonballed into the water and landed on top of his middle brother, breaking his toe.

*   *   *

Dolan’s parents had few hobbies outside the family. His father occasionally went to a friend’s for a Friday poker night, but it was the exception as opposed to the rule. On his way home from work Bob rarely stopped for a drink, unlike many other men in the community, preferring to come home and have a beer in his own living room surrounded by his wife and children. When he entered the bowling league, Shirley accompanied Bob to the alley to cheer him on with the other wives and, if the couple ever had enough to spare to go out for dinner, the kids tagged along, too. Bob Dolan worked in order to live, not vice versa, and everything came secondary to his family.

Life felt simple and easy for the Dolan kids, who look back fondly on their Leave It to Beaver upbringing, but there were simmering problems behind the closed doors of many other families within the community. Money was perennially tight for nearly everyone, and alcohol often served as an escape. It became an issue among many of the adults. Bob loved his beer and Shirley was partial to a Manhattan cocktail, but never to the point where the kids saw them drunk. The same could not be said for many others in the area. However, the heavy-drinking culture was ingrained within parish life, and it often went unaddressed.

Still, as far as the Dolans were concerned, Ballwin was home and everything Bob and Shirley had hoped it would be. A neighbor who knocked on the door one evening remembers seeing Bob Dolan sitting on the sofa with a group of men having beers and lively conversation. The smell of Shirley’s cooking wafted through the room as she occasionally peered around the corner to join in the banter before returning to the stove. The kids were playing in a bedroom. They were a united family, and the siblings were involved in all aspects of family life. “It was a generation that didn’t have much,” Shirley Dolan later recalled. “But we had it all.”

Copyright © 2014 by Christina Boyle

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Prelude: Conclave,
1. Ballwin, Missouri,
2. Holy Infant,
3. Student Days,
4. The North American College, Rome,
5. Rising Up the Ladder,
6. Rector Dolan,
7. St. Louis,
8. Milwaukee,
9. New York,
10. White Smoke,
About the Author,

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An American Cardinal: The Biography of Cardinal Timothy Dolan 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting and well-written, you really get a sense of what kind of person Cardinal Dolan is, and if you've met him as I have, you can see the accuracy of the depiction
efm More than 1 year ago
Love this book, easy read, what a great man and life.