Tim Unsworth, a longtime columnist for NCR known for his wit and keen observation of how ordinary Catholics lived their faith in the pews and the streets, died April 30 after a long illness. He was 78.
In 1982, soon after Joseph Bernardin was named archbishop of Chicago, Unsworth wrote a letter to Bernardin, advising him to eat his lunches in a deli and ride a bus or walk to work. “An archbishop on a Chicago Transit Authority bus would convert half the bus population,” Unsworth wrote.
He also advised the new archbishop to sell his mansion. “The only people who can afford to live in mansions like that are the archbishop of Chicago and Hugh Hefner. Hefner wants such symbols. You don’t need them.”
Unsworth’s wife, Jean, sent a copy of the letter to the National Catholic Reporter, which ran it on the front page Aug. 13, 1982, 10 days before Bernardin’s installation.
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With that column, NCR also hired Unsworth as a regular contributor. He filed columns and features for the next 24 years, chronicling the life and times of a church hurting and made hopeful by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
A typical Unsworth column is one from 1984 called, “Upstairs, downstairs, you pick your pious practice,” which begins:
I worship in a split-level parish. The upstairs-downstairs arrangement permits a liturgical schizophrenia that is peculiarly satisfying to most parishioners.
Upstairs, mashed-potato-and-gravy Catholics worship under a Byzantine dome before a chorus line of aged statues …
Downstairs, yogurt-and-tofu-Christians clap their hands before a table altar with a billboard-size background that is generally a rainbow of meaningful messages.
Upstairs, polyester-and-wool people sing to the dignified sounds of a choir and organ. Downstairs, designer-jeans-and-jogging-shoes people sing to guitar, tambourine and piano. …
I divide my time between both churches. Upstairs confirms my past; downstairs makes me stretch my ego boundaries to meet the future. … Upstairs is a mine of wisdom; downstairs is a university of talent.
Unsworth was born in 1929 in Canton, Ohio. He attended Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and Fordham University in New York City and obtained a master's degree in Spanish in Saltillo, Mexico. He joined the Christian Brothers of Ireland and in 1967 was named principal of Brother Rice High School in Chicago.
In 1970, he left the order and married Jean Morman, an artist and a former member of the Sisters of Mercy.
Unsworth led the alumni and development offices of DePaul University from 1970 to 1979 and the University of Chicago for about a year, and the former Northwestern University Dental School from 1981 to 1987. He then became a full-time freelance writer.
After hip replacement surgery in September 2006, Unsworth suffered a massive infection and never regained his health.
Unsworth wrote five books, including a biography of Bernardin titled I Am Your Brother Joseph. His other books were The Lambs of Libertyville, Catholics on the Edge, a book about Catholic laity titled Here Comes Everybody, and a series of portraits about activist priests titled The Last Priests in America.
Available in early summer from ACTA is his sixth book, titled Tim Unsworth: Articles from the National Catholic Reporter. A publisher’s note in the book reads: “Richard ‘Tim’ Unsworth entered his well-deserved eternal reward on April 30, 2008, the very day this book went to press. He said of the great pain he suffered during his final illness, ‘Maybe I should have given more to the Propagation of the Faith.’ ”
A memorial service followed by a dinner will be held at 2 p.m May 25 at St. Clement Church in Chicago.
Natioal Catholic Reporter