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The end is near


To St. Gerald’s wait for activity center

By Laura Bollin

St. Gerald School and Parish in Oak Lawn plans to open an activity center by next spring, marking the end to a wait of more than three decades, according to the church’s pastor.

The congregation has waited more than 30 years because of a lack of funding, said the Rev. Lawrence J. Malcolm. Donations and fundraisers organized by the parish’s men’s group, the Holy Name Society, have raised more than $1.8 million for the center’s construction. The remaining $400,000 will come via a loan from the Archdiocese of Chicago, Malcolm said.

Pending approval in the next few weeks from the Archdiocese of Chicago, ground is expected to be broken for the center in late September and construction is expected to be completed in May, said Malcolm.

“Right now, we do a lot of practicing [for sports] outside, and in our hall and lunchroom, which is in the basement of the church,” he said. “We have events there, like our Lenten meatless dinners, and our seniors can’t even get to them [because stairs are the only means of access].

“Right now, we do a lot of practicing [for sports] outside, and in our hall and lunchroom, which is in the basement of the church,” he said. “We have events there, like our Lenten meatless dinners, and our seniors can’t even get to them [because stairs are the only means of access].

The 9,000-square-foot activity center will include a gymnasium, kitchen and concession stand, meeting room, storage room and two handicapped-accessible washrooms.

The center will be named The Jonathan Collins Activity Center in memory of Lance Cpl. Jonathan Collins, a marine who was killed in action Aug. 8, 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Collins’ family members are St. Gerald parishioners and donated funds for the building’s construction.

St. Gerald School opened in 1931, and the church in 1936. The building was Oak Lawn’s first Catholic church, and the first pastor was Father Peter Geraghty. Before the church was built, Mass was said in a storefront on 95th Street.

The first addition to the school was built in 1968, a year after the April 21, 1967 tornado that swept through the area, claiming 37 lives and destroying homes and businesses, with Oak Lawn bearing the brunt of the damage and casualties. Oak Lawn resident Ceil Olejniczak, a St. Gerald parishioner for 62 years and who served as the church’s organist for 55 years, remembered the tornado as it tore through town.

“We were supposed to have confirmation at four o’clock that day, but... a huge tornado came across St. Gerald’s and knocked out [the power in] the whole school,” Olejniczak said. “It broke the windows and damaged the roof on the church and damaged the rectory. My daughter, Rose, was going to get married on Saturday — the day after the tornado — and she and her husband got married in the church with no electricity, the organ didn’t work, and the windows were broken, and we couldn’t even have a Mass, and they still got married.”

Children who attended St. Gerald were forced to go to class at other area schools for a year and a half because the twister destroyed the school, Olejniczak said. The school that stands now was completed about two years after the tornado.