Written by Dermot Connolly
Photo by Dermot Connolly
Friends from Queen of Peace class of 2017 gather for a photo following their graduation ceremony on May 20.
Calling graduation ceremonies “bittersweet” may be overused, but it was a fitting description repeated often after the last Queen of Peace High School graduating class ever received their diplomas on Saturday at the Burbank school.
The Catholic school for girls, at 7659 S. Linder Ave. since the Sinsinawa Dominican order of nuns founded it in 1963, will close its doors when the school year ends tomorrow, Friday, May 26, due to financial hardship. So graduation was especially meaningful for the 80 young women in the Class of 2017. Many graduates admitted shedding tears at the ceremony, but the mood was celebratory in at the reception afterward in the cafeteria, as the graduates with diplomas in hand posed for photos with family and friends.
The senior class chose Principal Catherine Klod as their graduation speaker. Salutatorians Natalie Jurek and Katie Cerven, of Chicago’s Garfield Ridge neighborhood, and Patricia Fox, who was co-Woman of the Year with Natalie, also spoke before valedictorian Kelly Fitzgerald, of Chicago Ridge.
Calling them “a hard act to follow,” Fitzgerald said being named valedictorian “the greatest honor I’ve ever received.”
“I want to do all of you justice (with this speech), especially since we are the last graduating class from Queen of Peace High School, and I am the last valedictorian to speak on this stage.
“In my mind, writing this speech meant saying goodbye, and I wanted to put that off for as long as I could. I wasn’t ready. I’m still not ready. But that is what life's all about, isn’t it? Our whole lives can change in one single moment. As exciting as that thought may be, it’s also kind of terrifying. Everything we know is about to change.”
Both she and Cerven are among the Queen of Peace students experiencing a school closing for the second time, having come from Mount Assisi when that school closed three years ago, following their freshman year.
“Mount Assisi closing was one of the hardest things I’ve had to face, but it was also one of the best things that’s ever happened to me because here I am, standing before you today. When faced with a major change, we often feel as if though our world is ending. In some ways it is. Graduating from high school is an end, yes, but it’s also a new beginning. This chapter of our lives is over, but not the whole book. We’re just getting started,” said Fitzgerald.
“We've seen the best of times together and the worst of times...we've made memories that will last a lifetime in these very halls,” added Fitzgerald. “We've also endured the loss of friends and family members. We've seen our friends and classmates struggle with issues that no 17- or 18-year-old should face. We’ve been forced to grow up in a lot of ways. These moments are not what define us, though. Our ability to overcome these tragedies are what define us.
“This is not just a school, and we are no average class,” she continued. “On Jan. 24, 2017, we received the news that our beloved school was closing. There’s a common saying that goes, 'You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone,' which is true. Every day I got to school and I went through the motions, never taking the time to appreciate all that I had. I knew we would be graduating this year, but when I found out the news I was so upset because we were supposed to leave the school, the school wasn’t supposed to leave us. But it’s not. Regardless of what happens to the building, your legacy remains the same. You were here. You walked these halls. You spent four years of your life changing and learning and making mistakes and growing. We all grew up here. None of us are the same as we were four years ago. The thought of not having this place to come back to breaks my heart, but as so many have said, Queen of Peace is not a building. It’s you. It’s the values that have been instilled in you. It’s your teachers and the faculty and staff. It’s the smiling faces. It’s the memories you’ve made. All of us sitting in this room are Queen of Peace. Home is not a building. We are your home, and we will be here to come back to no matter what.”
She advised her classmates to think for themselves.
“You should absolutely value other people’s opinions, but this is your life…how other people see you is nothing in comparison to how you see yourself. I’m sorry that’s really cheesy, but it’s true. I am valedictorian of this class, which has been the greatest honor of my life, but I don’t want to be a doctor or lawyer or thousands of dollars in debt. I’m not going to Harvard or Yale. I’m going to Moraine Valley Community College to study theater,” she revealed.
“I know there are good times ahead. I know that there will be tough times, too. We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we react. Thanks to Queen of Peace, I trust that we all have the ability to go forward and create our own path to follow…I started high school shy and anxious; but now, I’m ready for whatever life throws my way. And for the times that I can’t handle what life throws at me, I have a community of sisters to fall back on.
“Don’t waste a single moment, and no matter what people tell you, you can change the world. Your ideas and beliefs matter. Your voice deserves to be heard, and when the world doesn’t listen, then shout. Ask any of the teachers, they know how loud we can be.”
She ended with a quote from St. Catherine of Siena: “Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.”
“The ceremony was sad. I am going to miss this school,” said Cerven afterward.
Katie Spencer, of Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood, agreed that the closing was bittersweet.
“But it’s kind of a relief, that we finished everything,” she said with a smile. She is looking forward to studying civil engineering and Spanish at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the fall.
“She got a great education here. Some of these teachers are unbelievable,” said her father, Bryan Spencer. “It is a shame that it is closing. If they just had 15 more students it might have stayed open.”
“It’s a very good school. We are very sad to see it close,” said parent Bridget Carey, of Burbank, who was in the Pride Shop with her daughter, Mikayla, and her classmate, Isslee Lee, from Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood.
The girls will be at different schools now. Mikayla is among some 148 Queen of Peace students moving to St. Laurence High School next door, which is welcoming Queen of Peace students before becoming fully co-ed in the coming years. Lee is going to Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights.
“I was in tears listening to (Fitzgerald). I tilted my head back to stop the tears and my hat fell off,” said graduate Alejandra Zavala, of Brighton Park. “But that is how life is,” she said, looking forward to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale this fall.