Written by Declan Harty
Chairs are placed on the top of desks at St. Bernadette in Evergreen Park (above) for the final time as the school closed to the public on Saturday. Sheridan and Megan Kirkland (below) pose with a half-headed anatomy dummy in the science room on Saturday. Both graduated from St. Bernadette. Megan graduated from Mt. Assisi, which is also closing, and Sheridan was a freshman at the Lemont high school. Photo by Jeff Vorva.
Closing schools host their final open houses
Over the past 65 years, countless opportunities to receive an education in the community have been available. Whether the school is public or private, a high school or a grade school, the selections seem endless.
Two of these schools, though, have closed their doors for the final time. Both Mt. Assisi Academy, located at 13860 Main St. in Lemont, and St. Bernadette Catholic Academy at 9311 S. Francisco Ave. in Evergreen Park, have held their final classes and will not reopen in the fall. The schools’ communities celebrated their legacies with St. Bernadette on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
It was a 24-hour period of laughs and tears and many memories.
St. Bernadette Catholic Academy, which has been open since 1949, according to the school’s website, held a final celebration, which included a mass and a picnic-like event for students, families, alumni and faculty and staff of the school.
Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of the schools for the archdiocese, met with parents in January to announce the decision to close the school citing enrollment as the principal reason.
The current enrollment for this past year was 98 students at St. Bernadette, a number that has consistently declined. When the school opened in 1949, there were 365 students in 12 classrooms, and a little over a decade later in 1965 there was 1,257 students enrolled at the school, according to the school’s website.
But in recent years, graduating classes have dwindled to minimal numbers. Sheridan Kirkland said her graduating class from St. Bernadette in 2013 was eight and the class of 2012 was four students.
Sister Mary VenturaMegan Kirkland graduated from St. Bernadette in 2007 and Mt. Assisi in 2011. Both Sheridan and Megan said the rumors of the school closing have been around since Megan graduated in 2007.
“For St. Bernadette, when I was in sixth grade they gave us a two year guarantee that they would not close and that ended when I was in eighth grade,” Sheridan said. “So that is probably why they closed this year because that was the end of it.”
Sister Mary Ventura was honored at the celebration’s mass for her service to St. Bernadette’s community. Evergreen Park Mayor Jim Sexton read a proclamation to her. Ventura has been at St. Bernadette for 30 years and said she is pleased with how much the school has done for the community.
“The school has done so much for children in the area,” she said. “I’m really happy with what we have done.”
Despite the school’s closing, the parish will remain open, and continue to serve the community.
“I feel like now people don’t as much associate themselves with what parish they are from,” Megan Kirkland said. “But I feel like at least because we still have the church we still have the community. Even though everyone knew Bernadette was going to be closing it is still really hard when you hear the news.”
Those who had a chance to mill about in the humid hallways and classrooms for one last time on Saturday had bittersweet reactions.
One woman with a camera stopped by the principal’s office and smiled.
“I don’t need to go in there,” she said. “I know what it looks like. I have been in there enough when I went to school here.”
Mt. Assisi Academy
Since 1951, Mt. Assisi Academy’s steep hillside front to its 60-acre campus has been a notable option for a Catholic school all-girls education. On Sunday, the Mt. Assisi community celebrated the school’s history and legacy as the school shut its doors on May 23.
“It is a day of a lot of mixed emotions,” said Sister Therese Ann Quigney, provincial superior of the School Sisters of St. Francis of Christ the King. “Certainly we are sad to see that we can’t go on. But we are also gratified to see the outpouring of gratitude and spirit…It will live on. Even though the institution is gone, the spirit and the relationships will live on.”
The celebration began with a liturgy of Thanksgiving and Closing at the back of the campus on the school’s soccer fields to a crowd of approximately 1,550 people, according to Carrie Peters, development manager of Mt. Assisi and a mother of three daughters who have attended the school.
Many of the girls who are still enrolled in high school will be attending different catholic institutions such as Queen of Peace, Marist and Mother McAuley and public schools as well, according to both Peters and Gail Andjulis, vice president of the boosters vice president and mother of two daughters.
But despite the loss that is faced in losing a school, Peters said she was not surprised that the school was closing.
“I think even when my oldest daughter was here, the sisters would send home letters. They were always asking for help,” she said. “I think they were pretty clear, at least I felt like it all the way along in that ‘now is the time’, ‘we need help’ and ‘please donate’… Anybody can look at the enrollment numbers and know that it is hard to run a school with 140 girls.”
The school’s low enrollment numbers are a mere fraction of what the peak enrollment was in the school’s history. In the mid-1970s, enrollment exceeded 700 students, according to Quigney. The decision to close the school was announced to the public in a letter by her on the school’s website in late January.
Sheridan Kirkland of Evergreen Park will be a sophomore next year at Mother McAuley, after finishing her freshman year at Mt. Assisi. Kirkland said the decision to close the school was based on the entrance exam for the upcoming school year, and there were ten less girls than were needed.
According to Kim Johnson Quinn, president of Mt. Assisi Academy, the skills and the time the girls have spent at the school will continue on in their transfers and in their future.
“I know the girls are prepared, whether they have had one year here or three years here, they have the confidence and ability to go on and transfer and accomplish some great things in the world,” she said.
As for the school itself, the future remains undecided. The School Sisters of St. Francis of Christ the King own the 60-acre campus, but officials say no decision has been made about the property.
Quigney said that she has had a variety of favorite memories in her 44 years at Mt. Assisi. Some of which include Kairos trips and leading the newspaper club at the school, but she said most importantly she loved seeing the girls flourish.
“Seeing the girls grow, and getting confident. You watch that all the time, and that is what part of today is all about. Seeing that powerful spirit of these ladies, and knowing we were part of that,” she said. “I am looking forward to seeing what the next piece will be and how what we have done already will form the foundation for that.”
Kirkland girls suffer a double whammy
Megan Kirkland and Sheridan Kirkland learned in January that both their grade school and high school would close at the end of the spring semesters.
The two met for the first time Saturday night at an open house for St. Bernadette in Evergreen Park. They sat in a humid science lab at St. Bernadette and found out that they not only shared a last name, but a rare fact that they would both lose their grade school alma mater and also their initially chosen high school, Mt. Assisi.
Sheridan, who lives in Chicago, finished her freshman year of high school at Mt. Assisi in Lemont and will transfer to Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School in the fall because of the school’s closing. Megan, who lives in Evergreen Park, will enter her senior year at University of Minnesota in the fall after graduating from Mt. Assisi in 2011 and St. Bernadette in 2007.
For both Megan and Sheridan, the schools offered a community that others cannot because of their size.
“It is just like creating the community within the school, we were not separated by age or class,” Megan said of the atmosphere at Mt. Assisi.
Though the girls share no relation, they said they are a part of a larger population that has been affected by both schools. Sheridan said there was a lot of crying going on at the Lemont school.
The Kirkland girls said that at Mt. Assisi, their favorite memories included the school spirit, Kairos retreats and the atmosphere created by activities such as big and little sister day. Sheridan described that day as an opportunity for freshman and seniors to match up and bond through activities and games for a day to help make freshman at home.
For St. Bernadette, the girls stressed that the smaller class sizes and environment allowed them to make relationships that may last a lifetime.
“I think the best thing about Bernadette is not a memory, but the fact that because it is such a small school that you really do become friends with everyone,” Megan said. “It really did form friendships and life long lasting relationships.”
There were rumors of both closing in recent years, and with Sheridan’s 2013 St. Bernadette graduating class at eight students, she said she was not too surprised by the Evergreen Park school’s closing. However, both Megan and Sheridan said they thought Mt. Assisi had a few more years to operate.
“Everyone was really shell shocked, the moment we heard everyone was in tears. It was really sad,” Sheridan said of the day that students at Mt. Assisi heard of the closing.
Sheridan said that following a meeting the night before, students were taken into small groups with faculty and staff where they discussed the best way to make the most out of the remaining time at Mt. Assisi.
For Megan, Mt. Assisi was especially difficult because of her location. Megan studied abroad in Kenya this past semester, and found out about Mt. Assisi’s closing there. She said that she had not expected the closing to happen so soon.
“Mt. Assisi totally took me by surprise,” Megan said. “I think because of that shock it has been really difficult because these are places that formed us as people for 12 years and are closing.”