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“I feel like I have died and gone to heaven,” said Mary Lou Piazza, principal of Immaculate Conception School on Chicago’s crime-ridden southeast side. This, from a veteran teacher who has taught in schools in peaceful settings from Springfield to San Diego to Montana. This, despite the fact that Immaculate Conception is enclosed by a fortress-like wall; that no classrooms on the front of the building are used because of the danger of gunfire from the street; that last year, the children had to hide under their desks as police chased a gunman through their playground.
Immaculate Conception School on Chicago’s crime-ridden southeast side is as stabilizing force in their students lives. In addition to Mary Lou Piazza, principal, the staff consists of five sisters, four lay teachers and Sister Katia Alcantar, who serves as site administrator. The staff is impressed by the dedication and involvement of the parents, who volunteer at the school.
Piazza, who has been at the South Chicago school for two years, is dedicated to the children who so desperately need this stabilizing force in their lives and is impressed by the dedication and involvement of the parents, who pay no tuition but pledge to the parish and volunteer at the school.
The Immaculate Conception school building is over 100 years old, Piazza said, but the school was closed in 1984 due to declining enrollment when many of the steel mills in the area shut down. In 1999, then pastor Father Michael Enright reopened it with kindergarten and first grade. He invited a Mexican order of sisters, Hijas de Maria Immaculata de Quadalupe, to staff the school. At first, they were considered an extension of St. Michael School, but gradually added grades, until in 2006 when they were incorporated in their own right.
Two things spurred Father Enright, who is now pastor of St. Paul Parish, to act. “We had a lot of shootings and kids killed right around the church,” he said. “And then a couple of kids from the parish who were going to the public school wanted to go to Quigley but were unable to pass the entrance exam. I thought, it’s either educate them or bury them. And we’re good at educating people. We’ve been doing it for generations.”
Big Shoulder’s donors visit schools on “Lend a Shoulder Day.” The mission of the Big Shoulders Fund is to provide support to the Catholic schools in the neediest areas of inner-city Chicago. All of the funds raised by the Big Shoulders Fund are used to support children through scholarships, special education programs, instructional equipment, much-needed school facility improvements, faculty support and operating grants. bigshouldersfund.org
He acquired three vacant lots adjoining the church from the city for a dollar each and built the eight-foot-high concrete block wall around the property. After installing steel doors at the entrance, he discovered they were not bullet-proof, so he contacted a Texas company which added Kelvar plates, the material used for armored cars.
Enrollment at Immaculate Conception is 165. In addition to Piazza, the staff consists of five sisters, four lay teachers and Sister Katia Alcantar, who serves as site administrator. In a school where they couldn’t use their computer lab last year because of inadequate electricity, Piazza and the sisters work for reduced salaries.
This year, Piazza is happy to report that the computer lab is up and running and she has hired a music teacher and gym teacher one day a week. “We are trying to make it comparable to other schools in the area.” She is also currently talking to Loyola University about becoming a pilot school in a science project. “This would mean professional training for our teachers in the area of science and equipment for us,” she said.
The Chicago Archdiocese helps out financially, Piazza said, and they continually apply for grants, one of which came from the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago. She is looking to tap into a new source of revenue by getting early graduates of Immaculate Conception School involved. Fund raisers help, but every year there is a shortfall, which is added to the parish debt, she said.
Enright is philosophical about that. “If you’re going to lose money, you might as well lose it doing something worthwhile,” he said.
Father Ricardo Castillo, pastor of Immaculate Conception since 2009, would agree. He said, “It is a safe haven for the children from the violence and they get a better education here.” He said there is a great generosity among the people and the parents are very involved. He thinks they feel an ownership for this school that they would not feel for a public school.
Almost 60 percent of the children in the parish attend the school. Father Castillo hopes to increase the enrollment and bring the school up to capacity. He has encouraged families from nearby St. Bronislava Parish, which he also pastors, to also enroll their children in Immaculate Conception School. “My wildest dream,” he said, “is to have so many children enrolled that we can expand to the school building at St. Bronislava.”
At the end of the day, children gather in the enclosed schoolyard at Immaculate Conception and are escorted home by their parents. No child walks alone, Piazza said. Is it worth it? “We are helping our children to be successful spiritually and economically,” she countered, then spoke of the graduate who is at St. Francis Seminary in Wisconsin and another who was awarded a scholarship to Maria High School. Most go on to Catholic high schools, Piazza added..
“The spirit of the children, the gratitude of the parents, the dedication of the sisters and the teachers, motivate me,” Piazza said. “These kids give me so much.”
Anyone interested in helping Immaculate Conception School can send a donation to: Immaculate Conception School, 8739 S. Exchange Ave., Chicago, IL 60617; call the school at 773-375- 4674 or visit immaculateconceptionsouth.org.
Virginia Mullery is a freelance writer living in North Chicago, IL.