Quick Chicagoland – tell me what Catholic institution we’re celebrating during the last week of January? Give up? If you guessed National Catholic Schools Week, give yourself a brownie point! We’re in the midst of National Catholic Schools Week, which goes from January 27 to February 2, 2013. Catholic Schools Week began in 1974, and the annual observation always begins the last Sunday in January.
You might ask: do we really need a Catholic Schools Week? Yes and no. If the purpose is to “raise awareness” of Catholic schools, then no. Catholic schools are a huge part of the American culture and there are many legendary Catholic institutions of higher learning ingrained in our psyche, even in places in America where Catholicism itself is virtually non-existent. But if the purpose of Catholic Schools Week is to preserve and protect our Catholic institutions, then yes – we most certainly need at least one week a year to devout our time and energy to that.
If you ever attended or graduated from a Catholic school, consider yourself lucky! Many faithful Catholics in America have not, including yours truly. What was once common place for American Catholics 40 or 50 years ago has become an ever decreasing and selective institution, leading to thousands of Catholic schools becoming defunct in recent decades. Changing demographics or just plain economic woes have led to dozens of once proud Catholic schools in the Chicago area shutting their doors. Today, most Catholics attend public schools or other, non-Catholic private institutions.
The theme for this year’s National Catholic Schools Week 2013 is “Catholic Schools Raise the Standards.” Catholic schools usually use the opportunity to celebrate their institutions with Masses, open houses, and various activities for students, families, parishioners, and the community at large to help promote Catholic schools to the general public. The 2013 theme was selected because of the recent launch of the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools. This academic action promotes higher learning standards and a stronger Catholic identity with our nation’s Catholic schools. The idea is for the general public to be aware that Catholic schools are the best enrollment option for their children – whether Catholic or non-Catholic – if they want the finest educational standards and track records.
Although we look back in sadness with the many Catholic schools that are no longer with us, Chicagoans can take pride that there are plenty of prominent Catholic schools that are still thriving after many years and retain an enormous contribution to the Chicago culture. Dozens of examples exist. Some include:
- Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School, an all-girl, Catholic high school located in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois at 3737 W. 99th Street, on the city’s far southwest side. It exists side by side with Brother Rice High School (the male equivalent of Mother McAuley) and St. Xavier University. It was originally founded in 1846 and is now the largest all girls’ high school in the country. Mother McAuley has many famous celebrity alumni, such as Jenny McCarthy (class of 1990), who recently wrote a book about growing up Catholic in Chicago.
- Hales Franciscan High School (Boys only), is the only historically African-American, all-male, Catholic college preparatory high school in the State of Illinois and one of three such institutions in the nation. It’s graduation rate and number of alumni who are admitted into top colleges is one of the most impressive and top-ranked black high schools in the country. It is perhaps best known as the school where former Senate candidate and Goldman Sachs alum Jack Ryan taught (2000-2003) before he stepped down for his ill-fated U.S. Senate campaign against Barack Obama in 2004.
- Saint Ignatius College Preparatory School is one of the five extant, public buildings in Chicago that predates the Great Fire of 1871. It is a legendary high school in Chicago, and its alumni include some of the most powerful politicians in Illinois, including Dan Hynes (class of 1986), former Illinois State Comptroller, Dan Lipinski (class of 1984), now a U.S. Congressman representing Illinois’s 3rd congressional district (2005–present), Michael Madigan (class of 1960), Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives and Chairman of the Illinois Democrat Party; as well as non-political figures like actor/entertainer Bob Newhart (class of 1947), and Tony D’Souza.
- Marian Catholic High School, located at 700 Ashland Avenue in Chicago Heights, Illinois, has an extremely impressive record of alumni that went on to become major sports figures, including Mike Feminis, college football head coach, Rodney Harrison (class of 1991) an NFL defensive back who played for the San Diego Chargers & New England Patriots (Super Bowl XXXVIII & XXXIX), John Holecek (class of 1990) an NFL linebacker for the Buffalo Bills and San Diego Chargers, Dennis Kelly (class of 2008), a player for the Philadelphia Eagles, Mike Prior (class of 1981) an NFL defensive back for the Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, & Green Bay Packers (Super Bowl XXXI), as well as Shonda Rhimes (class of 1987), the creator of the TV show Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice.
- Finally, there is Carmel Catholic High School (not to be confused with Mount Carmel Catholic School on Chicago’s south side). Carmel is a co-educational, college preparatory, Catholic high school run jointly by the priests and brothers of the Order of Carmelites and the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Located in Mundelein, Illinois, Carmel serves all of Lake County. It likewise has many famous political alumni, including Al Salvi (class of 1978) a former Illinois state legislator and 1996 Republican U.S. Senate nominee, and Rick Santorum (class of 1976) a United States Senator from 1995–2007, and 2012 Presidential candidate.
In short, Catholic schools have contributed so much to Chicago’s history and culture; it’s a shame to see so many of them have bitten the dust over the decades. I reported in a recent Examiner article that the Catholic grade schools in Chicago had finally begun to reverse the trend in the last three years, and now report a stable enrollment in the city of Chicago. Let’s pray our Catholic High Schools follow suit. The loss of many of these Catholic institutions isn’t just painful for the Catholic Church, but for all Chicagoans who are enriched and helped by their presence.