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September 9, 2012

Between two schools, 225 years of Catholic education St. Thomas the Apostle, Maternity BVM offer students a legacy of faith

Cardinal George was the main celebrant during a Mass on June 2 with the students, faculty and staff of Maternity BVM School, 1537 North Lawndale Ave., in celebration of the school's 100th anniversary. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Clarisol Duque points to a class photo for her mother Teresa Avila and daughter Gabriella Duque to see during a reception following the Mass. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Providence Sister Patty Fillenwarth, a former principal at Maternity BVM. School, and Clarisol Duque, a former student, share a hug following a June 2 Mass marking the school's anniversary. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Cardinal George accepts the gifts from children at the school during the Mass. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

First-grader Hans Ichikawa stacks his mathbook along with those belonging to classmates nice and straight during a timing exercise in the first week of school. Students at St. Thomas the Apostle School, 5467 South Woodlawn Ave., took on a variety of tasks on Aug. 28 during the first week of school. The school celebrated its 125th anniversary recently. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Third grade teacher Andrea Simari kneels down to chat with Gerard Wilbert as students worked on a "get to know you" survey on Aug. 28. It was the first week of class for students at St. Thomas the Apostle School, 5467 S. Woodlawn Ave. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Third grade student Rita Darr smiles after filling out a "get to know you" survey question. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Fifth grade student Ivy Hicks works on a paper after learning about Ellis Island.Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

This picture was drawn by second grade student Christian Siewert in Spanish class. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

By Hilary Anderson

CONTRIBUTOR

Dedication, innovation and a sense of community are among the qualities that characterize the extraordinary histories of two archdiocesan schools — Hyde Park’s St. Thomas the Apostle and Humboldt Park’s Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Together they have provided a combined 225 years of a faith-based-education for Chicago children.

St. Thomas the Apostle School is a trailblazer among Catholic education. Its history spans 125 years, predating the opening of the University of Chicago and the World’s Columbian Exposition, according to Cecily Fultz, the school’s marketing and development director.

It welcomed 58 students in 1886. The two-room school was in the church’s basement and staffed by the Sinsinawa Dominicans. By 1890 the parish had a newer church and moved its growing student population of more than 100 into the old church, a converted three-room school.

“Even then the school was recognized for its excellence in education and won an award of merit at the 1893 Columbian Exposition,” said Fultz. “The real estate boom created by the fair made it necessary in 1898 to enlarge the school.”

In 1916 St. Thomas the Apostle parish welcomed a new pastor, Father Thomas V. Shannon, considered a visionary by most who knew him. One of his first acts was to open a high school next to the church’s elementary school.

“He had the vision of what we have today, the parish community,” said Carol Perlut, administrative assistant to the St. Thomas the Apostle school principal and a 30-year employee. “There is a sense of the parish being a complete family, one that provides service to its members, the community- at-large and an unequalled Catholic education.”

Shannon realized the school and other parish structures needed replacement. He set the process in motion and organized parish groups to help. Together they planned the new building with insight provided by visiting other schools and listening to suggestions. During this time, Shannon rented an empty public school building to house St. Thomas’ growing student population. Ground was broken for the new school in 1928 and completed in September 1930.

In the history of the parish filed in Sinsinawa Dominican archives, Shannon wrote, “We have the most modern up-to-date school in America. Our physical and educational rating is of the highest.” He credited the help of parishioners, economic times and the low wages paid to the sisters with making the school and parish structures financially possible.

“St. Thomas the Apostle School was the subject of many major newspaper articles about its innovations,” said Sister Lois Hoh, Sinsinawa Dominican archivist. One photo caption reads, “Instead of sitting at old style desks on seats fixed to the floor, the school uses movable tables and chairs…individual problems of each pupil are ‘diagnosed’ and each is permitted a wide leeway of ‘self-expression…Students are put into groups, each responsible for socially useful enterprises.’”

Maternity BVM’s school history and dedication to its students and the community are similar.

The school is celebrating its 100 years of service to Catholic education. Sisters of Providence staffed Maternity BVM for 80 of those years, according to Sister Patty Fillenwarth, who was the school principal for 17 years and the last religious to serve in that position.

“We all share the same principles,” said Fillenwarth. “The teachers work hard. They try different ways to teach, not just academics but how to be responsible citizens. They go home tired but satisfied having made a difference in a child’s life.”

Fillenwarth still visits classrooms and most recently helped provide extended day-care services for parents. She also counsels through her community’s Providence Family Services.

Both St. Thomas the Apostle and Maternity BVM continually look for ways to attract students. Dan Fleming, Maternity BVM’s principal, cites his unique method of charging for tuition, which helps attract more students by serving financial needs of parents.

“We charge tuition based on a percentage of income,” said Fleming. “Parents of prospective students bring in their income tax return and pay stubs. Then we calculate how much they can afford.”

Maternity BVM School opened a year after the parish church. Both remain housed in the original structure. The school is two floors above the church.

Like St. Thomas the Apostle School, Maternity BVM. now serves preschool through eighth grade.