The Big Shoulders Fund, which, since its inception in 1986, has provided financial support to Chicago’s neediest Catholic schools and students, recently awarded $1,008,000 to assist inner-city Catholic schools that have either been slated for closure or are facing severe financial hardships.

Considering the number of West Side Catholic schools facing the prospect of closure due to insufficient funding, organizations such as the Big Shoulders Fund become all the more necessary in deciding which schools will be closed or merged.

Among the 12 schools recognized by the support group was Austin’s St. Angela School (located at 1332 N. Massasoit). St. Angela received $100,000 in monetary support to help with the cost of operation at the school which was facing the prospect of closure because of its substantial budget gap.

Other schools, such as Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Pope John Paul II also received support to address various needs, including capital improvements for new roofs and the installation of safety-related equipment.

James J. O’Connor, co-chairman of Big Shoulders, stated, “Our Board felt strongly that this was an especially important time for Big Shoulders to provide emergency assistance to these schools. In every instance where schools are being helped, the schools themselves have mobilized an impressive and aggressive fundraising initiative on their own. This sort of local effort deserves our support and bodes well for the long-term future of these schools.”

One of the ways the schools have helped themselves is by taking advantage of the Challenge Grant through Big Shoulders. The grant, which both St. Helena of the Cross and Pope John Paul II schools received, required that the fund match every dollar the school raises through independent fundraisers, thereby, doubling the amount the schools raise. St. Helena and John Paul received $30,000 and $100,000 respectively, equaling the total each raised as a result of their own efforts.

The new grant from Big Shoulders is in addition to a $1 million grant that was allocated earlier this year by Big Shoulders for use by the Archdiocese in supporting operating grants for inner-city schools for the year 2005-06.

The Big Shoulders Fund distributes between $10 million and $15 million annually to help with scholarships, capital improvements and operating support for the 103 Catholic elementary and high schools operating in the inner-city. Virtually all of their funding is through private donors and corporations such as Ameritech, Harris Bank and Bank One.

“Many of our donors are people who have attended Catholic school themselves and want to aid in the effort,” said O’Connor. “They are extremely passionate about the schools on the West Side and want to do their part to assist in the effort to keep them open.”

“The importance of these schools cannot be overemphasized,” O’Connor added. “Many of the students who attend them are not Catholic, yet they want a different approach to the educational technique of the Chicago Public School system. The dropout rate of Catholic schools is barely 1 percent, the graduation rate is 98 percent, and 86 percent of those graduates go on to college.”

“The dedication of both teachers and principals is exceedingly high, and you’ll seldom see graffiti on school walls even at a building 100 years old.”

The Big Shoulders Fund was founded by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin in 1986 in order to provide assistance to Catholic schools in Chicago that are poorest in resources. The funds raised by the Big Shoulders Fund have exceeded $138 million since it began.