“Passionate leader” and “dedicated educator” are words colleagues used to remember St. Angela Catholic School Principal Mary Kay O’Rourke.
But Joshua Hale of the Big Shoulders Fund prefers “rock star” and likened O’Rourke to U2 front man, Bono, for her tireless efforts championing Catholic education in inner city communities (Bono is known for his philanthropic work in underdeveloped countries).
“We have some unbelievably great leaders here in these schools, but I would describe Mary Kay as one of the rock stars, the Bono of Catholic school educators,” said Hale, whose organization provides scholarships for students in 93 inner-city Catholic schools.
O’Rourke won that accolade for turning St. Angela School around. Located at 1332 N. Massasoit Ave., the school was on the verge of closing five years ago. Then O’Rourke stepped in.
During her tenure as principal, Hale said, she increased enrollment from 200 to 476. She also bolstered academic performance to the point where St. Angela students were being admitted to selective enrollment and private schools.
“She was just remarkable,” Hale said.
O’Rourke died suddenly on Aug. 20 at her Edison Park home from a blood clot in her lungs. She was 44.
“Mary Kay really valued the Catholic education she got at St. Ferdinand Elementary School on the Northwest Side and at Mother Guerin High School,” said her brother, Michael O’Rourke in a statement provided by St. Angela School. “It was her love of all children and wanting them to get that same education – that’s why she was on the West Side of Chicago for 15 years educating kids.”
Services for O’Rourke were held Monday with visitation at St. Juliana Church and a funeral Mass celebrated Tuesday. Grief counselors were on hand when school began on Wednesday.
O’Rourke began her teaching career at St. Angela. She took over the principalship when then principal Sister Mary Finnegan retired. O’Rourke had a philosophy of inclusion and worked closely with staff, parents and teachers, said Assistant Principal Ora Jacox, who has been with St. Angela for 18 years.
Jacox noted that O’Rourke had a vision for the school and its children. She didn’t want the students’ environment or background to stop them from excelling “as a whole person, not just academically,” Jacox said.
That was evident in the school’s academic performance, Hale said, noting that students who entered the school below grade level, through rigorous academic support, were at grade level by the time they entered seventh grade. Routinely, he added, students go on to attend high-performance schools, a considerable accomplishment since 97 percent of St. Angela students live below the poverty line.
O’Rourke didn’t let money get in the way, Jacox added. If a parent didn’t have tuition, she would try to find financial assistance for them. More than 100 students have received scholarships from Hale’s organization.
“She found a way to help them so they can attend St. Angela,” Jacox added.
Her work garnered recognition by Congressman Danny Davis (D-7th), who named her an “Outstanding Educator.” Under O’Rourke’s stewardship, he said, St. Angela has become a “shining light” while many urban Catholic schools have struggled over the years.
“We are going to miss her. She was a great person,” he said.