When St. Angela Parish in Austin closed in May 2005, the hulking neo-gothic building at the corner of Massasoit and Potomac was adroitly disemboweled — the statues and shrines made from plain Carrara marble, gold furnishings and stained glass panes once housed under the church’s 65-foot vaulted ceiling now give life to Our Lady of Ransom Catholic Church in Niles.
This summer, officials with St. Angela School, which has managed to flourish despite the church’s demise, and the Archdiocese of Chicago have decided to demolish what remains of the deteriorating parish campus, which includes three buildings that were built between 1949 and 1951: a church, convent and rectory.
The buildings, school officials said, are relatively new compared to other Catholic parishes in Chicago, most of which were built in the early 1900s.
“This is really one of the last of its kind,” said Lynn Fredrick, St. Angela’s director of advancement. “It was a beautiful church.”
“The first thing that grabbed your senses were the windows and their strikingly vivid colors,” notes an auction ad book from a 2009 brunch the school hosted. “They were made up of thousands of small pieces of imported antique glass assembled by lead jointing.”
The high altar was made of “brightly colored foreign marble, highlighted with rare Florentine mosaic.” The windows, “30 feet high and 14 feet wide, were the largest windows ever made by the celebrated firm of Giannini & Hilgart, under the personal supervision of Mr. Fred Hilgart.”
After the parish closed, however, the buildings gradually descended into a state of disrepair.
“The buildings were becoming dangerous and they were a financial drain on the school and the archdiocese,” said Fredrick, who added that the bulk of the maintenance costs for the buildings were related to high water bills exacerbated by plumbing problems.
The massive open space that will result after the rubble is cleared will give the school’s nearly 300 students, preschool to eighth grade, more room to play and roam. Currently, the only outdoor recreational area the students have is a small playground sandwiched between the church and the school building, which is more suitable for little kids.
“We’ve been talking to landscape architects who will help us design this space to provide proper shade and play area, and that doesn’t require too much maintenance,” Fredrick said. “We will also probably take advantage of some of the space for additional parking, which will possibly allow us to improve traffic flow at the beginning and end of school. Right now, it can get pretty jammed up.”
Fredrick said school officials haven’t finalized any plans for how they’ll utilize all of the open space, but a memorial brick garden is definitely in the works. Anyone interested can purchase engraved memorial bricks that will be placed in the garden, she said.
The parish’s demolition, scheduled for completion in August, will make way for a new era at St. Angela School, which is a rarity among rarities. Opened in 1921, St. Angela is the last Catholic school in Austin and it’s managing to stay open without the help of a parish, while Catholic schools connected to parishes are closing across the country.
“We have an unusually strong group of generous donors, many of whom don’t have prior affiliation with the school,” Fredrick said. “They’ve taken us under their wings. And we get support from our archdiocese and the Big Shoulders Fund [a group of business and civic leaders who provide funding for Catholic schools located in areas of need].
“We stay open because of our strong enrollment, which is usually the main factor when a school closes,” she said.
Sister Maryellen Callahan, RSM, the school’s president, said the school has become a community among families and students, most of whom aren’t Catholic.
“The parents have kept it going,” Sr. Callahan said. “They want a good education for their children and they’re willing to pay for it and come and cooperate with us and work with us so their children can be successful.”
David Jordan, who graduated from St. Angela’s in 1974, described in the 1994 auction ad book how the parish helped to dissolve the geographical and political boundaries separating Oak Park and Austin, which at that time was undergoing swift demographic and economic change.
“St. Angela Parish itself reached into suburban Oak Park, as parish boundaries followed their own lines, not those containing governmental jurisdictions or secular neighborhoods,” Jordan wrote.
“When I was a kid, whenever anyone asked me what part of Chicago I hailed from, I said, ‘St. Angela’s,’ not ‘North Austin,’ the secular name for the area surrounding my home, which was a brick two-flat on the 1800 block of North Mason Avenue,” he added.
Fredrick, who lives in Oak Park, said she hopes the school can become the same kind of boundary-dissolving agent that the church was for close to a century before it closed.
“A stronger Austin makes a stronger Oak Park,” Fredrick said. “People should be aware that this is going on.”