Last summer, the site of St. Angela Parish — the Catholic church in Austin that closed in 2005, leaving behind generations of alumni, many of whom live in Oak Park — looked more like Dresden at the end of World War II.
The Archdiocese of Chicago had decided to demolish the building in order to allow more space for St. Angela School, which still exists.
A year later, what was once a field of rubble has been transformed into a lush green expanse fertile with possibility.
During interviews on the new grounds last week, school officials said that, so far, community members, students, parents and employees of the school have been impressed with the transformation.
“It’s an unbelievable space,” said Kurt Wittenberg, St. Angela’s principal. “It’s the only green space in this whole area, and I think the kids enjoy it.”
Lynn Frederick, St. Angela’s director of advancement, said a lot of the student activity in the new space will be determined by the needs of teachers.
On the day she was interviewed, Frederick said she was due to meet with faculty “about their involvement in administering the space, so they’ll decide its best use.”
There are a lot of possibilities for the empty space, which appears to be roughly the size of a football field and is at least four times the amount of activity space that the school’s (100-plus) students had at their disposal before the church was demolished.
“There were hurdles with the demolition, so many things took longer than we anticipated, and we didn’t get a break with the weather,” Frederick said. “But we’re really happy with the [new] space.”
The portion of the campus spanning Menard Avenue is a grassy expanse that features a memorial brick garden. During the renovation process, members of the St. Angela community were given the opportunity to purchase tribute bricks — small ones went for $125 while large ones cost $250.
In all, around 169 bricks were sold, said Frederick, who laid all of them herself.
On another side of the grass, the school plans to dedicate a garden to St. Angela’s president, Sr. Maryellen Callahan, replete with a flagstone patio and a bird bath.
“This will be a quieter space,” she said. “We’re calling it Sr. Maryellen Callahan’s Garden. It will be a place for kids to read and concentrate.”
In addition to quiet contemplation, the expanse will also be utilized for a range of physical activities. One portion of the space, Frederick said, will be turned into a physical fitness area for older students while another will be dedicated to sports like soccer and baseball.
There’s still work to do, she said, despite having spent around $135,000 on the renovation, which doesn’t include the more than $700,000 cost of demolishing the parish. The latter was paid for by the Archdiocese.
A mural is planned for a large, gray slab of exposed wall that bears the scars of having been separated from its longtime annex, that formerly connected the church to the school.
School officials are still thinking about plans for part of the space that spans Potomac Avenue and is adjacent to the slice of playground space that students were relegated to before the demolition. Recently, the city of Chicago donated wood chips to go in the space.
Frederick said school officials are contemplating installing colorful sail shades over part of the playground space in order to break up the school building’s stone monotony.
The possibilities, like the sea, seem infinite.