Celebrating 100 years of existence is no small deal. Through major historic events like the Great Depression and World War II, the arrivals and departures of neighbors of diverse backgrounds and the closure of St. Angela Parish, St. Angela School has remained a staple of the Austin community and a seminal institution offering high-quality faith-based education to all students regardless of financial status.
Austin, like every Chicago neighborhood, has gone through many transformations. In the early days of St. Angela Parish, North Austin was a heavily Catholic mix of Irish, Italian and German. By the mid-1970s those white families left Austin and, in their place, came African Americans and, in more recent years, a growing number of Hispanic residents.
State Rep. LaShawn Ford, who currently serves on the Patrons Board of St. Angela, grew up in the Austin neighborhood in the mid-1970’s and attended Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Elementary School, where he played St. Angela School in basketball. Later, while training to be a teacher, Ford worked as a student teacher at St. Angela. By that point in 1994, Austin was predominantly African American, and most students were Baptist instead of Catholic. However, according to Ford, the Catholic education at St. Angela School provided something that neighboring public schools could not.
“St. Angela is a faith-based institution. At public schools, prayer is not an option. [During my time at St. Angela], whether they were Catholic or not, the advantage was that most of the families in the neighborhood were families that prayed. And it allowed children, whether they were Baptist or Catholic, an opportunity to learn in a faith-based setting,” said Ford.
Ford went on to teach in Chicago Public Schools, and, according to Ford, witnessing the disparity in school quality in different neighborhoods led to his eventual desire to work as a state representative. Ford watched his students on the West side travel all the way from Austin to the North side to find a safe and higher-quality education. “It made me want to be a strong advocate for public education,” he said.
White flight, a result of racist real estate practices and segregationist fear in the late 1960’s, caused resources to drain from Austin, as in most neighborhoods impacted by the phenomenon. Ford recalls multiple banks and grocery stores from his childhood leaving once the demographics shifted. However, Ford expects the Austin community to continue to diversify, as real estate in the community is attractive with the draw of quality schools like St. Angela.
According to Ford, throughout all of the changes in Austin, St. Angela school has remained an anchor in the community, continuing to offer a high-quality education to all students. Much of that continued stability is due to the support of alumni, the board and the surrounding community.
In 2005, when St. Angela Catholic Church closed, many parishioners joined St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Austin, where current board member Christine Riley serves as Director of Religious Education. Riley, who grew up in West Garfield Park, attended St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School.
According to Riley, St. Angela School adds important value to Austin as the only remaining Catholic grammar school in the neighborhood.
“Having that strong Catholic education is so important in the Austin area. When I was growing up, there were so many more Catholic schools in the area. St. Angela has dedicated teachers and they are educating students so they can become better people. I think it’s a staple in the community,” she said. Riley says family values in the community are strong.
—LUCIA WHALEN, Contributing Reporter
Follow these links to all of the other individual stories in the St. Angela School special section: