Crossing Austin BoulevardThis story is part of an ongoing series of articles that Austin Weekly News publishes about issues, events, people, places and things that take place west of Austin Boulevard, but that nonetheless resonate to the east of it, as well.

After seven months of renovations, St. Catherine-St. Lucy School (SCSL) unveiled its refurbished gym, but as Mike Doody, one of the project’s foremen, stood amidst the finished product, he said there’s more to this story than meets the eye.

During a dedication ceremony Oct. 7, Doody spoke in front of nearly 100 guests about the years it took to get the renovation project off the ground, offering gratitude to the many people who donated their time and money. The over $200,000 project – which is expected to wrap up by the end of this month – included the installation of new flooring, windows, ceiling lights, bleachers and scoreboards.

“I didn’t really know what I was in for. I didn’t know where we’re going,” said Doody, as he stood behind the lectern and tried to piece together the project’s start five years ago. “What I did know was that an amazing school was serving an amazing community. [St. Catherine-St. Lucy] was really a hope for this community.”

The project also comes at a time when the school experienced a dip in enrollment and its parish faces significant changes. St. Catherine-St. Lucy parish, one of four Catholic parishes in Oak Park, is moving toward the decision-making phase of the Chicago archdiocese’s Renew My Church project. Facing declining church attendance, weakening finances and an aging and shrinking number of priests, parishes across the  archdiocese are being grouped for potential mergers and closures.

In Oak Park there are currently multiple scenarios for how SCSL, Ascension, St. Edmund and St. Giles may be reconstituted. Among those scenarios, only SCSL faces potential shuttering of its church at Austin and Washington boulevards. It has also been stated that SCSL school will continue to operate though possibly in conjunction with another local Catholic School. Decisions on the future of the Oak Park parishes are expected soon.

“I do not know what the Renew My Church efforts are going to bring,” Sharon Leamy, SCSL principal, said in an interview with Wednesday Journal before the ceremony. “We hope that our church stays open in some format. It’s a beautiful space.”

Like most educators, Leamy described the last 19 months of the pandemic as a “rollercoaster,” and potentially losing the school’s parish church just tacks on another obstacle. But one thing she has learned, especially the last year and a half, is that moments of uncertainty call for flexibility.

“You’re almost hesitant to predict what the future would be,” Leamy said. “Even this summer, we were a little bit worried about our enrollment, and then all of a sudden, in August, we saw a huge uptick, and things are really looking good for us.”

“We’re just so grateful for everything that’s happened,” she said. “We’re going to do our best to stay centered in who we are and the mission of our school and moving forward.”

The signage for the new gym is seen outside on Thursday, Oct. 7, during the gymnasium dedication ceremony at St. Catherine-St. Lucy in Oak Park. | Alex Rogals

Making big steps

Back at the dedication ceremony, Doody shared the journey leading up to last March when the gym renovation project began.

It all started with the late Lauren Heath, a longtime Oak Park resident and mother of six who worked to bring her community and Chicago’s Austin community together. During her lifetime, Heath and her husband, Kent Barnett, led the fundraising efforts for Horizons for Youth, a Chicago-based nonprofit that offers resources for children and families.

Heath was a “tremendous woman,” said Doody, who believed all children deserve a chance to learn, grow and succeed, and hoped to erase that “divide” – Austin Boulevard, the single street that historically separates suburban Oak Park from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood – and instead, build a bridge.

When Heath died five years ago, Barnett thought of carrying out his wife’s mission and reached out to Doody, a former board member of Horizons, to lead the way. The rest is now history.

What happened next, Doody said, was a series of conversations with Barnett, who later looped in Rick Malnati, a close friend and former Fenwick High School basketball coach. They drafted the plans to revamp SCSL’s gym. Barnett and Malnati, along with other donors, raised over $200,000, and built a “dream team,” a five-member group of volunteers to help iron out the details of the project, Doody said.

On top of that, Fenwick High School partnered with SCSL this spring and matched the $200,000 donation. Those funds were later used to transform the gym’s basement into a tutoring center, while the rest of the money was pooled into a scholarship fund to help SCSL students attend Fenwick High School.   

Doody said Malnati called St. Catherine-St. Lucy a “beacon” and wanted to “take the school to the next level,” and with the project nearly done, a new chapter awaits.

At the ceremony, Leamy leaned against one of the gym’s walls, listening to a choir of SCSL and Fenwick students singing together, their voices folding perfectly in harmony.

“We’re very fortunate to have a lot of people who believe in us and a lot of partners who support us,” Leamy said. “Believe me, without the support of all those partners and without our teachers and staff all coming together and working together, we would not be in this space. There’s a lot of people that have really pushed our school forward.”

“It’s really a powerful feeling just to know that others believe in you and the journey that you’re on, and we’re just going to keep making those big steps,” said Leamy.