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Catholic school finds support, money and heart in drive to stay open: Brown

Updated: February 20, 2014 6:49AM

With all the school closings in the last few years, I can’t help but root for the folks at Our Lady of Victory, the plucky Catholic elementary school in Portage Park that is refusing to accept its death sentence.

The Archdiocese of Chicago has given school principal Jennifer Hodge until Tuesday to come up with a plan to show how she can erase a projected $400,000 annual deficit over each of the next three school years — or face closure at year’s end along with five other Catholic schools.

The combined $1.2 million nut would have been daunting under any circumstances, but might have appeared impossible considering the school only received the directive Jan. 8.

Yet rather than hang their heads or complain, friends of the school instead have pulled together to focus their energy on finding the money. Amidst the emergency, a proud parish seems to be rediscovering its identity.

Our Lady of Victory is truly on a mission from God, as the Sun-Times’ Becky Schlikerman reported in her story, invoking the line from the “Blues Brothers” movie about a similar effort.

More than 300 people turned out on short notice for a meeting to get organized, among them Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th) and former Ald. Patrick Levar (45th), each of whom can trace five generations attending the church and three at the school.

There is no concert planned yet to raise money, as far as I know, but at least three neighborhood restaurants — Gale Street Inn, La Villa and Superdawg — have scheduled promotional events.

For $15, anyone can order a T-shirt from Our Lady of Victory’s Facebook page that says “Stoke the Fire” on the front and “The Flames Will Rise!” on the back — in reference to the school sports teams’ nickname, the Flames.

A pair of students came into the school office on Monday to offer up the money they had saved by forgoing their usual weekend trip to the movies.

Eighty-year-olds from the neighborhood who attended the century-old school have walked in with donations, and other alumni now scattered around the country have mailed checks.

As of Friday, Hodge said the school had received donations or commitments for about $600,000 over the three-year period, halfway to its goal.

In keeping with the positive energy these folks are generating, I choose to look at that as making the glass half-full rather than half-empty, though the clock is ticking.

Hodge is expecting to submit her salvation plan to the archdiocese by email sometime Tuesday rather than race downtown in the Bluesmobile. But there is a similar sense of urgency.

Volunteers will be distributing leaflets in the neighborhood this weekend. Students and teachers will be praying.

Fifth-grader Emma Markham is among the students who have written letters to Cardinal Francis George asking him to reconsider.

“I get that we are in debt, but maybe you [can] spare our school or at least give us more time,” she wrote. “I don’t want to lose my friends or my teachers. I cry at the thought of losing this place. Nobody wants to leave.”

That approach won’t be as successful as a fact-based showing that the archdiocese will no longer need to provide the $400,000 annual subsidy it has been paying since the school’s deficits became more than the parish could handle on its own several years ago.

Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of Chicago Catholic schools, said she is definitely leaving the door open to the school presenting a “viable fiscal plan” that could reverse the closure decision.

“We’re not stringing them along,” she told me.

But McCaughey cautioned the archdiocese won’t accept a plan that could leave them in this same situation next year.

The school will also need to show how it’s going to continue to grow its enrollment of 171 students, which is already a big improvement from just 18 months ago when it had slipped to 90 before Hodge arrived and reinvigorated the operation.

That’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the 1,200 students who walked OLV’s halls in the heyday of Catholic education, when Chicago schoolchildren were split distinctly between “publics” and “privates” while nuns did the teaching.

But that also means there is a big pool of alumni out there, some of whom reacted to the closure news like Cullerton, who called it “a dagger to my heart, because that’s been the center of my life for my entire life.”

Cullerton’s parents met at Our Lady of Victory in kindergarten, and he graduated there himself, later sending his own children there.

Many of those alumni are now re-engaging with the school, and a neighborhood that literally grew up around it is rediscovering its center.

I hope they succeed.

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