For the longest time people would ask what school our daughter attends, and I answered with a name. Typically, that led to blank stares, which stayed firmly in place even when I gave the address. Then around the time of fourth or fifth grade, I came up with the perfect answer: “C1are goes to Our Lady of the Atomic Fireballs.” Bingo. “You mean the school across from Ferrara Pan?” Exactly.
There’s nothing new about St. Bernardine School, or parish for that matter, having to fight to get noticed. If some folks hadn’t stood up in 1911, we might still be a part of Ascension in Oak Park. Wouldn’t that be interesting?
But a small group of people”and “small,” as in “determined,” is a word that comes in handy when talking about St. B’s”gathered to celebrate the parish’s first Mass on Christmas Eve in a building on the grounds of Vogel’s Picnic Grove, at Harrison Street and Harlem Avenue. Not long after, parishioners bought themselves a portable church. nicknamed The Ark for reasons that may have had something to do with area drainage conditions. Anyway, the building arrived in sections via coal wagon. The first pews were actually chairs bought from the old Harlem Race Track. “Practical” is another good word to use when describing our parish.
Every church has a list of founding VIPs, and we’re no different. In the beginning, it was Burke to Maiworm to Nabholz by way of early pastors, a little like Tinker to Evers to Chance. In those days, you didn’t have to be German to belong to St. B’s, but it helped to know the language. German was spoken at sermons during Mass and taught in school. It was, you might say, a different kind of Forest Park back then.
A combination of Babe Ruth and Daniel Burnham arrived on the scene in 1935 with the appointment of Rev. John Wagener as pastor. For the next 32 years, Father (and later, Monsignor) Wagener made no little plans. He oversaw the construction of a new rectory, church, convent and school addition. It’s too bad no one thought to ask him why a predominantly German congregation made Spanish Mission their architectural style of choice. But three or four generations of worshippers have come to love it (along with those pigeons that roost in the bell tower).
A parish means community, which is spelled out in a variety of ways. Yes, there’s Monday night Bingo, along with clubs and activities that address the needs”-everyday as well as spiritual”of its members. That’s pretty much true of any church or synagogue. What helps to make St. B’s different is its school, which has been around since 1916, when 120 kids showed up for the first school year.
Until 1940 the first floor of the school served as the church; teaching took place on the second floor. One of the best things about our parish is how, everyday, it moves between the past and present. The first graders learn where some of their great grandparents worshipped. The teachers impart lessons in the spirit of their predecessors, the School Sisters of St. Francis followed by the Sisters of Providence. Come June, Clare will become part of the past when her class graduation picture goes up on the wall.
She will leave after eleven years that started in pre-school. In all that time she has known only two principals, Eleanor Kraft and Larry White. Stability matters in a school.
Students need to see the same face at the front door at 8:20 and 3:05. Part authority figure and part parent, Mrs. Kraft and Mr. White have exemplified the dedication to faith and learning that long has been a hallmark of education at St. Bernardine.
Stability shows in another way”many of the teachers have made a habit of staying around. Clare’s first-grade teacher was Gloria Hansberry, whose classroom is an extraordinary mix of color, sound and the occasional reptile. One of Clare’s favorite activities in first grade was helping to run a Christmas candy store. The idea behind it was to offer an everyday application of mathematics by showing children how to make change. I have no doubt that a future Alan Greenspan or two will have Gloria Hansberry to thank for their career success.
Second grade belonged (and belongs) to Jane Bale, a master of reading and grammar instruction. Mrs. Bale nurtured in Clare a love of reading while giving her the tools to tackle ever more challenging books. She also introduced Clare to the world of writing, or perhaps you say grammar.
Lois Tallarovic builds on the foundation laid by her cohorts in early education. Trust me, it’s no easy task in fifth grade. Kids at that age get to be, how shall I put it, challenging. I remember addressing them once for career day. There was all this energy in the classroom that looked ready to explode at any second, save for the calm resolve of Mrs. Tallarovic. And that’s how she teaches, calmly and persistently.
When Clare started sixth grade, she didn’t know much about social studies. Lori Krase changed that. In a world where ignorance is worn as a badge, my daughter can recite state and world capitals. She has learned about the Homestead Act and challenged to understand the ramifications of the 14th Amendment. In the coming months she will do a history fair project focusing on the significance of Marshall Field, the man and his store, to Chicago. With Ms. Krase, the past is never dead or boring, and the world is always worth studying.
Clare’s eighth grade homeroom teacher is Joyce Willenborg, a science wiz by way of Dyersville, Iowa. Mrs. Willenborg deals less with fields of dreams than she does possibilities. Somehow, she sees a little of Einstein in all of her students. And they place a lot of trust in her.
Other parishes never seem to change, but that’s what St. B’s is all about. The Germans and Irish yielded to Italians, then everybody mixed together. So, there’s really nothing new in the diversity that shows in church and at school. African-American, Hispanic and Asian, these are some of the more recent ways to say “community.”
Things tend to go in cycles at our school. In the early 1960s enrollment climbed to nearly 700 students; twelve years later, it stood at barely 200. The school might have closed if not for our pastor, the Rev. John Fearon, a onetime missionary who met every challenge with (literally) a song and a laugh. Enrollment rebounded, and the cycle started anew. Thanks to the planning efforts by the Rev. Pat Tucker, Father Fearon’s successor, and the school board, St. B’s is ready to take yet off again.