St. John Lutheran | File

The Archdiocese of Chicago closed St. Bernardine Catholic Church’s parish school in 2013. Classes in St. John Lutheran Church’s school building stopped being held a year later. What to do with the unused space is a challenge for both parishes.

It’s a financial challenge. Although neither church provided exact numbers regarding the cost for maintaining the mostly unused buildings, Rev. Stan Kuca, St. Bernardine’s new pastor said the parish’s budget for utilities, maintenance and insurance for the rectory, church and school buildings is between $80,000 and $100,000 a year.

Everyone interviewed, however, said the biggest challenge is emotional and spiritual. Julie Doloszycki, who graduated from the school and now chairs St. Bernardine’s Parish Council, said, “When the Archdiocese representative came out to make the announcement about the school closing, it was like attending a wake and funeral for a very close relative or friend.”

Rev. Leonard Payton, St. John’s pastor, said, “Closing the school was very painful for the congregation and evoked all the emotions that go with grieving: denial, sense of failure, blaming, self-recrimination, anger, and so on.”

The school closings still trigger strong emotions in parish members because of the many positive associations. “We have so many good memories and received an excellent education from the sisters who taught us not only the 3 R’s but care and concern for others,” said Doloszyki. “We received a good ‘Catholic’ education, and we are deeply rooted in our faith because of the sisters and priests who taught us.”

“I realize that the sisters have been gone a long time,” she said, “but the lay teachers who replaced the sisters had the same love of learning and the Catholic teachings. They were caring, nurturing teachers. Private school teachers do not receive the same pay as public school teachers but their love of teaching compensated for the smaller salary. It was a special ministry within the church.”

Doloszyki said St. Bernardine Religious Education Director Ann Stauffer does what she can with students after school and on the weekends, but it’s impossible to replace what being with devoted teachers in an environment in which faith was integrated with every part of the curriculum was able to accomplish in terms of formation.

For both Catholic and Missouri Synod Lutheran congregations, parish schools have been a large part of their identity. Rev. Payton said, “St. John is almost 150 years old, and had a school right from the beginning. For more than a century, it was a successful school. Alumni speak glowingly of their St. John education.” The Missouri Synod still operates 880 elementary schools that serve approximately 113,000 students in the United States.

A Missouri Synod website answers the question, Why send your child to a Lutheran school? by saying that Lutheran schools “help develop a minimum of 30 developmental assets in children and have educators who model visionary, servant and spiritual leadership.”

The same website helps explain why so many non-Lutherans have been attracted. “Lutheran schools,” the site boasts, “meet or exceed state and national academic standards at all grade levels.”

Part of the mission of both Catholic and Lutheran schools has been to reach out to underserved students whose parents were seeking a good 3R education for their children. For example, although statistics regarding religious affiliation were not available, the data for Walther Academy in 2013 — which took the place of St. John’s school in their building for six years — reveal that 70 percent of their students were children of color. Although St. John has made progress regarding racial diversity and has recently ordained one of its own people of color, Rev. Ron Riley, the congregation remains predominantly white.

With all of the benefits of a Christian day school education, why did the two schools close within a year of each other? Payton and Doloszyki both used the term “perfect storm” to answer the question.

“The raw number of children in Forest Park dropped steadily beginning sometime about 1970, and then sharply after 2000,” said Payton. “Simultaneously, the cost of health care benefits for faculty and staff rose sharply.” 

Doloszyki agreed. “Forest Park demographics were a factor,” she said. “Forest Park does not appear to have many young families. I also feel the cost of living had an effect. Tuition was moderate with an extremely good education, yet parents could not afford to send their children to a non-public school.”

Right now, St. Bernardine’s school building is used occasionally for parish programs like the Kingdom Retreat and social gatherings. When St. John’s school closed in 2007, the building was still used as a school, called the Walther Academy, until 2014 by Walther Lutheran High School Association of Melrose Park, which is also affiliated with the Missouri Synod.

Simply stated, decreasing revenues from dwindling student bodies and increasing operating costs account for the demise of both schools.

“At present, the former school space is under-utilized,” said Payton, “though we do not intend for it to remain vacant indefinitely. We use that space for diverse organizations (PADS, Boy Scouts, Brownies, St. John Choristers, Parenthesis Center consignment sale, YMCA activities, the Forest Park Community Garden seed swap, and, until recently, Alcoholics Anonymous.”

“We are in a long and ongoing study/discussion of how to use our resources in this new environment,” he said, adding, “We constantly seek the input of our immediate neighborhood [just north of Madison], a neighborhood that is diverse and fluid.”