Schooling since 1913

Chris Stach looks at the many faces of St. Barbara School in Brookfield

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In 1912, Konrad Ricker was developing and building between Ogden and Southview Avenues. He was approached for a donation to the new Catholic church, since he was a Catholic, too. He surprised everyone by giving the land for the church, and, according to one account, paying for the church and everything in it. Another account says he contributed much towards the church building fund. In any case, the people were grateful, and agreed to his wish that the church be named after his mother, Barbara.

James B. Rezney was the architect of the new church-a wood frame building with a bell and clock tower-on the 4000 block of Prairie Avenue. The cornerstone for the church was blessed by the Rev. M.J. Fitzsimmons of Chicago in August 1912. The new church, costing $5,874.80, was formally dedicated on May 18, 1913.

Apparently it was quite a day. Besides Archbishop James Quigley of Chicago giving the sermon, "a class of 38 boys and girls received the sacrament of Confirmation," according to the 1970 St. Barbara's parish booklet. This meant there had been actual teaching of the sacrament to children, usually upper graders attending public schools. Accepting this sacrament meant the children had to do a lot of studying, because they were going to be asked questions about it. So the first schooling at St. Barbara's was definitely religious in scope.

In October 1916, once St. Barbara's became a proper registered parish, a Sunday School was formed with small classes in each corner of the church building. However, there was no schooling in regular subjects as of yet.

Ground was broken for a new, larger St. Barbara Church on Monday, Oct. 29, 1923. It was needed mostly because the old frame church was overcrowded every Sunday. The number of parishioners had tripled in size since 1916. Also, it had been decided that school rooms would be added on in the rear of the church, where traditional subjects would be taught in addition to religion.

The building was two stories tall, constructed of brick and stone, much sturdier than its wood frame ancestor. Six classrooms were built, along with a rectory, which was on the second floor above the school in back of the church. At first, it was thought that it would cost $75,000 to build and then $65,000, but the final total, after all payments, was reported to be $60,000.

On Feb. 10, 1924, the new building was dedicated, and the Suburban Magnet newspaper for the 15th reported that "St. Barbara's Parochial School will open with seven grades next fall, according to the present plan. The [four] Sisters from the Order of St. Joseph will conduct the classes."

It was expected that anywhere from 50 to 150 children would be attending the school when it opened for classes on Sept. 2, 1924.

The new school rooms contained sturdy wooden desks, nailed into place on the floor in straight, strict rows, and were of the classic style, where the seats folded up, and holes for inkwells were in the desks' upper right hand corners. Blackboards lined the walls.

By 1930-31, the school had 259 pupils, and it was decided that an additional building, called the "annex" was needed. It would have two classrooms on the second floor, and an open area for meetings and functions on the ground level. In 1931 this school hall, someday to be called The Old School Hall was in use for the beginning of September classes.

There doesn't appear to have been any formal dedication or celebration of the opening of the annex. This may have been due to the fact that the Rev. John J. O'Brien, in poor health for four years, died on Sept. 30, 1931. Perhaps the ceremonies were continually delayed until he recovered enough to attend them. But he didn't. Even the 1931 Suburban Magnet newspapers fail to mention the dedication of the building.

The number of parishioners continued to grow, and, in a booklet produced in 1937, "The First Twenty-Five years of St. Barbara's Parish," were the prophetic words, "Further accommodations will soon have to be provided. There is a need for a school building and for a gymnasium or social center." This was not to become a reality for another 15 years.

In early 1951, the cornerstone for the new and presently in use St. Barbara's School on Windemere Avenue was dedicated by Samuel Cardinal Stritch, Archbishop of Chicago. The new yellow brick school was estimated to cost $400,000, and was designed by the Chicago architects Pirola and Erbach.

The new school was an absolute necessity. In March 1951, enrollment at the old school was 550, including the kindergarten class, in existence for the previous two years. The Brookfield Magnet newspaper for March 8, 1951 reported that "this record enrollment has taxed the existing facilities to a point that many children had to be refused last September for lack of space."

The new school was to be modern and up-to-date in all respects. Plans called for a 14 room school "with a basement auditorium." Two of the rooms were to be built suitable for a kindergarten, but able to be converted into regular classrooms, should the need be felt.

"The building will be a fireproof modern edifice of brick and stone, with reinforced concrete floors and roof," the newspaper stated. "The classrooms will be equipped with the latest type of fresh air heating, germicidal lamps, fluorescent lighting and completely wired for audio and visual education. The entire interior of the building will be exposed masonry construction of various materials, and the decorating will be guided by the latest developments in color harmony to produce maximum visual comfort for both pupil and teacher."

The "fresh air heating" system is still in use today, and the "germicidal lamps" are still in the classrooms' cloak rooms. The audio wiring probably meant the public address system. This, also called an "inter-communication system," was demonstrated to visitors at the school's open house, held on Sunday, April 6, 1952. Though the broadcasting electronics are more modern today, the same speaker boxes are still up in the classrooms.

Some modern sources have stated that the school was not opened until 1954, but that is an historical error. Otherwise, why hold an open house in April of 1952? Furthermore, a four-page history of St. Barbara's church and school, typewritten and sent by the church in 1967 for the Brookfield Diamond Jubilee book, states that the new "classrooms [were] occupied a year later-in April of 1952." Just to set the record straight. Also, when the new school opened, the enrollment rose dramatically to 712 pupils. By 1958, the kindergarten was dropped, and the rooms built for it were used for first graders.

The old school rooms in back of the church were vacated, although, in a few rooms on the south side, the ancient inkwelled desks still remained screwed into the floorboards. Sometimes, even many years later, children found themselves sitting at the old desks before ceremonies such as Communion and Confirmation, before marching in a procession into the church. The schoolrooms directly in back of the church were used for Mass preparation by the priests and altar boys and for general storage.

The Old School Hall (or annex) was not abandoned when the new school opened. The two classrooms on the second floor were used for teaching eighth grade. Past the year 1966, students found themselves sitting at the old 1931 desks, with old-fashioned folding seats and long-outdated inkwell slots. In the 1970s early 1980s, the band practiced here, and Girl and Boy Scout troops held their meetings.

Now that the new school was up and running, that hope, expressed back in 1937 for "a new school building and gymnasium and social center" had come true at last. Well, most of it, anyway. The "social center" was in the basement of the new school. Here, through the 1960s, Saturday afternoon movies were shown for an admission of 25 cents, with popcorn, soda and candy costing extra. During the week, the basement served as a music room for students, and also as the room for band practice.

The gymnasium wish for 1937 was yet to come, but did when the new church opened across the street, and celebrated its first Mass on March 1, 1969. Soon after, the old church was converted into a gym, after the wooden pews were removed. So it only took about 32 years for that dream to be realized.

Beginning in the 1970s, school enrollment declined dramatically. Between 750 and 800 students were attending in the late 1960s, and suddenly teachers were confronted by something never before seen at St. Barbara's for many decades-small class sizes and uncrowded space.

The school stayed open and plans for a Parish Center were presented, which would be located on the site of the old 1924-built church, opened in 1924. The Parish Center was planned to have a large gym, with locker rooms, a stage, food preparation rooms and preschool and kindergarten classrooms. In 1982, the old church was demolished, and work began. At the same time, it was decided that the Old School Hall would meet the wrecking ball, too.

The Old School Hall held many memories for parishioners, and not only those who had attended school there. It had been the site of bake sales, rummage sales, bazaars, shows, lectures, blood drives and parties. Here had met the Kitchen Band, the St. Barbara Singers and Choristers, Teen Theology, Holy Name Society, Daughters of Isabella, Knights of Columbus and many others. After 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 1983, the building came down.

St. Barbara's School later experienced an increase in enrollment, but is again experiencing a decline. Currently, 180 children attend classes, a far cry from the 750 students in 1966. In the 1990s, nuns were phased out of teaching positions, and, since that time, only lay teachers have guided the students on their paths to learning.

The school continues to survive, making changes along the way, remaining modern and up-to-date with 21st-century teaching materials and methods. The important education of its students still comes first, as it always has, since St. Barbara's earliest days.

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