Mater Christi School to close

• A Monday meeting with church officials, who asked for an updated budget, leaves a slight glimmer of hope.

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By BOB UPHUES

 

 

The warning was sounded months ago, but the Mater Christi School community never thought the Archdiocese of Chicago would pull the plug. Yet, after 49 years of serving families from North Riverside, Riverside and other surrounding communities, Mater Christi School was informed that it would shut its doors for good at the end of the school year.

Last Thursday, the archdiocese announced that it was closing 23 Catholic schools and consolidating a handful of others. All but four of the schools slated for closure were in Chicago. But Mater Christi, along with St. Mary of Celle in Berwyn and St. Edmund in Oak Park, were included on the list.

But as late as yesterday morning, the archdiocese left Mater Christi defenders with a glimmer of hope, after a meeting Monday afternoon between school officials and the archdiocese's superintendent of schools.

While the archdiocese offered no guarantees, it asked the school to resubmit a budget for the 2005-06 school year. The Mater Christi school board met in a special session Monday night to consider the request.

"We're still officially closed, but the superintendent has asked our pastor vicariate to relook at the budget," said Mater Christi Principal Marlene Hionis. "It's a glimmer of hope. We're waiting to see what happens and praying."

Attempts to reach Mater Christi's pastor, Rev. Louis Tylka, and Archdiocese School Superintendent Nicholas Wolsonovich yesterday morning were unsuccessful.

Last Thursday, Wolsonovich cited low enrollment, building disrepair, unpaid bills to the archdiocese and outstanding loans as reasons for shutting the schools.

"The archdiocese has a limit on its ability to support these needy schools," he said.

The archdiocese donated $2 million in grants to 80 percent of these schools in 2003-04. Hionis said that the North Riverside school was not one of those subsidized.

"We really thought we were going to be open," said Hionis. "We had been working with the archdiocese. They told us what we needed to do."

Hionis, however, got the bad news last Wednesday and sent a letter home with the school's 144 students that afternoon, explaining the archdiocese's decision.

Some 22 parents responded by making the trip downtown to the archdiocese's headquarters the last Thursday day to protest the closure and get some answers from church officials.

"Holding a poster that read, "Thou shalt not lie. We were lied to by the archdiocese," Mater Christi school board member Joanne Suba said they had worked during the past few months to save their school from closing. They designed a budget proposal for their school that included a tuition hike. Suba said the archdiocese accepted the plan.

"Now we feel betrayed," Suba said.

But Wolsonovich said all the schools were considered under the same financial criteria.

"It's going to be very difficult to change our minds," he said.

Thursday night, parents called a candlelight vigil outside the North Riverside church as a way to highlight their outrage and to support one another.

"Even if it doesn't stay open, we're going down fighting," said Sue Skryd, who in the past 15 years has had three children graduate from the school. A substitute teacher, P.E. teacher, member of the school's athletic committee and cheerleading coach, Skryd's youngest daughter is a seventh-grader at the school.

"Mater Christi is my life," she said.

Tylka said that the school closure is sure to affect the entire parish.

"It will certainly have a significant effect on the parish," Tylka said last Thursday. We're losing our wonderful school that was part of the life of the parish. It presents new challenges to us to reach out to the young children in the parish."

Tylka said that the school facility will continue to be used in a variety of ways, for religious education and for use by scouting groups and other church-related organizations.

"We'll still utilize the space to the best of our ability," Tylka said.

Meanwhile, nearby Catholic schools are preparing to handle a possible influx of new students.

"We've received several calls inquiring about openings, tuition rates and programs," said Nancy Taylor, principal of St. Mary School in Riverside. "We're trying to be accommodating, to make it easier for them."

St. Mary's will likely have a shadow day for Mater Christi students this month, Taylor said.

To make the transition easier for families, the archdiocese will be sending information packets on area schools to Mater Christi.

"There are at least five ... Catholic schools located within a three-mile radius from each closing school, and they have the capacity to welcomes students affected by the closings," Wolsonovich said.

• Kristin Thorne and Andrew Bossone of the Medill News Service contributed to this report.

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