An unusual event occurred in North Riverside last Friday: when the final school bell rang at Mater Christi School, there was no rush by students and teachers to start their summers. Rather, everyone wanted to stay in school as long as possible.
That's because after 49 years June 3, 2005 was the very last day the school would be open. The Chicago Archdiocese voted earlier this year to close Mater Christi, citing low attendance rates and high costs as their reasons.
For many, the event meant much more than simply having to transfer children to new schools next year.
Debra Buenik, whose sons were in eighth and fourth grade at Mater Christi, described the school as a second home to her family. Her sons stayed after school regularly just to be with teachers and friends, and would go back on the weekends to play basketball in the playground. Buenik said she only lives a couple blocks away from the school, and will miss seeing children walking back and forth from Mater Christi every day.
"It's a death in our community," Buenik said. "It's a wonderful little school, and it's definitely going to be a big loss to North Riverside."
Those sentiments were echoed by Mater Christi School Board member Joanne Suba, who has been involved with the school for 16 years. Her oldest son graduated from Mater Christi in 1999, and her three other children were in the eighth and first grades and kindergarten this year.
"It's devastating," she said. "Today is like a funeral for us."
To give everyone time to say goodbye, the final day was extended by two hours, ending at noon rather than 10 a.m. There were special events for the day, including a final Mass, a graduation lunch for the 13 eighth-graders and a slideshow highlighting events from the year.
During the slideshow, students, teachers and parents all crammed into the school's basement. Children screamed and laughed at pictures of each other, and whenever a picture of an administrator or teacher came on the screen, there were loud rounds of applause.
Throughout the morning there were tears welled up occasionally, but it wasn't until the end of the dayâ€"when students streamed out the front entrance, clutching their final award certificates and art projects from the yearâ€"that the finality of the day really hit home. Tears streamed, cameras clicked, and lines formed to give final hugs to favorite teachers. No one left.
"It's amazing," Jennifer McCarthy, whose three daughters attended Mater Christi, said. "The kids all know all the parents and they all look out for one another. If a kindergartner gets a scrape on the playground, the eighth-graders are right there, and they know the kid's name, and they help out."
Only 146 students attend Mater Christi, and many of the students have developed close friendships in their small classes over the years.
"We're all really close," Ashley Stasukewicz said. "Most people have been together since kindergarten."
Sam Baptiste said that when his family moved to the area three years ago, the people at Mater Christi took them in. He had two children in the first and fourth grades this year.
"Everybody knows one another," he said. "When I first came here, they took my kids in like we were family."
It's not only the children who were welcomed into the school. Barbara Kosenesky, who was clutching a box of tissues as she left Mass on Friday, said that she had become involved in the school through her grandchildren, who were in pre-kindergarten and the first, fourth and seventh grades this year.
She picked her grandchildren up from school every Friday, and would volunteer whenever the school needed help. Today, students and parents call her "Nana."
"I've picked up a lot of grandchildren, young and old," she said. "I'm going to be totally lost without the school."
Mater Christi Principal Marlene Hionis, who only joined the school three years ago. She said that the moment she started at Mater Christi, she became part of the family.
"From the moment I walked in, they got a hold of my heart," she said. "They take you in, and you're stuck. You just fall in love with them."
The Mater Christi community did band together in the past few months to try to save their school. Parents organized a pledge drive that raised almost $20,000, and they formally protested the decision to close the school.
"It was a perfect little school," Suba said. Why take that away? I have to bring my kids to another community now, where they know no one. And if there was a valid reason, then I would say OK. But there's not."
Because of her experience this year, Evelyn Dunn, whose daughter was in the first grade this year, said she isn't sure that she wants to enroll her daughter in another Catholic school for fear that the archdiocese could close another one of her schools. Dunn said her daughter was devastated when they found out the final decision in March.
"I haven't decided where she's going yet, because I have such bitterness about the closing," she said. "I don't want her to have to go through the same emotions again."
While most of the anger has been directed toward the archdiocese, others were critical of the parish's support of the parents' efforts to keep the school open. Suba said a key factor in reversing the archdiocese' opinion would have been pastoral support, and the parents simply did not have it.
In response to such criticism, Pastor Louis Tylka asserted that he had done everything he could to lobby for the school.
"We did make a very good effort," he said. "As late as May 2, I was on the phone with the archidocese, seeing if they would reconsider their decision. I know in my heart I did the best that I could to change the mind of the archdiocese."
As for fears that the parish may be hurt by the closing of the school, which opened in 1956, only three years after the parish itself was established, Tylka hoped families would still choose to worship at Mater Christi Church, regardless of where they sent their children to school next year.
"Neighboring pastors have said they would encourage Mater Christi families to remain parishioners here," he said. "But they're going to have to make that decision."
Beyond the controversy and doubts, Tylka said that the most important thing to focus on at this point was the impact of the school's closing on the children, and their transition to new schools in the fall.
"This isn't about the pastor or the parents," Tylka said. "What has been important to me since the archdiocese reaffirmed its decision, is to help our kids transition into these new schools, and to celebrate what they've achieved in our school."
That's also how Hionis approached the final days at Mater Christi. The last two weeks of class were more of a celebration, with the students taking field trips to the Brookfield Zoo and Odyssey Fun World and holding special events at the school, such as Olympic Day, where students competed in athletic events.
"The students have worked really hard, and they never gave up, even after we heard the decision," Hionis said. "We just wanted to reward them for that, and give them something they could remember Mater Christi for."
As the crowd infront of the school started dispersing, teachers promised to attend future graduations for their students, families made plans to get together over the summer and children were busy collecting phone numbers.
Fourth graders Bria Baber, Ashley Madisom and Ricky Bruz were among those students making plans for the summer, with Bruz promising to invite "everyone" to his upcoming birthday party. They had no doubt that they would remain friends, even though they would not all be going to the same schools next year.
"It's not the end," Ashley said. "It's more like, 'to be continued.'"