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Tears, fears mark somber day at Mount Assisi

Updated: March 3, 2014 4:35PM



Like most winter afternoons for the past four years, Mount Assisi Academy basketball coach Kelsey James walked through the front door of the high school Thursday to meet with her team.

On the agenda was a road trip to Richards for a game, and on a normal day the atmosphere would have been one of excitement.

Thursday was not a normal day at Mount Assisi.

“It was silent,” James said. “No one was talking. Usually when I walk in, I get greeted at the door by faculty, students, asking me how things are going. Today their were heads down. You could see that they had been crying all day.”

On Wednesday night, the order of nuns that runs the all-girls school announced that the school, which opened in 1955, will close in June because of declining enrollment and mounting debt. Enrollment has fallen from 315 seven years ago to 143 today, school officials said.

Some parents and alumnae are trying to raise enough money to keep the Lemont school open. A “Save Mount Assisi Academy” Facebook page was created, with a link to a website, savemtassisi.com, where donations are sought “with the hope that they will keep their doors open,” the site says. A donation meter indicated that $1,000 had been collected as of 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

The Facebook page also had a link to the school’s existing official donation site, https://mtassis.revtrak.net/. No information on recent donations was available.

At the school on Thursday, many students were distracted, if not stunned, by suddenly facing an uncertain educational future.

Junior Jess Moriarty was in her first year at Mount Assisi, having transferred from Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights. She is an integral part of the varsity basketball team, leading in three-pointers for the season.

She has no idea what her senior year will bring.

“That’s the scariest part,” Moriarty said. “I’m very disappointed. I had no idea. I don’t think I would have transferred if I knew the school would be closing.”

The team’s leading scorer, MaryKate Wetzel, will graduate in June. She plays soccer, basketball and volleyball and is a member of a dozen clubs, including being president of the National Honor Society and vice president of the student council.

“I was always there,” Wetzel said. “There were ups and downs as there are at all schools. But thinking back to the past four years, about things like the dances, the Turkey Bowl and Christmas Mass and the fact that those are the last ones they’ll ever have, it’s pretty sad.”

Wetzel said the sadness was evident during her first-period religion class when the subject turned to the school’s closing.

“Sister Jude Marie (Naiden), she was trying to stay strong,” Wetzel said. “But then she started crying, and everything just kind of broke down. That really hurt us because we saw how much it was affecting her. This (closing) not only affects the students, but the teachers and the faculty.”

Jennifer Anderson, the mother of freshman three-sport athlete Amber Anderson, is a 1998 Mount Assisi graduate. She was taking a class Wednesday night at St. Xavier University when news of the closing came via multiple emails on her cellphone.

“In September, there was a mandatory parents meeting, and they told us they really needed to get the enrollment up because they were in financial trouble,” Anderson said. “But I didn’t think the school would be closing. I thought it would be a few years before we had to worry.”

That would have gotten Amber to graduation day.

“Ever since probably first grade she had her heart set on going to Mount Assisi,” Anderson said. ... I had to hold back the tears at (St. Xavier). It was tough. And then I walked in the door and my younger daughter, who is in sixth grade, said, ‘where am I going to go to school?’”

News spread fast Wednesday night among Mount Assisi alumni, especially via social media. Laurel Szumksta, of Homer Glen, a 2008 Mount Assisi graduate, said she was surprised.

“I knew they were trying their best to keep it open,” she said. “It’s sad. I really liked it there a lot. I had a lot of great teachers. It was really fun.”

Her younger sister, Carrie, graduated in 2011. Their mother, Cheryl, said the school community was like a family.

“That was part of the appeal,” she said. “Part of its beauty was that it was a small school. The girls really got personal attention.”

Colleen Egan, of Chicago, a 1981 graduate, said her parents wanted to send her to a school with discipline, strong academics and a religious base, and she wanted a school that would make her a “strong woman.”

“The nuns were formidable,” Egan said. “They made me believe I could do anything.”

Another 1981 graduate, Debbie Olinger Vanderham, of Oak Lawn, said taking the long bus ride from Chicago’s Southwest Side to Lemont was a bonding experience.

“The thing that I remember the most, it was a long ride out there, you had to take a bus. And the people on the bus got to be your family,” she said. “You would see them at 6 a.m., and if you were in any kind of extracurricular, you were with them at 6 p.m. on that bus on the way home. That was your family, the people on the bus, the people you rode with.”

She said that when Maria — an all-girls Catholic school on the Southwest Side — closed a couple of years ago, she wondered how Mount Assisi was doing.

“In 1981 when I was there was one of their largest graduating classes ever,” Vanderham said. “They had extra attendance and they had to put mobile homes out in the parking lot to accommodate all the extra students. I know attendance is down in a lot of the Catholic schools, so when I heard Maria was closing I wondered how Assisi was doing. I was little bit surprised when I heard but it wasn’t like the thought hadn’t crossed my mind.

“It’s high school, and there are a lot of good memories there and you don’t want to see it go away,” she said. “It’s a beautiful school, the property out there is beautiful, and going there in the spring or in the fall and looking out the windows, it was beautiful. There are a lot of good people there and it’s terrible to see that is going to end.”

Debbie Kulbitsky Moris, of Lemont, a Class of 1978 alum, said, “I’m sad. I feel really bad about it. I ran into one of the nuns in the grocery store right before Thanksgiving and she said it didn’t look good. When it came out in the news and I got a call on it, I was sad.

“It was a nice school; it was more like a family. There wasn’t a lot of kids at the school, so everybody knew everybody. My friends that I made high school are still my friends today. My best friend, that is where I met her.”

She wondered what would become of the property.

“With the way the economy is right now, I think it would be hard to save the school,” she said. “I hate to see it be knocked down. Oh, my God, that would be so sad.

“My sisters all went there, and they’re older than me. I have four daughters and two of them went to Mount Assisi.”

She remembered one unofficial “tradition” above others.

“I don’t think anybody will ever forget the gum tree,” she said. “They had one tree right at the entrance, and since you weren’t allowed to chew gum, everyone put their gum on the gum tree.”

Moris was also concerned about the nuns.

“The teachers, the nuns, we were all so close,” she said. “It worries me, what are they going to do with it? Where will all the nuns go?”

Contributing: Susan DeMar Lafferty, Jaime Angio



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