New school: Immaculate Conception St. Joseph

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, September 11, 2011

Father Pat Lee takes a breath and flashes a well-earned smile. The pastor of St. Joseph, 1107 N. Orleans St., and Immaculate Conception, 1431 N. North Park Ave., Lee spearheaded the resurrection of Immaculate Conception’s school in 2002 and, last month, the opening of a middle school campus at St. Joseph.

The new Immaculate Conception St. Joseph School, a joint venture between the two parishes located but five city blocks from one another, will host more than 400 students from 20 different Chicago ZIP codes during the 2011-2012 academic year. The Immaculate Conception campus will serve student pre-kindergarten to third grade, while the St. Joseph campus will hold grades 4-8 as well as one additional preschool wing.

Many got a first look inside the new St. Joseph campus at an open house on the morning of Aug. 26. Enthusiasm ran high as students and parents peered into the new classrooms and spaces.

“People are just swooning at how beautiful the new facility is,” Lee reported.

The following Sunday, Aug. 28, Cardinal George joined with Bishop Francis Kane and Lee for a Mass and dedication of the new campus at 363 W. Hill St.

The original Immaculate Conception school, first opened in 1869, closed in 1980 because of declining enrollment. For a generation, it seemed Immaculate Conception would never again host a school.

In the early years of the 21st century, however, rapid change in Chicago’s near North Side, namely the growing presence of families with young children, spurred Lee to reestablish Immaculate Conception School as a means to provide high-quality education and to pass Catholic faith and traditions onto neighborhood youth.

In 2002, Immaculate Conception opened its doors and welcomed 17 pre-school and kindergarten students. Each year, the school added a grade and enrollment soared in subsequent years. With demand swelling, parish leadership drafted plans for a more aggressive school expansion.

Following two different phases of capital fundraising and a land swap between the City of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools and the archdiocese, Lee secured a vacant public school building across the street from St. Joseph. The archdiocese then approved a $10 million loan to expand and renovate the former Byrd School for the creation of Immaculate Conception St. Joseph School’s middle school campus.

Construction teams gutted Byrd School and added a new façade, new entrance and state-of-the-art gym just as parish leaders negotiated a 99-year lease of the former CPS property.

The new St. Joseph campus features a theater, a cafeteria that opens to an outdoor patio, a media center and library and a 59- car parking lot. Lee, who added St. Joseph’s pastor duties to his plate in 2001, said the new facility will serve as a resource for the partner parishes, hosting religious education on Sundays and adult education in the media center.

“This will not only bring new life to the school, but new life to parish work as well,” Lee said.

The new facility also allows the school to nearly double its enrollment capacity. Rather than cramming 270 students into Immaculate Conception’s building, the second campus allows for an enrollment of 500.

“We were packed to the rafters waiting for the St. Joseph campus to open and are grateful the day has finally come,” Lee said.