Old St. Mary’s opens doors to new building in South Loop

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

Kindergarten teacher Shannon Vier visits with Anthony, Isabella and Gabriella Rosinia in the hallway at Old St. Mary's School Sept. 2, the day students came to check out their classrooms in their new school building, 1474 S. Michigan Ave., during a "meet and greet" with their teachers. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

There’s some extra pep in the step of Old St. Mary’s school principal Mary Lee Calihan and her staff at the Chicago grade school.

After spending its first six years in a onetime furniture factory, Old St. Mary’s will begin its 2011-2012 school year in a brand new facility located at 1474 S. Michigan Ave. Rather than feeling like visitors in a strange land, teachers and school staff now have a building all their own.

“The new school building has absolutely energized the entire school community and provided some real excitement,” Calihan said.

The $6 million new school, connected to Chicago’s oldest parish located at 1500 S. Michigan Ave., covers 33,000 square feet and boasts a 350-student capacity. The 18- classroom building features a fine arts room, science lab and pre-school rooms with mini-bathrooms and pint-sized fixtures.

Old St. Mary’s Parish moved to its Michigan Avenue spot in 2002, its sixth home in an existence that dates back to 1833. Paulist Father Michael Kallock, Old St. Mary’s pastor, credits Cardinal George with having the foresight to recognize the South Loop’s growth and setting plans for a school in motion.

First opened in 2004 with 18 pre-school students, Old St. Mary’s added a new grade every year to its pre-kindergarten foundation. Seven years later, many of the original 18 students are now entering fifth and sixth grades, while hundreds have filled in behind them to boost the school’s overall enrollment. In 2014, the now-incoming sixth graders will constitute Old St. Mary’s first graduating class.

“We’ve expanded vertically as well as horizontally,” Calihan said.

Kallock said neighborhood growth and pressing demand for Catholic education drove the construction effort.

“There are more and more baby carriages in this area and more and more families wanting a strong academic environment,” Kallock said, also noting that church attendance has tripled in the last seven years.

On Sept. 6, just over 260 students enrolled in pre-k to sixth grade began their year.

The economic slowdown, both Kallock and Calihan said, has done little to curb school application numbers. As the school office was flooded with applications for this school year, Calihan approached the school board and requested — and was granted — a fifth preschool classroom. It’s a sign, Calihan said, of the school’s resonance with the neighborhood.

“Unfortunately, demand still outpaces our available space even with the new building,” Calihan said.

That disappointment aside, Calihan and Kallock are both thrilled with the prospects of the new building and an ever-emerging school culture at Old St. Mary’s.

“We desperately needed a new school, and this building gives us the opportunity to bring a greater number of students and families into the Old St. Mary’s family,” Kallock said.