Holy Angels School crosses 125-year milestone

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, January 26, 2014

Kanye Cox prays at the end of a pep rally on Nov. 14, 2012, at Holy Angels School, 750 E. 40th St. The Bronzeville school has more than 10,000 alumni. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

No one needs to convince Sister Helen Strueder that Holy Angels School, 750 E. 40th St., is a rare and special place.

For 43 years, Strueder, a School Sister of St. Francis, filled academic and administrative roles at the Bronzeville grade school and though Strueder had many opportunities to serve elsewhere during that four-decades long tenure, she continued to see Holy Angels as her home.

“I never thought of leaving [Holy Angels],” she said. “There were just too many forgiving and loving people.”

In an era of shuttered Catholic schools and declining enrollment figures at many institutions, that “rare and special” Holy Angels spirit has remained intact to the tune of 125 years and more than 10,000 alumni, radiating brightly last October when Cardinal George presided over a celebratory 125th anniversary Mass attended by hundreds of alumni and friends of the Holy Angels School community.

A rich history
Founded in 1887 by the Sisters of Mercy, a group that guided the school through its first six decades, Holy Angels largely served the South Side’s burgeoning Irish population in its earliest years. With the desegregation of the archdiocese’s Catholic schools in 1945, however, the school’s demographics quickly shifted and the predominantly Irish enrollment shifted to African-American students. By 1948, in fact, Holy Angels School was 95 percent African-American.

From 1945-1956, the school’s enrollment soared, climbing from fewer than 150 students to more than 1,100 on the back of Holy Angels’ strong academic reputation.

In 1969, Father George Clements became pastor of Holy Angels Church and soon after installed Father Paul Smith to run the school. Over the subsequent quarter-century, Smith ran the school with spirited efficiency — even as social ills and gangs began to consume the Bronzeville neighborhood.

“Both [Smith and Clements] are still spoken about with reverence,” Holy Angels advancement director Tom Molony said. “Neither man allowed the kids or parents to make excuses and they were both dedicated to their faith and ushered the school through some challenging times.”

When the Chicago Public Schools closed Oakland School in the late 1980s, the archdiocese purchased the property adjacent to Holy Angels, ceding it to the parish to accommodate a robust enrollment that, at more than 1,300 students, was the largest grammar school in the archdiocese.

Academics and faith
According to current Holy Angels School principal Doug Pearson, Holy Angels’ faith-based education is a critical component of its success across 125 years. Located in a neighborhood too often dominated by crime and violence, Holy Angels remains a beacon of safety for students and a place where Christian values are preached and practiced.

“Every day at Holy Angels School, we’re able to encourage the virtues and actions that make us good Christians,” Pearson said. “These are values that our kids can carry with them the rest of their lives and the values that can make them good, productive citizens in this world.”

The school has also maintained its academic rigor across generations and opened doors for students to explore new worlds through guest presentations, tutoring and class trips beyond Chicago’s borders. Over the years, Holy Angels School has received national attention for educating African-American students in one of the country’s most challenging neighborhoods. The school has been the subject of various studies on thriving inner-city schools, while its students have performed for numerous special events, including a Super Bowl halftime show, and even graced the cover of TV Guide.

“The school gave many children a chance to spread out and learn and opportunities that they wouldn’t have been afforded elsewhere,” Strueder said.

Today, Holy Angels’ enrollment sits just south of 150 students, which Molony calls a byproduct of shifting area demographics, including fewer neighborhood homes with school-aged children as well as the dispersion of residents from shuttered public housing projects.

Receiving a hearty assist from the Big Shoulders Fund, the Chicago-based nonprofit that supports innercity Catholic education, Holy Angels has been able to make recent investments in technology to assist its academic efforts. Over the last three years, Holy Angels has added two computer labs, provided laptops to its teachers, updated the school’s server and incorporated software to evaluate student growth.

“We know there’s always room to improve and that’s what we’re after,” Pearson said.

And though fewer than a quarter of today’s Holy Angels students identify themselves as Catholic, the school continues using the Catholic faith to bolster each student’s spirituality and pursuit of a quality life. The proof of Holy Angels’ success, Strueder said, resides in its graduates, a number of whom have gone on to lead professional and personal lives of spirit and integrity.

“With our alums, we have a lot to be proud of,” Strueder said.


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