Catholic education is a family tradition for many

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, February 23, 2014

Brooke Chapas Penn, her daughter Aris and grandmother Stephanie Phillips, photographed at St. Thomas the Apostle School in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood on Feb. 2. Chapas Penn graduated from the school in 2000 and Phillips was a member of the high school’s last class. Aris now attends the school. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

When Stephanie Phillips was looking for a school for her daughter, she didn’t look far from her own upbringing.

Phillips was a member of St. Thomas the Apostle High School’s last graduating class in 1980. She sent her daughter, now Brooke Chapas Penn, to St. Thomas the Apostle’s grade school, 5467 S. Woodlawn Ave., where she was a member of the class of 2000. And now Penn has chosen St. Thomas the Apostle for her daughter, Aris, who is in prekindergarten there.

“I think she chose it for the same reasons I did,” Phillips said. “She was looking for a sense of continuity, an excellent education, the high standards you get in a Catholic school. She chose it for Aris the same way I chose it for her, and my mother did for me.”

It’s a story that is repeated at dozens of Catholic schools throughout the archdiocese: generations of a single family choosing the same school, sometimes traveling past other schools to get there. For them, education truly is all in the family.

Phillips said that she encouraged Penn to send her daughter to St. Thomas the Apostle because she was very happy with the education both she and her daughter received, adding that the benefits for Penn extended far beyond elementary school.

“It’s been lifelong,” Phillips said. “The friends, the structure, knowing how to compete in a rather tough world.”

On top of that, she said, St. Thomas the Apostle has always been good at helping parents maintain ties to the school community, something they have only gotten better at with the advent of social media.

“They do it the right way,” Phillips said.

Now, she said, she sees Brooke “turning into me. And she admits it.”

Multiple generations of the same family aren’t anything new either at St. Rita of Cascia High School, 7740 S. Western. Of the school’s 656 students, 205 are legacies, meaning either their fathers or grandfathers attended St. Rita, according to John O’Neill, the director of institutional advancement at the school.

He should know; his father, Bill, graduated from St. Rita in 1941, he graduated in 1979, his son Mike graduated in 2009 and his son Dan graduated in 2011.

And, at least for the two younger generations, the choice was their own. When O’Neill was choosing a high school in 1975, the obvious choice would have been St. Laurence in Burbank, where he had a brother teaching and another brother was a student. That’s where most of the boys in his class at St. Bede School went. But something about St. Rita attracted him.

“I think it was that it seemed like everyone at St. Laurence was the same,” he said. “Everyone at St. Rita was different.”

The school still draws from a wide geographic area, with graduates of 159 different elementary schools among its student body. They come from all over Chicago and many suburbs.

O’Neill, who did not start working at St. Rita until after his younger son graduated, said he did not apply any pressure on them to attend there. Mike, in fact, tested at Brother Rice, and then changed his mind and had his scores transferred to St. Rita. His two daughters chose different schools, with one going to Marist and the other to Mother McAuley.

Some of the legacy students are attracted by the idea of maintaining a family tradition, and some of them — and their parents — want single-sex education. But more of them, O’Neill thinks, are drawn by the same things their parents were: an opportunity for an excellent education, with high standards for all students, in a community that welcomes them.

He is still friends with classmates from high school, O’Neill said, as are his sons.

That’s exactly what Phillips is hoping for with her granddaughter at St. Thomas the Apostle, after seeing her daughter receive it at the same school.


  • catholic education

Related Articles