Shuttered Catholic high schools keep spirit alive with scholarships

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, October 19, 2014

When Catholic schools close, the legacy of those institutions can quickly fade.

For the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago, who dutifully educated thousands of young women at Madonna High School on the Northwest Side from 1949-2001, and alumni of Weber High School, a fellow Northwest Side institution that shuttered in 1999, the mission of each school remains alive, as both groups grant scholarships to students seeking a Catholic high school education.

As the century turned, the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago reached a crossroads at Madonna. Years of declining enrollment and rising overhead costs, including maintaining the school’s aging campus near the intersection of Belmont Avenue and Pulaski Road, threatened the all-girls institution’s future.

In 2001, the Franciscan Sisters closed Madonna, a decision they understood would be met with sadness, even anger. In conjunction with Madonna’s closing, however, the Franciscan Sisters established the Madonna Foundation, a nonprofit organization embracing the Sisters’ educational mission. Even if Madonna High would no longer be around, the order’s leaders reasoned, its mission and legacy could still flourish with a scholarship program providing young women from low-income families access to Catholic education.

“All-girls Catholic education is something near and dear to the Sisters’ hearts and having the Madonna Foundation allows the legacy of Madonna High to survive and provides young women the opportunity to receive a Catholic education,” said Annie Ginzkey, the Madonna Foundation’s manager.

More than $2 million

Since its founding in 2001, the Madonna Foundation has distributed more than 1,000 scholarships and over $2 million to young women pursuing their high school diploma at five all-girls Catholic high schools in the Chicago area – Josephinum Academy, Notre Dame High School for Girls, Resurrection College Prep, Regina Dominican and Trinity High School.

Each year, the Madonna Foundation accepts an average of 60 scholars, each of whom receives a $2,500 reward. About 90 percent of the scholarship’s funding arrives from the Sisters’ endowment, while additional funding comes from grants and fundraisers, including an annual golf outing and participation in the Chicago Auto Show’s First Look for Charity event.

“Catholic education is very important to the families we work with and, for so many, it is a great sacrifice to pay tuitions that can range anywhere from $5,000- $12,000 a year,” Ginzkey said. “With our scholarships, we at least help families put a dent in that expense.”

Over the last five years, Ginzkey said 100 percent of the program’s senior scholars have graduated high school on time while the majority of the scholars pursue higher education at a fouryear university. In addition to the financial assistance, the scholars also enjoy personal enrichment, including leadership and self-esteem workshops as well as field trips and volunteer opportunities.

“We’re proud to say that this program adds a lot to the Scholars’ lives beyond the financial assistance,” Ginzkey said.

The Red Horde spirit

Like the Franciscan Sisters, alumni of Weber High have turned the unfortunate closing of their school into positive action.

When Weber closed in 1999, John Szeszol was disheartened. A 1967 graduate of Weber, an allboys school founded in Chicago’s Belmont-Cragin neighborhood in 1890 by the Congregation of the Resurrection, Szeszol and so many alums feared the closeness and brotherhood the school had fostered for more than a century would be lost.

“We didn’t want the memory of Weber High and its 109 years of strong tradition to be tossed aside,” Szeszol said.

Though Weber’s alumni records were in disarray, Szeszol and other alumni volunteers began the tedious process of reconnecting graduates to the shuttered school, seeking to sustain the fraternity and spirit so many had enjoyed as Weber students.

Today, an active Weber High alumni group enjoys annual social functions and fundraising events, such as a summertime golf outing and a fall reunion banquet. The group also discovered a way to keep the “Red Horde” spirit alive: the Weber High Scholarship Awards Program.

Launched in 2002, the scholarship program has donated nearly $160,000 to several Chicago area high schools, including former Northwest Side rivals Saint Patrick High School, Gordon Tech (now DePaul College Prep) and Guerin Prep. The Weber alumni group donates funds directly to the schools, which then determine the specific students who will receive the stipends.

“This is a common cause for us to rally around and something that benefits a lot of students and families,” said Szeszol, the Weber Alumni group’s secretary and a past president. “Having this common goal unites us and we like to believe we’re helping other kids enjoy the same kind of rewarding experience we did as Weber students.”


  • catholic schools
  • scholarships
  • madonna foundation
  • red horde

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