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Farewell to Guerin College Prep

It is difficult enough to close a school with dignity and grace after a nearly 60-year legacy. But add a pandemic to the challenge, and it becomes incredibly difficult.

In 1961, the Sisters of Providence began ministering to high school students on the northwest side of Chicago, hoping to be instruments of love, mercy, and justice in their lives. Mother Theodore Guerin High School shared the campus with the Brothers of Holy Cross who sponsored Holy Cross High School. Built to accommodate 1000 students, at its peak in the 1980s, Guerin was “bursting at the seams” with nearly 1600 students. In the late 80s and early 90s, with increased tuition costs and demographic shifts, enrollment began to decline a bit. By 2004, the Holy Cross Brothers determined that they could no longer afford to sponsor Holy Cross High School. Cardinal George asked Sister Nancy Nolan, then president, if the Sisters of Providence would change the mission of Mother Theodore Guerin High School and go coed. The Sisters agreed and the school became Guerin College Preparatory High School.

“The first time I walked into Guerin, I instantly knew that it was where I was meant to be. During those four years, I made lasting memories and meaningful friendships. I was able to pursue my passion for music and the arts. And it was where I learned to unlock my potential in life, love and faith.”

— Heather Mall (Class of 2015)

Unfortunately, the terms of agreement shifted, and Guerin College Prep incurred significant debt to acquire the property needed to become coed. Despite valiant attempts to recover from that debt, the school struggled financially. By December 2019, the Board of Directors concluded that closure was unavoidable. The school would close at the end of the
academic year.

Heartbreak, closure and covid

January was filled with heartbreak as faculty, staff, parents, students, and alumnae/i were informed about the decision. Despite their own sadness, the faculty and staff were determined to “make this the best semester yet.”
Then the unthinkable happened. COVID-19 pandemic moved classes online. Cancellations of proms, the final theater production, spring sports, sports banquet, student-parent dinner dances, and closing student activities all followed.

I entered Guerin Prep as a timid and shy freshman, but I left as a confident and ambitious young man. Because of Guerin, I have created lifelong relationships with not only my peers, but some of the faculty as well, which is already paying dividends heading into college. Guerin Prep helped me realize my potential, and it encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone. I am enrolled at DePaul to study finance. 

— Matt Gallagher ( class 2020)

The Board, faculty, and staff were still determined to do what they could to provide some closure for the students. Faculty and staff delivered house signs and graduation packages to each of the seniors. There was a “drive by parade” at the school, where faculty and staff held signs saying, “We love you” and “We miss you.” There were virtual awards ceremonies. Two board members even had tote bags made for the students to use when they came to clean out their lockers which read, “Carry love, mercy, and justice into the world.”

A different graduation

Graduation, held on June 23, was equally touching. Illinois guidelines at the time allowed for no more than 10 people to be gathered. So three students at a time marched into the auditorium to Pomp and Circumstance. With their parents present, each walked across stage, picked up his/her diploma, had a picture taken, recited the Alumni Pledge, turned their tassels, and walked out to festive music. This graduation demonstrated what made Guerin special: it was all about the students. We did whatever it took to make their time at Guerin special.

“In my teaching I tried to remind students that God is always with them to help. At the end of the school year, I gave each student a rock or sometimes a shell to remind them that God will always be there for them. God is steady and does not move away from us. We are the ones who move away.”

— Sister Kay Manley, (Theology teacher at Mother Theodore Guerin High School/Guerin College Prep for 24 years from 1993 to 2017)

Our “Final Homecoming” could not be the party we imagined. But there was a livestreamed closing Mass and a virtual tour of the schools, done on the exterior by drone and on the interior by video. Alumnae/i virtually “visited” one last time, the places and spaces where their memories were made. An online auction of memorabilia from the schools yielded over $22,000 to be used by students to help cover their tuition costs at their new schools.

The love and care continue

Although the building is closed, our love and care and prayers for each young woman or man who called Guerin “home” will never end. For it is the people who are “Guerin High.” And so we say, in the words of the school song, “Guerin High, you shall have all our loyalty. We will show our love for you by fidelity.” Thank you, Guerin faculty, staff, parents, students, and alumnae/i, for the memories! We are confident that you will, indeed, carry love, mercy, and justice into the world.

“During my years as a student at Mother Guerin, my involvement with the alumnae association in the 90s and my brief time on the Board, I have felt a special connectivity to an important legacy and values. It wasn’t a ‘forced’ religious type feeling but more about do the right thing and have faith that will triumph over any obstacles. I guess that is what Providence is about. I am certainly leaning on that to help me overcome the sadness I feel right now with the school closing. I know that those of us who attended school at 80th and Belmont need to carry the good values planted in us into the future. Perhaps that is what Saint Mother Theodore Guerin intended when she said ‘let us hope that the few seeds sown may not remain unproductive of fruit.’”

— Judith Schubert (Class of 1980 and chair of the board in Guerin’s final years)

(Originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp

Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp has been a Sister of Providence since 1975. She currently serves on the Congregation leadership team. Previously she ministered as a teacher and administrator at the secondary and university levels.

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