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Maria Closes After 102 Years

But New Chapter Begins with Mother Maria Kaupas Center

The last sophomore and junior classes to attend Maria High School took their final exams this week, officially ending the last year of the Catholic girls school at 6727 S. California Ave. that opened its doors 102 years ago, as St. Casimir Academy. {{more}}

The 44 seniors in Maria’s last graduating class received their diplomas on May 18. Maria President Wendy Lynn noted proudly this week that they were all accepted at colleges and universities across the country. ÒThat is the fifth year in a row” that happened, she said. The sign outside the school also congratulates the graduates for earning more than $1 million in scholarship money.

ÒThe reality is really hitting people now,” said Lynn, adding that she is too busy with last-minute details to be sad. ÒI don’t have time to be sad,” she said on Tuesday.

Hundreds of alumnae returned for a Mass of Thanksgiving and all-class reunion on April 26, but this week, all the students will be leaving, following a ceremony that was planned for Thursday morning for the students. But the school building is not being left empty.

Catalyst Maria Charter School, serving children in kindergarten through high school, is taking over from the Sisters of St. Casimir, and the two schools shared the space this year.

ÒI’ve only been here for 11 years but the girls think I have been here for all 102,” joked Principal Margaret Hayes on Wednesday. She and all the remaining staff seemed to be in good moods this week, perhaps because they will not be leaving an empty building behind, and the Sisters of St. Casimir will retain a presence on the property through the new Mother Maria Kaupas Center, which is opening in the former convent attached to the school.

Amy Eckhouse, who has taught theology at Maria for the past five years, is staying on as director of the new faith-based Mother Maria Kaupas Center, and Hayes will be volunteering as the interim executive director. The board of directors will include several Sisters of St. Casimir, as well as De La Salle Christian Brothers who are involved in the Catalyst schools.

ÒI figured I could volunteer my time for a while. We’ve already scheduled several summer programs,” said Hayes, who described Eckhouse as Òvery spiritual, very energetic, and just the right person” to lead the new center, which will be open after-school to Catalyst students, and will expand to also include evening programming for community residents.

ÒI’m glad I was the principal during this last period. I wouldn’t want anyone else to do it,” said Hayes, an Oak Lawn resident who will be principal of an elementary school in La Grange in the fall.

ÒIt has been difficult these last few years, knowing this was coming. The April 26 event was very emotional,” she said.

While she admitted crying easily, ÒI am nearly cried out,” she said, ÒIt has been a wonderful place to work. I have made lifelong friends here”

Hayes said she has enjoyed seeing the alumnae come back to visit, and watching them progress through college and go on with their lives. ÒIt is wonderful to see them. I will miss thatÉbut at least we have Facebook,” she added.

ÒThe Sisters have been wonderful through all this,” she said. Hayes also credited the lay teachers who stayed on staff this year, knowing it would be their last year. ÒThey could have moved on but they didn’t. I wouldn’t have been able to replace them.”

She also gave credit to school counselor Carly Comiskey for helping the sophomores and juniors find the schools they wanted to finish their high school years. Many of the underclassmen are going to other Catholic schools, primarily Queen of Peace and Our Lady of Tepeyac, while some will stay on at Catalyst Maria High School, which began with freshmen this year and will add sophomores, juniors and seniors next year.

The adjoining elementary school began with kindergarten through fifth grade, and will expand to sixth grade the fall, adding seventh and eighth in the following years.

Eckhouse, the new program director at the Maria Kaupas Center, said Òthe potential excites me” regarding the space available for programs in the center. The Sisters of St. Casimir, who now live in the motherhouse nearby, are renting the former convent for a nominal fee from Catalyst.

Already, there is an activity room with a pool table, board games and other activities where Catalyst students can relax after school. ÒWe’re going to get an air hockey table too,” said Eckhouse. Some former bedrooms have been turned into offices, and the chapel in the center will also be used.

ÒWe can have faith-based programs here, where we could not in the school,” she noted.

This summer, several week-long programs are already planned for teens, including a teen service week, and another focusing on what teens talk about. Leadership programs are planned for the fall, as well as others, addressing spirituality, fine arts, performing arts and exercise. ÒWe are starting out small

Eckhouse also has plans for the industrial kitchen and cafeteria area in the lower level of the former convent. She hopes to rent it out for culinary classes during the day, while part of it will be turned into a student union, where teens can relax after school. Eventually, perhaps after January, community programming will be planned.

ÒWe have a lot of plans but not a lot of money,” she said, acknowledging that the center could use donations.

Catalyst students are being asked for their input on decorating the new center. Artwork created by Maria students several years ago can now be found hanging on walls throughout the new center.

ÒGirls who came through here in April were thrilled to see their artwork from years ago hanging up,” said Eckhouse, explaining that bathroom stall doors were painted as an art project one year, and were nearly thrown away until it was suggested they be used to brighten up the new center.

ÒMother Maria is living on here, and the alumnae are too,” she said.

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