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Incarnation Catholic School in Palos Heights faces potential closure

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                                                                      Photos by Anthony Caciopo

The sign outside Incarnation School displays word of last Sunday’s fundraising event, held to raise money in an effort to avert a possible shutdown.

Students, parents, alumni and supporters of Incarnation Catholic School in Palos Heights are bracing for what many believe may be the permanent closure of the school, a closure they don’t believe is justified.

“We knew we were so financially sound that we were never concerned,” said Andrea Covert, the school’s marketing chairperson, who has a son who attends Incarnation.

But concern came crashing down in September when Archdiocese representatives paid a visit to the Incarnation School Board and laid out goals that the school needed to meet or face closure, recalled Covert.

The main goals reportedly are a substantial increase in enrollment and enough funds to cover three years of expenses.

“We have enough money in the bank for this year and next year,” said Covert. The Archdiocese wants us to have three years (of funds), in the Archdiocese bank account, before they’ll consider keeping us open,” she said.

Current enrollment at Incarnation, 5757 W. 127th St., is 144 students. “The Archdiocese would like us to have 200,” Covert said.

The reason Covert and other supporters consider Incarnation to be financially sound is the existence of a unique $1.4 million fund known as the Walsh Fund. It was bequeathed to Incarnation 15 years ago by the late Agnes Walsh, a parishioner. The fund provides for non-operating expenses, such as potentially expensive building repairs. To date, only the interest earnings on the account have ever been used. The principal remains untouched and has generated $1.1 million in interest for parish use.

“That’s what makes us stand apart from everyone else (other parishes) in these tough times,” said Covert. “We are the perfect campus to keep alive because of this fund.”

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Max and Araceli Hurtado checked out prize baskets at the Incarnation School fundraiser held last Sunday. They traveled from their home in Logan Square on the North Side of Chicago in support of the school where their godson, Miguel, and niece, Gabby attend.

The Incarnation faithful were rocked even further Monday evening when the chairperson of the school’s steering committee reportedly received a phone call from an Archdiocese representative, denying an extension sought by the committee.

The extension, even a brief one supporters say, would provide precious extra time to keep the school off the closure list which is expected to be announced at or near the end of Catholic Schools Week. It runs this year from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3.

And not being part of that anticipated list of closings would send a clear signal to any other nearby Catholic school facing closure that Incarnation is a viable, healthy alternative for parents suddenly forced to look for a new source of Catholic education for their children, say the Incarnation’s supporters.

A nearby school facing the same potential fate of closure is Our Lady of The Ridge, 10810 Oxford Ave. in Chicago Ridge. The Incarnation community—assuming the school stays open—would welcome parents and students from OLOR, located only three miles away.

Last year, in a well-publicized drive to stay alive, OLOR School met financial goals and attendance goals to open last fall, but the victory was short-lived and the school is not expected to be open in the fall of 2018.

“Some of the things we have offered them include wearing their uniforms,” said Covert about the Our Lady students. “We’ve offered the president of the school board to be the president of ours. We’ve offered to take their entire classes. This shows how much we want to meld with them.”

Also keen on the idea of melding is Marianne Gillifan, OLOR’s school board president who attended an Incarnation School fundraiser Sunday at 115 Bourbon Street in Merrionette Park.

Amid the din of 600+ revelers and a rock band tuning up onstage, Gillifan described what OLOR went through last year.

“One of the things that happened between February (2017)—which was when he held our fundraising event here at Bourbon Street with all the excitement—and the start of the school year is that we lost not only our 8th-grade class but at least 35 other students. It hurt the situation immensely.

“We investigated Incarnation,” she said. “We like it. It has a lot of similarities to Our Lady of The Ridge. I think it’d be a great fit for my son. I would like to see Incarnation continue.

“How do you engage parents today to understand that Catholic education is important, to keep the Church going for years to come?” said Gillifan. “As soon as you lose it as a priority of the parent level, their kids won’t see it as a priority. It’s important to keep the Catholic schools open.”

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Incarnation School graduates Erin and Ryan Cunnea, who now attend Loyola University, talk about their experiences at the Palos Heights school. “What happens to Incarnation Parish if the school closes?” Erin said. “There go the young families. It’s the lifeblood.”

Among the hundreds of supporters at the Incarnation fundraiser was Rev. Ronald Mass, retired pastor at Incarnation Parish where he served for 17 years beginning in 1997. Before that, he was pastor at Our Lady of Loretto in Hometown.

“I’m stunned at the number of people,” said Mass. “I’m happy and delighted, too. I didn’t know how big this would be. We had a whole series of events for our 50th anniversary seven or eight years ago and I don’t think we had even 200 people.”

Mass, who retired from Incarnation three-and-a-half years ago, said he still helps out on weekends and weekdays “whenever I’m needed.”

Incarnation’s current pastor, Fr. Arek Falana, is in Poland and was unable to attend the fundraiser.

Amid the attractions at the 115 Bourbon Street event were raffles, live entertainment, gift basket auctions and more, which ultimately earned approximately $50,000 for the school, according to event organizers.

Perhaps the most touching moments occurred when a motorist drove to the front door, declined to enter the establishment, and instead offered a donation in an envelope marked “For the Incarnation students.”

Another, said Covert, occurred when a stranger with no connection to the school, purchased a split-the-pot raffle ticket and handed his $1,000 prize right back to the Incarnation volunteers.

“This has exceeded my wildest dreams,” said Amy Diesi said as she shouted above the noise of all the attendees. Diesi, with a daughter and son enrolled at Incarnation, co-chaired the fundraiser with Nicole Kraft, also a parent at the school.

“We have 600 people right now through the door, which is amazing for our school of 144 students. It’s an amazing community,” Diesi said.

Through spokesperson Susan Thomas, The Chicago Archdiocese informed The Regional News Tuesday that “The Archdiocese has not made any decisions at this time about these schools. Right now, no decisions have been made.”

But Covert said “It would cost the Archdiocese nothing (to allow the extension). We’re in the black this year. Why would you not want to give all the time in the world as long as expenses are covered?

“If they gave us an extension, we would not be in that closure announcement and we could, according to Archdiocese guidelines, register the Our Lady of The Ridge children.”

Rev. Martin E. Michniewicz, pastor at St. Alexander Parish, 7025 W. 126th St. in Palos Heights, said St. A’s school has “openings in certain grades. We’d welcome anybody.” A call by The Regional to the school’s principal to learn the exact amount of availability was not returned before press time.

Michniewicz, who went through a school closing in Calumet City when he was assigned in that south suburban community, said “These are rough times. I think the economics are turning around in the country, but private education is expensive and there’s only so much money.

“They’re certainly in our prayers,” he said of the Incarnation and Our Lady communities. “The more Catholic schools, the better. We want to be respectful and pray that they succeed.”

Covert, the marketing director, said Incarnation has been using a variety of recruitment efforts in recent months including a rally, open houses and “shadow days” in which outside students can spend the day with Incarnation students.

She said the Archdiocese is completely aware of Incarnation’s unique Walsh Fund. With Catholic Schools Week fast approaching, and the release of anticipated school closures list, what’s needed for Incarnation is more time, she said.

“Time to enroll students from Our Lady of The Ridge, time to get more money in the bank. Time costs the Archdiocese nothing but time gives us all a chance,” said Covert, pointing out that Incarnation has to turn over its numbers to the Archdiocese by Jan. 15.

“We want the Archdiocese to just give us a chance. Otherwise, 144 of our students and all the OLOR students will be displaced and separated.

“Of course, we would love a big donor to step forward, too,” she said.

                                                                                                   

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