By Ben Joravsky

On the Saturday before Easter there was a modest rally outside Holy Name Cathedral–a handful of people demonstrating on behalf of Saint Gregory’s grammar school, an Edgewater institution that the archdiocese is closing. “This issue abounds with great irony,” says Geralyn Fallon, the Saint Gregory’s parent who organized the demonstration. “They’re planning to rent a school that’s graduated thousands of working-class Catholic children over the years to–are you ready for this?–the British School, an expensive private school for English elites.”

The closing underscores the archdiocese’s helplessness in the face of steady neighborhood change. The school–at 1643 W. Bryn Mawr, next to the church and high school of the same name–has been around for almost 100 years. In its glory years, the school enrolled almost 300 children, most of whom came from the working-class Irish and German families who lived nearby.

“In those days the parishes were the center of the neighborhoods,” says Fallon. “The families went to the church, and the children went to the school. It was all part of the neighborhood universe.”

But that universe has changed over the last few decades, as white families moved to the suburbs to be replaced by working-class Hispanic families and later by working-class Filipinos and professionals. As a result, north-side Catholic churches have lost much of their traditional parishioner base, and they’ve either been unwilling or unable to adjust. Attendance at Sunday services has fallen at many churches, as has enrollment in parish schools. In 1994 the archdiocese decided it had no choice but to close three of the seven parish schools in and around Edgewater and Rogers Park.

It was an admission that the old north-side parish school, once a landmark, was an endangered species. And drastic changes followed. The remaining schools, which had been controlled individually by parents and the local pastor, now were managed by a single governing board made up of local pastors and archdiocese officials. They weren’t even called schools. They were called “campuses,” part of something the archdiocese labeled the Northside Catholic Academy.

Archdiocese school officials promised to keep the campuses operating. “In September,” says Fallon, “they sent out a letter assuring us that all four schools, or campuses, would remain open.”

There was good reason for the optimism. For one thing, many of the new residents were Catholic and presumably interested in a parochial education. For another, the new professional families were looking for affordable alternatives to low-achieving public schools. In addition, a new state law–passed last year over the heated objections of public-school teachers and PTAs–was offering families a $500 tax credit on private or parochial tuition. In effect, state taxpayers were now directly subsidizing nonpublic schools, and the archdiocese had promised to use the subsidy to open more schools in the city.

But as it turned out, enrollment in the Northside Catholic Academy didn’t grow this year. In January the archdiocese announced that it had changed its mind about keeping the remaining campuses open. “At a January 30 board meeting they voted to close Saint Gregory’s,” says Fallon. “About two weeks later the archdiocese told Saint Gregory’s pastor that the building would be rented.”

Like many other parents, she felt betrayed. “I felt we were losing a great school,” she says. “I still don’t understand why they closed it so soon. They went back on their word. None of the explanations they offered made any sense. It didn’t seem as though they went out of their way to explore all of the options.”

In February, Fallon and other parents met with Bishop Edwin Conway, the archdiocesan official who oversees north-side parishes. “We told him that the timing of the closing was appalling, in that this was the first year parents would get the tax credit on tuition,” says Fallon. “We said, ‘Why don’t you give us a chance to use that tax credit to help build enrollment?'”

They also suggested that enough money could be raised to keep the school open by increasing tuition, an increase that would be offset by the tax credit. “We asked Bishop Conway to allow us to be an independent school,” says Fallon. “We pointed out that it helps the church to keep the schools open. After all, a strong school only brings more families to the parish. If you close the schools, the church loses a magnet that might draw in families and the families that are there get upset and leave. We told him that there is a demand for the school. It’s a good building. It has a lot to offer. We would break off from the archdiocese, oversee it ourselves, and do a better marketing strategy to bring in new families. But Bishop Conway said no.”

From Conway’s point of view, the archdiocese had no choice. “The numbers,” he says, “were not there in terms of enrollment.” He even downplays the significance of the tuition tax credit. “The tax credit doesn’t help the schools,” he says. “It goes to the parents, not us.”

When it became obvious that the church’s decision to close Saint Gregory’s was final, Fallon and her allies changed their request. If the school was going to be rented, they at least wanted it rented to a school that met their needs.

According to the church, three schools were interested in renting the space: a Montessori school, a public-charter school, and the British School. “We advocated for the charter school,” says Fallon, “since it was most in character with our neighborhood.”

Instead, the archdiocese decided to rent to the British School, a private school that’s partially financed by the British government and is intended primarily for the children of British citizens who’ve been temporarily assigned to Chicago. “There’s such an outrageous class issue here,” says Fallon. “Saint Gregory’s was built at the turn of the century and then rebuilt after it was destroyed by a fire in the 1930s. It was for working-class people and working-class children whose parents believed in a parish education. It wasn’t built by elites. And now they want to rent it to the sons and daughters of upper-class Brits, who can afford the very expensive tuition they will be charging. It’s appalling. It’s even worse when you think about the history the British government’s had of persecuting Catholics in Ireland for over 500 years.”

In March, Fallon again met with Conway. “I pointed out the ironies here and said that renting to the British School is like rubbing salt in our wounds,” she says. “Bishop Conway told me his great-grandfather was a leader of the Land League in Mayo–that was part of the local movement for land reform and Catholic emancipation–and he was killed in the struggle. I said, ‘What would he think of this?’ Bishop Conway said, ‘He’d be spinning in his grave.’ Then he shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, that’s just the way it’s going to have to be.”

Conway counters that he sees no great irony in the church’s decision to rent to the British School, noting, “The largest single observant community in England is the Roman Catholic Church.”

Unable to persuade the archdiocese to change its plans through private meetings, some of the school parents decided to take their cause to the streets. But the turnout at Holy Name Cathedral was disappointingly small–only 15 or so demonstrators. “Why aren’t the people riled up?” asked Ray Coyle, Fallon’s husband. “Where’s the age of activism? People told us yesterday they’d be here, but they’re not here. It’s perfect weather. What’s the excuse?”

They formed a single-file line as they marched back and forth outside the church chanting, “Save our schools. Save our schools.” One protester’s sign read, “Judas got 30 pieces of silver for Jesus. How much $$ for St. Gregory’s?” Another read, “No British need apply.” The demonstrators also distributed a flyer that read, “It is fundamentally unjust and morally wrong for the Archdiocese of Chicago to rent the St. Gregory school building to the British School.”

The passing pedestrians seemed in a hurry, though one man dressed head to toe in black raised his fist in solidarity. A cameraman from Channel Five filmed the demonstration for a few minutes before dashing away. A Tribune photographer snapped a few shots.

The demonstrators did draw one ally–John Brett, a 73-year-old substitute teacher who lives in Elmhurst. “I heard about the protest on the Irish Hour, a radio show on 1490 AM,” he said. “I think it’s appalling that they would turn the school over to the British School. The British have a long history of taking things over and claiming them as theirs. There’s an old saying that the sun never sets on the British Empire. Well, the reason is that the British can’t be trusted in the dark.”

Brett soon found himself discussing the relative merits of Catholic education with Coyle, who happens to be British. “I was raised in Newcastle, which is in the north,” Coyle said. “I suppose it is very ironic that I am demonstrating here. I mean, I obviously have no great bias against the British. And I have no great fancy for Catholic education–though I think Saint Gregory’s is a great school. It’s just the injustice of it all. The archdiocese is very perfidious. You can’t get an answer from them. They just weasel around.”

He went on, “The whole thing stinks of elitism. It’s the whole class system I despise. It’s the elitist system that has me incensed. Here we have a working-class school that was built in the Depression, and the church is renting it out so it can be used to promote British elitism. The hypocrisy of it all makes me sick. I thought I was rid of all that garbage when I came to the States, but no, it’s following me.”

Eventually Brett and Coyle fell into a discussion about Saint Gregory the Great, the pope for whom the school is named. “He was the one who codified all those Catholic liturgies,” said Coyle. “That’s why they call them Gregorian chants.”

Brett broke into a chant, then translated what he’d sung. “It means, ‘Into your hand, Lord, I commend my spirit.'”

After an hour or so, the demonstration ended. “We’re not giving up, but the low turnout is disappointing,” said Fallon. “We were hoping to embarrass the archdiocese or the British School into dropping out of the school. If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what we’ll do. You feel so powerless at times. It’s all very disenchanting.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.