One week after St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy School closed for two days due to bone-chilling, subzero temps, Principal Marion Cypser warmed up her office with ice-breaking chit-chat.
For 37 years the unassuming, compassionate and shrewdly creative Mercy sister has been the rainmaking, miracle-working tour-de-force responsible for keeping the student body of the mostly black, largely non-Catholic kids and on the archdiocesan map, in spite of numerous parochial school closings elsewhere.
Nestled behind the church at Washington and Austin boulevards in Oak Park is the grammar school that opened in 1906. Today it instructs about 250 students.
"2014 is the 125th anniversary of our school and church," Cypser said. "Throughout the year we will have a lot of activities, including a dinner dance, an alumnae get-together, an alumnae Mass, an open house, tours, a memorial brick garden. So there is a lot of work to do."
A time to reflect
In 1974, when the St. Catherine of Siena and St. Lucy parishes merged, a new school emerged. St. Catherine's had been predominantly white; St. Lucy's was predominantly black. Cypser recalls that when she arrived (1978), it was a rocky, rough time. The white children who had been attending St. Catherine were mainly in the upper grades.
Since then, St. Catherine-St. Lucy School has attracted primarily African-Americans from the Austin community.
"I have never been successful in re-integrating the school after the white parishioners left," Sr. Cypser says. "I just settled that this is the way it is going to be. So we are an anomaly. I do not think this is the way this school should be, and in a perfect world even our parents would love a multicultural school, so I am looking for a successful model to see how someone else has succeeded in this, but we have been unsuccessful in doing that as of yet."
The bulk of her career in education has been spent at this one address, but she says, "I think we have the normal learning curve every other school has. We have some very bright children, some who struggle, and I recruit as many volunteer tutors as I can for them."
Currently, she has six adult volunteers, including Fran Sullivan, Oak Park resident and longtime congregant of the church who tutors students in reading and social studies.
"Sister Cypser is an unsung hero," Sullivan says, "and it is just a joy to watch her at work. I often say to my friends that a lot of business leaders could take lessons from her style of management with her [limited] resources. I never knew how she managed to do it all."
When asked how well her school is doing, Cypser crows that academically, her students excel, and in any given year, 90 percent of them go on to attend Catholic high schools.
"Last year we had 12 students enrolled at Fenwick, and those 12 were on the honor roll, which says something about the caliber of children we have at our school," Cypser says.
Assisting her in this educational enterprise is a staff of 35, of whom 10 are long-tenured teachers, including Gloria Haywood, who has led the preschool program for 37 years — and was one of Cypser's first hires.
"When I first started here it was predominantly Caucasian. And then the student population switched like overnight," says Haywood, whose three sons graduated from the school. "Really, I can say this: With the change, the parents were still the same, the teachers were still the same, the only change I saw was race. People are people. Everything flowed; that's what I liked about it."
Two schools, resurrected
Sister Cypser's career as a grammar school principal started at a school in Chicago, at the age of 27.
"The principal had resigned at Little Flower School [formerly located at 80th and Paulina], and it was a bad situation," she recalls. "It was a totally white neighborhood that became African American overnight because of the real estate."
However, over that summer, the co-principals rebuilt the school's enrollment from zero to 600 for the start of the next school year.
Cypser carried on for two more years.
Due to that impressive accomplishment, in 1978 the pastor at St. Catherine–St. Lucy recruited her when his principal left to enter the Sisters of Mercy cloister, and he had no one to fill that chair and contend with the troubled situation the parish school was becoming.
"The place was in terrible disarray. There was no enrollment. No structure. Nothing," Cypser says. "I was thinking I would stay here for a couple of years, get it together, and then I would leave. But, here I am 37 years later."
Overall, Cypser says, her biggest hurdle has been acquiring funds for supplies, technology and infrastructure upgrades, as well as the scholarship fund.
Currently, the majority of those needs is met by the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Big Shoulders fund, a program that provides support to Catholic schools in the neediest areas of inner-city Chicago. The school also counts on the generosity of private donors and other supporters, who step up to help meet the $4,000 tuition and other needs.
Something that continues to impact her school, she says, are the five charter schools that popped up on the West Side of Chicago, all within a mile from them, about six years ago. St. Catherine-St. Lucy School took an enrollment hit of over 100 children in one year, she says.
"I think we were at 90 students at one point, and we have gradually built it up to about 245 or so," she says.
And she's kept things steady. Some of her admirers contend that the school is solvent because her leadership style is decisive.
"Sister Cypser is good at recruiting and retaining good teachers, and she is a tremendous manager of money. ... She knows how to raise money and spend it well. It's undeniable that this is her calling in life," says Bill Cragg, a longtime congregant, former District 200 school board president and a volunteer math tutor for 14 years.
Born in Baltimore, Md., Sister Cypser arrived in Chicago at age 10, and has been a resident of Oak Park for 30 years, residing with three "nunmates."
"When I entered at age 17, we were told what to do. Now, for the most part, we decide what we are going to do within certain guidelines," she says, adding that the typical age of new nuns now is 40-50, rather than young women although they are welcome too.
She only wore a habit for two years.
"Imagine 8 yards of serge wrapped around you in 115-degree weather, and trying to do something. It impeded us in doing our job."
The longtime educator, who holds two master's degrees and has completed advanced work in finance, gives Pope Francis an enthusiastic two thumbs way up. She supports the advocacy of other women religious to advance the role of women in the Catholic Church, but she's also realistic.
"The way I deal with it is that I don't think about it a lot [because] I work as a principal here with very few constraints. When I go to Mass or to meetings, though, I do feel the constraints because the priests are number one, and we are number two or three or somewhere down the line. That is gradually, gradually, slowly, slowly changing, and change will be a long time in coming."
The 68-year-old's mark on parochial school education has been recognized, with numerous awards received over her decades of service.
Last year, Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-7th) recognized her accomplishments by presenting her with a public education award. The congressman, she says, is a frequent visitor to the school, especially during Black History Month. A couple of years ago, she recalls how the 75-year-old got down on his knees to illustrate how "as a child I picked cotton, his parents picked cotton, and they were proud cotton-pickers, and now I am a congressman, but I did pick cotton, and I was proud to do that because I did it well," Cypser recalls.
Likewise, she swells with pride when she talks about why after 51 years she is still a nun.
"There are challenges every day, just like there are challenges in everyone's life. You just deal with them, and pray for strength, courage and whatever else."