Several people walked into the gothic building anchoring the corner of Oak Park Avenue and Pleasant Street bearing bouquets of roses. One elderly woman, while walking to her car, could barely hold back the tears when asked what the institution meant to her two grandchildren, who were both students there.
After nearly 100 years of last school days, St. Edmund Catholic School in Oak Park held its final one on June 3. In January, the Archdiocese of Chicago's Office of Catholic Schools announced that the Oak Park institution, along with two other schools in the archdiocese, would close after this academic year.
In a message to parishioners shared after the announcement, St. Edmund pastor Father John W. McGivern noted, "Although our enrollment was always smaller than other local Catholic schools, through tuition and fees, and from you, our generous parishioners, we had always been able to meet our financial obligations. This is no longer the case."
But McGivern insisted that he wouldn't consider the school's closing a failure.
"After almost 100 years of Catholic education, we end our mission rejoicing in its century of successes. Financial strength will never be the yardstick we use for our triumphs, especially when it comes to our children and our shared faith."
Last Friday, many of St. Edmund's 109 students and their families, including staff and faculty members, took some time out from busily packing up a pivotal part of their lives to reflect on what will soon be a moment locked in the past.
"Even though this was my first year here, I feel like I've been here forever and that it's my family," said Mekhi Stroger, 14, who lives in Austin and had attended a charter school in Chicago before transferring to St. Edmund.
"Right away, they accepted me," he said. "They were loving, but they were also tough. It's a pretty good school; an amazing school, really."
Stroger's friend, Joshua Harris, 13, had been attending St. Edmund since he was in kindergarten. Both of the students said they'll likely enroll in Catholic high schools in the fall.
"I was a little scared when I arrived here," said Harris. "I was a little hesitant to talk to people, but now I feel like I can talk to anybody in this school with confidence."
Karla Armadillo, 10, said she's been attending the school since she was around 4 years old.
"I feel sad that the school is closing," she said as she and members of her family walked to a car parked outside the school. Armadillo noted that she'll also be attending a Catholic school in the fall.
"One of best memories I have is the ice cream socials and the first field day we had here," she recalled. "It was really cool."
If part of the day felt funereal and somberly reflective, there was also an air of optimism and expectation from both students and faculty members.
"It's been really nice going here," said 10-year-old Ryann Dawson, who lives in Broadview and is looking to attend another Catholic school in the area in the fall. "I met a lot of friends and I really like the school. I think it's going to be a little different, but I'm actually kind of looking forward to [the transition] to my other school."
St. Edmund's principal, Karen Rebhan-Csuk, described the school's final days as a "roller coaster ride" of emotions and responsibilities, but one the school's faculty and staff has handled "with extreme professionalism." She said that, as of last Friday, all but three of the school's 10 full-time and four part-time teachers had been placed at other schools within the archdiocese.
"We met with the archdiocese early once the announcement to close was made and they worked with giving our teachers, and other teachers at closing schools within the archdiocese, first priority to jobs that were available," said Rebhan-Csuk, who had just completed her first year at St. Edmund.
The archdiocese, she said, has always referred many St. Edmund students to other Catholic schools in the area. In a recent interview, McGivern said that no future plans for the school building have been finalized.