Austin reclaims a sacred space

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

Go back to the 1960s, and I do, Catholic girls in Oak Park and River Forest had two choices if their parents were determined to send them to a parochial high school, and mine did so choose. 

One sister picked Siena High School at Washington and Central. The other went to Trinity in River Forest. Siena, no knock on either sister, I've got to live with these two, was seen as the more academically challenging. Trinity, in that moment, had a rep as more of a social/finishing school. My Trinity sister did not go the finishing school route, choosing instead to sign up with the convent straight out of high school. She'll have 50 years in next year. The Siena grad went on to college and then a career as a public school teacher.

A couple of weeks ago on the editorial page we wrote about what happened in the Austin neighborhood when racial change swept the West Side in the 1960s, into the early 1970s. Almost all the white people left in a rush. And many of the institutions that bound that neighborhood over the decades collapsed or decamped in short order. 

Just 15 years after spending a reported $1 million on a striking glass-faced expansion of its building to house its peak in enrollment, Siena, with its 85 years of history, was gone, its building sold to the Chicago Public School system in 1973. Then CPS was gone within a year or two.

The Siena expansion included a 1,000-seat auditorium. I remember sitting twice in that auditorium trying to pick out my sister Mary from a seeming cast of thousands as they performed Oklahoma one year and Brigadoon the other. 

I hadn't been in that space again until a couple of years ago. Not many people had. Over many decades and changing uses of the building, the auditorium wing of Siena had been mothballed, used for storage, a nesting place for birds. 

But the trio of Austin born and focused nonprofits — Circle Urban Ministries, Catalyst Circle Rock School, and Rock of Our Salvation Church — which had melded into shared use of the venerable building had big plans for the space.

The past two years have been spent simplifying and clarifying the ownership of the property among the entities, stripping down the space while developing architectural plans for restoration and raising donations to launch the $4 million project. 

Last Thursday morning was the groundbreaking as hundreds of Austin's leaders, parents, church members, Oak Park supporters and the grade school's Sistema Ravinia   Orchestra — the largest African-American elementary school orchestra in the nation, I'm told — gathered in the about-to-be-reborn auditorium.

It was an uplift and affirmation to each person fortunate enough to have attended.

The orchestra is a wonder. Now here's a partnership. The Ravinia Festival has actively supported this school with 15 to 20 music teachers per week, $200,000 annually, for a decade. And these kids get better each time I hear them perform. There are the farmers from Kearney, Nebraska who have been coming every February for 35 years to continue to restore the building. Their early years were spent installing new plumbing after all the copper pipe was looted out of the basically abandoned building decades back. There were generous donors, the church pastor, the school principal. 

And there was Lonni Kehrein, who with her late husband Glen, founded Circle Urban Ministries 45 years ago with a goal of fostering racial reconciliation in Austin. It was in 1995 that the two founded Circle Rock Prep School at Washington and Central. Nineteen kindergarten kids, 18 black and a white kid from Africa, she said. It has all grown, with rocks and tumbles in the path, from that start. The auditorium, it was announced that morning, will be named the Kehrein Center for the Arts. 

The West Side is blessed and it is littered with fabulous sanctuaries of century-old churches. But it is a rare thing to find a glorious auditorium. And, promise the trio of non-profits, this auditorium is not just for them but for all of Austin. It is open for all manner of community-building events from concerts to graduations to speakers. 

Ambitiously — and why not be ambitious? — the new arts center will be finished this year. Maybe the school's Christmas pageant on Dec. 6 will be the first performance on this stage since Brigadoon vanished into its Scottish mist. There are hints of a show-stopping, Broadway star-fused benefit concert early in 2019. And, yes, the Sistema Ravinia orchestra will perform.

Building a community takes time. Especially following the rupture of racial change that untethered Austin from its history a half-century back. But new and deep roots grow strong in this proud African-American neighborhood. 

Contact:
Email: dhaley@wjinc.com Twitter: @OPEditor

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