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Hail Alvernia



Doe Coover was planning to spend her weekend hanging wallpaper in the dining room when her sister phoned Boston with the news.

After 65 years, Alvernia--the Catholic high school for girls on Lawndale Avenue just south of Irving Park Road--was shutting down because of declining enrollment. That Sunday, May 7, there would be a gathering at the school to bid it good-bye.

"I called my travel agent right away," says Coover. "There was no way I'd miss this. I know it's hard to explain. It has to do with growing up Catholic in Chicago. I went to Alvernia from 1965 to 1969--the turmoil years. We were teenagers, we were going through the trauma of adolescence. And Alvernia, it was like an anchor. I had to attend this farewell, if only to see the old school one more time before it dies."

Coover stands in one of the school's classrooms surrounded by women--most of them graduates from the class of 1969. All told, the reunion's organizers figure about 1,500 or 2,000 people have including nuns and graduates frothe first class in 1924. The crowd at the front door is so large it takes two or three minutes to wind your way in.

Over in the corner of the room, Sister Alphonsine, principal from '62 to '67, explains that the school's name comes from Mount Alverno in Italy--where Saint Francis of Assisi stood when he received the stigmata. The school's motto remains: "For it is in giving that we receive."

"We knew the end was coming," Sister Alphonsine says. "When I was principal, we had a teacher in sociology who did a study of the school's area. We could see the demographic changes. People were moving to the suburbs. The neighborhood was getting older. There weren't as many children. Last year's senior class was less than 100. All together, we've graduated more than 12,000 girls."

She's interrupted by a big commotion. A woman named Judy has entered the room. Judging by the shrieks, hugs, and giggles that greet her, she must have been pretty popular in her school days. In tow is her teenage daughter. The daughter hangs her head, looking awkward and dismally out of place--as do the three or four men (husbands? lovers? brothers?) who quietly stand in a corner.

"A bunch of us got together for our own little reunion last night at the Marriott," Coover continues. "Afterwards, we cruised the school at midnight. We looked up our old haunts. There used to be this restaurant down the street on Irving. It was called the Huddle. You could go in and have fries and a Coke. And smoke cigarettes. That's where all Alvernia girls smoked their first cigarette. Oh well.

"Mostly on Saturday night we talked; we just talked. We talked about kids and husbands and miscarriages and divorce and breast cancer and Oil Camay and dorky girls back in the 60s--do you know what I mean? I mean, I haven't seen these people in 20 years, and we could just talk.

"I'm in publishing and many of them are nurses and teachers, but it was like 20 years hadn't passed. We could just start over where we left off. I've seen reunions in the east. You go to a reunion at Harvard or Yale and the people are networking. But this reunion was about friendship. This was about girls I hadn't seen in 20 years."

In the front office, a few of the nuns sell old trophies, yearbooks, and other mementos. The music sheet for "Hail Alvernia," the school's official anthem (words and music by Stanford Espedal), sells for one dollar.

A couple of women buy a copy and--embarrassed not a bit--break into song.

"Student years pass quickly / Our school days soon are through / But they will live as we remember / The happiest days we knew..."

Watching them is Sister Vitalis, a frail, almost tiny woman who taught English at Alvernia for 35 years. For the last 10 years, she has been a school administrator.

"I saw the school enrollment drop," Sister Vitalis says. "I saw tremendous change. Our students used to come from very stable homes. Their fathers worked, their mothers didn't. But in the last 20 years, it was very unstable. There were broken families. The school building will be used for various social agencies and smaller schools. But it was the broken families that did Alvernia in."

What were your students' favorite books? she's asked.

"Shakespeare," she replies. "The students loved Shakespeare."

As Sister Vitalis moves on, Chicago Police Sergeant Cindy Grimaldi, class of 1960, steps forward.

"I hated Shakespeare," Grimaldi admits. "But I never gave the nuns any trouble. No one gave the nuns trouble. The big thing for us was rolling up our skirts.

"No kidding. We had to have our skirts well below our knees, and on the way to school we liked to roll them up. Once in school, we made sure they were the right length. We weren't the kind of kids who lipped off. I can't remember any discipline problems. The nuns never had to hit or punish us. We were girls; girls are different than boys. Boys make trouble for nuns. Nuns have to spank little boys. Our biggest sin was smoking cigarettes. There would be 37 of us sitting in the restaurant on Irving Park sharing one cigarette."

In the auditorium, the glee club rehearses for the mass that will follow. The singers fill the first 12 rows of the middle aisle. It's sort of an all-star glee club of the ages--a curious blend of layered cuts and tinted gray hair--all the singers that Sister Bernadette Luecker (class of '55), the conductor, could muster for the mass.

Sister Bernadette Luecker stands before the singers, baton in hand, pianist and first violinist to her side. She's serious, almost grim.

We will start with soprano one, she says. Their first selection for practice: "Eternal Life."

And then Sister Bernadette Luecker leads the sopranos, seated in the first two rows, singing from their sheet music: "The spirit of the Lord will lead us / Lord make me an instrument of thy peace / Where hate, sow love / When hurt, pardon."

It's a little ragged, and Sister Bernadette Luecker frowns. OK, she says, let's hear the altos. But the altos aren't listening. They're chatting. Sister Bernadette Luecker taps her baton against the music stand.

"Ladies, ladies," she says. "Let's have quiet. Shhh."

Then the altos make their run through, followed by the second sopranos, and finally Sister Bernadette Luecker is ready to bring the group together as a whole. They will sing as a glee club, a total movement.

She nods to the piano player; the violinist kicks in. Suddenly, the group has new life. Even the pianist gets spunky, kicking out her elbows with flair. The voices rise, Sister Bernadette Luecker's baton cuts through the air. Together they reach for the high note--"The Lord Bless You and Keep You"--and take it.

Sister Bernadette Luecker drops her baton. She smiles. Perfect. It's the glee club from Alvernia High, cranking it up one last time. Just like in the old days.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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