Closing of Catholic Girls School Symbolic of Shrinking Nun Population | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Closing of Catholic Girls School Symbolic of Shrinking Nun Population

The driving force behind the Notre Dame High School for Girls is a woman named Sister Bridget. But when Notre Dame on Chicago's Northwest Side opened for school this month, she wasn't at the helm. The shrinking numbers of nuns across the nation has forced the school to close and relocate under new management. Sister Bridget and the order of nuns who've kept it going for 71 years are trying to adjust to this new reality.

Sister Mary Bridget Murphy looks resigned. She's in the school library,  glancing at nearly empty shelves. She spots a few left-over yearbooks and carefully sorts them. They chronicle the last several decades of life at Notre Dame High School for Girls.

SISTER MURPHY: It has meant everything to me for the last 22 years. It's been my life, it's been my life of educating these young women, of caring for them.

Sister Murphy graduated from here more than 50 years ago, then returned, first as principal, then as president.

SISTER MURPHY: I'm feeling lost. At the same time, I'm feeling that we did everything we possibly could have done, to keep the place going.

ambi: packing boxes

Volunteers from Bookfriends International are packing the books the school doesn't need anymore. They'll be taking them to other schools in Africa.

VOLUNTEERS: Dick, these books are practically brand new. Marvelous.
This is a blessing for those schools in Africa...Yes, indeed it is a blessing.
Sad for this school, and a blessing for those...

Sister Murphy' s order has been dedicated to the mission of education since Saint Julie Billiart started the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in France in the early 1800s.

Now Murphy – known as Sister Bridget – is helping close the building down. She's figuring out where the statues go, and who gets the stained glass window of the Virgin Mary.

SISTER MURPHY: Why thank you all for all your work....

The Sisters opened the Chicago school in 1938. It had a strong academic reputation and a college-bound rate of 98 percent. But enrollment kept dropping from a high of nearly 1,500 girls to 218.

Sister Marilyn Kerber says that was partly due to higher tuition.

SISTER KERBER: Families could not afford the tuition, and of course, the tuition kept increasing as the number of sisters who were able to teach in the school declined.

The number of nuns went from about 25 in the '70s, to just Sister Bridget last year. Sister Kerber says the school had to hire lay teachers to replace them, and that cost money. She heads the order's Ohio province and is a Notre Dame grad herself.

SISTER KERBER: Every year, we had to raise between $1.2 and 1.5 million just to make budget. It just became impossible to continue to raise that kind of money year after year after year. We're amazed we could do it for 5 years.

So Sister Kerber says the order made the difficult decision to close the school and sell the building. There's no buyer yet. She says the sale will help pay for a health center for sick and elderly nuns.

SISTER KERBER: For many, many years sisters worked without any salary whatsoever. And so there was no opportunity for us to save for retirement. We had thought that there would be many newer members coming who would be working and help to support the elders, but that's not exactly the way it's turned out.

Sisters Kerber and Murphy are both in their sixties now. They've watched the number of nuns drop nationally from nearly 180,000 in the '60s, to about 60,000 today. That's according to stats from Georgetown University.

Sister Kerber thinks she knows why the numbers are shrinking.

SISTER KERBER: We're not as visible to women today because of our numbers, because we're smaller, but I do believe God is still calling women to religious life. I think we just need to do a better job of getting ourselves known.

That way of life may not appeal to as many women today. But a former Notre Dame student, Jane Strzyzynski, says losing the nuns in school may mean losing a unique source of strength for young women. She says attending Notre Dame transformed her.

STRZYZYNSKI: I was never afraid to answer incorrectly because a boy was watching. They talked to me as a real person, not just as a child. I went in kind of stumbling, didn't know where I belonged. By the time I walked out, I knew where I belonged, and I saw that with my daughters.

Students and nuns were relieved when the Archdiocese of Chicago agreed to take over the girls' school. The new Notre Dame moved a few blocks away and is sharing space with St. Ferdinand Parish School. But Strzyzynski has mixed feelings that it's the Archdiocese running things, not the Sisters.

STRZYZYNSKI: St. Ferdinand's will have teachers, and they'll have...everything will go on except the pride these nuns brought to that school, how they carried themselves, how they got involved, how they selflessly gave of themselves.

For the next few months, Sister Bridget's staying on at the school as a consultant before she figures out what's next for her.

MURPHY: I'm hoping that it will soon be over. I have a lot to clean out, there's a lot of stress going on right now, so I'm hoping it will soon be over, and I'll be able to settle in my new home and relax.

But on the first day of school, she modeled the same strength and spirit she's passed along to so many of her students. She showed up to greet the girls, and wish them luck.

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