Chicago St. Mary

Chicago St. Mary High School Courtyard
A pink building with tables and chairs in front of it

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The History of Chicago St. Mary’s High School

Chicago (population 2.8 million) is located in northeastern Illinois in eastern Cook County. Lake Michigan, the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers are the main waterways to and from town. Interstates 90, 94, 55, and 57 will all lead you to the “Windy City,” as will numerous rail services and highways with federal and state designations. From what started as a small village in the early 1800’s, Chicago has grown to the nation’s third largest city and one of the most famous places in the world.

St. Mary High School was opened as a all-girls school in 1899 on the near West Side, located near the site of the present-day University of Illinois Medical Center and the Eisenhower Expressway (I-90). Five members of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) were in charge of the school, as 72 girls were enrolled in a rented three-story building at the corner of Taylor & Cypress Streets when the school opened on September 5th, 1899.

A new facility was opened in 1900 on West Grenshaw Street, with wings added in 1903, 1911, & 1924. St. Mary claimed to be the first central Catholic girls’ high school in the US, and was ranked as the largest girls’ Catholic high school for more than a decade. In 1925, there were 600 girls were enrolled, which represented 47 parishes. St. Mary also had a commercial department that began in 1902 as 33 students graduated in the first class in 1903 along with the first class of 18 academic students.

The school continued to educate young ladies well into the 1970’s when a number of changes that had been taking place for some time led to its eventual closing. The Congress Expressway (now known as the Eisenhower Expressway) was built in the ‘50s just north of the school and took away a good amount of houses that were homes to possible students, as did the expansion of the Illinois Medical Center nearby. Also adding to the downfall was a shift in ethnic groups that moved away, replaced by other groups. Through it all, the school kept focus on uniting religion and culture to its students while making secondary education accessible.

St. Mary was also receiving inadequate funding from the Archdiocese of Chicago to address financial needs, including building repairs. The school changed hands from the Sisters of Charity to a private corporation in 1973, which also allowed boys to enroll for the first time in school history. During that time, the school was also referred as the St. Mary Learning Center or St. Mary Center for Learning, and lent itself to be an alternative to the changing needs and population of Chicago’s youth.

However, the enrollment continued to slide dramatically from that point. From having 532 students in 1972-73, the numbers dropped to 420, 200, and 150 in the last three years of the school’s operation. The high point of enrollment in St. Mary history was at 850 in 1966-67.

Following the 1975-76 school year, St. Mary closed its doors as the building was sold to the Illinois Medical Center for expansion purposes in 1977, and razed in the same year.


Year opened:                      1899

New building opened:      1900

Boys admitted:                   1973

Year closed:                       1976

Building razed:                   1977

School nickname:             unknown

School colors:                    Blue & White

School song:                      “The Bells of St. Mary’s”

                                                  Lyrics provided by “Clare”

The bells of St Mary’s
Oh hear they are ringing
To welcome, to cheer us
At work or at play

And we shall go forward
Through life’s pathway singing
We’ll praise your name
And sing your fame
And loyal stay


From what we can tell, it appears the school offered interscholastic athletics while it was an all-girls’ school, according to prep historian Robert Pruter. It may have offered others, and this is where we can use your help if you know. Please contact us at the addresses below.


We are aware that St. Mary was a member of the Catholic High School Girls’ Basketball League from 1927-31, but did not win a conference title. Other schools that competed were St. Catherine (later known as Siena), VisitationLoretto HighLoretto AcademyLongwoodMercySt. XavierAlverniaAquinasEvanston Marywood, and Wilmette Mallickrodt. The conference was broken up by the formation of a new league by the Catholic Youth Organization in 1932.


We do know from our fact-gathering that the school was big on journalism. It’s weekly paper, The Herald, won awards in the 1930’s and ’40’s, while a later version called The Catalyst from 1968-76 played an important role in informing parents, students, and faculty alike. In fact, moderator Sr. Ann Christine Heintz was nominated for the national “Educator of the Year” award by the Chicago Tribune in 1971.

St. Mary also took a step away from traditional school practices in the later part of the 1960’s as the country was going thru a great deal of change. For instance, the school did away with uniforms and the BVM order discarded their habits for a simple dress code, and teacher-student relationships became less formal as both parties were involved in governing the school thru teams that made everyday decisions about the school, including disciplinary actions and hiring of faculty.

Alumni, faculty, and other interested individuals were also part of fund raising for the school. Television star Leonard Nimoy (“Mr. Spock” from Star Trek) even came to the school’s aid by narrating a television special that aired on the NBC affiliate in Chicago (WMAQ-TV) called “If the Mind is Free” to help raise funds for St. Mary. Faculty even took pay cuts as much as 50 percent as well as donating parts of their salaries to help keep the school afloat, and also helped with maintenance duties around the school.

But in the end, it was simply was not enough as increased tuition made it almost impossible for middle and lower income students to attend St. Mary as conditions on the 75-year old building had deteriorated to the point that funds were not available for repairs.

Some of the school’s records are now in the hands of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s library, which includes photos, yearbooks, meeting minutes, gradebooks, and much more.

Other activities had to have been offered to students to enhance their educational experiences, such as chorus, band, dances, and much more. We are hopeful that an alumnus might be able to tell us more about St. Mary extra-curriculars.

Marjhorie Noga added the following memories of St. Mary High School:

“The school colors were blue and white. The school song was titled “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” I don’t recall any sports teams but there was a Drama club. The first yearbook was published in 1968.”


**From Kathy Skinner Frank:

“I went to St.Mary ’60 to ’62 and would have been in the class of ’63. When I was there my last year, I was in academy building in the Peoria room. The board job I had was in the dish room.”

**From Ofelia Flores (Class of 1968):

“I am a graduate of St. Mary High School – May/June 1968. I have memories of the most wonderful Sisters. St. Filibert (music & Business Teacher) is the one that left a great impression in my life of St. Mary.”

**From Nan Brennan:

Adelaide Brennan, 1914-2014

Former nun kept alive memory of her father, who brought order to Chicago’s street system

By Patrick T. Reardon, Special to the Tribune

April 1, 2014

Adelaide Brennan’s father, Edward Brennan, did more than anyone in Chicago history to rationalize the city’s street system.

But she remembered him for spending most of his weekends with her and his other two young daughters, Mary and Agnes, taking trips around the city on the “L”, teaching them how to swim and going to Benediction at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Rogers Park on Sunday afternoons.

“He seemed to have time for the important things,” she said. “There wasn’t a (weekday) night we didn’t run down to the corner to look for him walking home.”

Ms. Brennan, 99, who taught for 36 years in Chicago schools, many of them as a Roman Catholic nun, died of heart failure Thursday, March 27, at St. Joseph Hospital in Chicago, her second cousin Pat Gorman said.

Her father was a building superintendent at a Loop firm who, starting in 1901, successfully lobbied to make State and Madison streets the center point for the street numbering system. He also was influential in eliminating hundreds of duplicate street names and in enacting a variety of other measures to make Chicago one of the easiest cities in the world for finding one’s way.

Edward Brennan, who attended an estimated 600 City Hall meetings in his efforts to straighten Chicago’s streets, died in 1942. For much of their adult lives, his three daughters worked to keep bright the memory of their father and all he accomplished. Their mother, Beatrice, died in 1953.

Agnes Brennan died in 1999, and Mary Brennan McGraw in 2004. So Adelaide Brennan was alone when the capstone of their efforts came with the honorary designation of State and Madison as Edward Brennan Way in August. It was her 99th birthday.

“This tribute today,” she said in a statement at the ceremony, “is the fulfillment of my hopes and dreams for many years and a very special gift for me today.”

Born in 1914, Ms. Brennan entered the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1937 and took the name Sister Mary St. Beatrice, BVM. During her time with the order she obtained a bachelor’s degree from Clarke College (now Clarke University) in Dubuque, Iowa, and she was one of the first women to obtain a degree from the University of Notre Dame, earning a master’s in economics, Gorman said.

From 1950 to 1967 she was on the faculty of St. Mary High School at 2044 W. Grenshaw St. in Chicago, teaching commercial classes including bookkeeping, typing and shorthand.

After leaving the religious order to care for her ailing sisters, she taught disadvantaged teens in the Chicago Public Schools system. Those who knew Ms. Brennan were struck by her serenity and good humor, even in the face of worsening physical ailments. “I tried to let Adelaide know that her impact on me, my family and the lives of all she touched was extremely important to this world,” Gorman said.

Ms. Brennan and her sisters helped their father create a one-of-a-kind historical record — seven thick scrapbooks containing hundreds of newspaper clippings from 1884 to 1942 relating the city’s history, as well as documents and correspondence on the street system.

In 1958 the sisters donated the scrapbooks to the Chicago History Museum, where they have been an important resource for scholars.

Edward Brennan’s lifelong fascination with a rational system of street names and addressing is seen in the scrapbooks he compiled on the subject over several decades,” said Chicago geographer and historian Dennis McClendon.

“These seven volumes provide a unique insight into the system Chicagoans take for granted.”

Ms. Brennan leaves no immediate survivors.

Services were private, and a memorial Mass is being planned.

From Joan Sadek Gacek (class of 1954):

“In my Senior year, we had a magazine drive and got points for selling magazines. These points were like votes given to us to vote for a girl. The prize was a modeling scholarship to Estelle Compton Modeling School on Michigan Avenue. I was not a popular girl because I did not live around or even close to the school. I traveled by streetcar my first year and 3 busses the next 3 years. My mother wanted my to have a good education and St. Mary’s was one of the best girls schools in Chicago. I made many friends at the school.

“I learned this when we had our 50th reunion and was remembered by all. On the day they announced the winner, we had the Four Lads, a very poplar singing group, on stage to give away the $300 scholarship. I was shocked when they announced my name, but overjoyed that I got the most votes.

“I went to modeling school for over a year but learned how to walk, put on make-up and most of all that I did not want to be a model especially after I heard a phone call from someone looking for a girl with the biggest bust. This was not the way I wanted to be known. I often think about the wonderful years at St. Mary’s and proud to be a graduate of this school.

“After I graduated and got my driver’s license, l drove over to Taylor Street to see my old friends. I think they were so glad I remembered them. To this day I follow how I should look and take pride that I was loved by so many. I teased the girls at the reunion that the only way I won was because they felt sorry for me, because the way I looked and dressed and we had a laugh, but they denied that statement.

“I got a wonderful education, and to this day, my kids and grandkids always ask me how to spell a word or a math answer.”

From Dianne Morrissette Caliendo (class of 1963):

I was a student at St. Mary’s from 1959-1963. There were many wonderful drama productions at St. Mary’s. Boys from neighboring schools would take the male parts in the plays. I remember being in the chorus for “South Pacific.” In fact, a recording was made of the play and put onto an LP.

“They also did “The Desk Set.” My father was the custodian at St. Mary’s until he passed away in 1969. He designed the large computer for the play, “The Desk Set,” which showed the computer lights flashing like the original computers of the day.

“I traveled from the southwest border of the city near Archer and Harlem to attend St. Mary’s and went on to attend the University of Illinois, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts. I fondly remember my years at St. Mary’s. There wasn’t a better all-girls’ school in the city.”


We can use all the help we can get here, folks. Please contact us at or by clicking on this CONTACT US link. Or just send it to us at the address listed below. Photos of the school, nickname, words to a school song, any win-loss records of possible athletic teams are welcome. Please contact us at:

Illinois High School Glory Days

6439 North Neva

Chicago, IL  60631

**A newspaper article regarding the Adelaide Brennan’s remarkable father Edward Paul Brennan is available at the following web address:

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