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July 5, 2009

Nuns mark 150 years here

By Patrick Butler


In 1859, the Civil War was less than two years away; Amherst and Williams colleges played the first intercollegiate baseball game; the Virgin Mary had appeared at Lourdes the year before; James Duggan becomes Chicago’s bishop; strikebuster and sleeping car magnate George Pullman moves here from New York state.

And four Sisters of the Good Shepherd arrived in Chicago from St. Louis to build a home for destitute girls and women near what would become the Cabrini-Green housing project.

The new building burned to the ground in August before the nuns and their 12 girls ever had a chance to move in. The sisters took in sewing and laundry and within a year moved into another building destroyed during the 1871 Chicago Fire.

Here to stay, the order began marking its 150th anniversary in Chicago with a Mass of thanksgiving celebrated by Cardinal George in May. The next sesquicentennial event was a June dinner for the House of the Good Shepherd’s women’s board; a late July celebration for residents and 24 staff workers; and an open house at the end of the year for friends and benefactors.

Over the years, the Good Shepherd sisters changed their ministry with the times while never forgetting their mission to help impoverished, troubled women, said Sister Dorothy, head of the Chicago community. A July 1978, newspaper story notes that the sisters cared for more than 30,000 people during their first 119 years of service to Chicago.

Sometimes the neighbors weren’t all that happy. According to Suellen Hoy in “Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago’s Past,” white residents and even some clergy were furious in 1912 when the Good Shepherd nuns opened the Illinois Technical School for Colored Girls in an upscale South Side neighborhood. Again, the nuns stayed, with 18 sisters caring for 110 girls between six and 16 until the school closed in 1953.

On the other hand, help has come from a variety of sources, ranging from Mrs. Potter Palmer, as in Palmer House, to Eunice and Jean Kennedy, sisters of President John F. Kennedy to Al Capone, who used to drop by the convent now and then to leave the nuns $1,000 gifts. According to one story, the nuns learned their anonymous benefactor’s identity from a bishop who had come by to pick up some vestments the sisters made just as Big Al was leaving.

Once the home to as many as 200 girls and women and 40 nuns, the North Side House of the Good Shepherd worked with recovering alcoholics, drug addicts and prostitutes, homeless women, and girls from either dysfunctional families or no families at all until 1980 when the old 1907 campus was razed and replaced with one of Chicago’s first facilities for battered women and children. Since then, more than 4,500 mothers and their children have gone through the program, Sister Dorothy said.

“There were a number of factors involved. A shift in thinking that adolescents might be better served in foster homes or smaller settings, a change in government funding, and an awareness of the need for services for victims of domestic violence. They were responding to the needs of the times,” Sister Dorothy added.