A family affair at Maria High School

Elizabeth, Mary, Katie, Ellen, Stephanie, Annette. And then came little sister Genevieve Roland, who followed quite a legacy at Maria High School.

One of 15 kids and the youngest girl of seven, Genevieve holds the distinction of being the last Roland girl to attend Maria in Chicago Lawn.

As she finishes her senior year this year, she’s the end of a high school dynasty, which has lasted almost 22 years.

“You always know the Rolands are in town,” says 17-year-old Genevieve. “When someone graduates, we always take up four rows of bleachers.”

Maria High School will say goodbye to the Roland family when Genevieve graduates in June.

Genevieve says she's cherished the experience, and never felt lost among her siblings.

“They were my best cheerleaders and my closest friends,” Genevieve says of her sisters.

A school that draws seven sisters is rare, even in the Chicago Archdiocese, which has seen its fair share of large Catholic families, says Superintendent Sister M. Paul McCaughey.

It used to be more typical in the 1960s when Catholic families were larger, but now it’s quite rare. Today, even five kids going to the same school would be considered unusual, she says.

“It has happened before, but it’s not common now,” McCaughey says. “It certainly shows a commitment to quality Catholic education."

Elizabeth Roland, matriarch of the Roland family, says there was never any doubt that she and her husband, Lawrence, a chemist at Safety Kleen, would have a large family.

Also, they agreed to send their kids to single-sex, Catholic schools, which they thought would focus them on academics more than popularity and vanity.

They expected the kids to pay their own way through school with scholarships, after school work and financial aid.

Genevieve was no exception. She’s won scholarships, including the Anne Burke Scholarship, which pays for senior year tuition, costing about $6,400, and she’s worked while in school.

“We had to keep up our grades up to keep the scholarships,” Genevieve says. “I worked at a real estate company after school and weekends for about 20 hours a week.”

James Goehmann, who’s taught advanced math at the school for about 25 years, instructed a number of Rolands in his time. He says they always rose to the top of the class.

“They all have different personalities, but they are all easy going,” Goehmann says. “They are all serious about their studies but not obsessed about it. They were driven to succeed, but it was not a source of anxiety like it can be for other students.”

Sharing the spotlight with your sister isn’t always easy, says Stephanie Roland, who was a senior when Genevieve was a freshman and her sister Annette was a junior. 

“Sometimes, teachers would say, ‘Why isn’t she like you?’ and I didn’t mind, I can always use a compliment,” says Stephanie, who was the valedictorian of her class, student class vice president and is now at Northwestern University in Evanston on full scholarship.

Not having sisters Stephanie and Annette around in school causes Genevieve mixed emotions, she says. She misses their support and company, especially during the long bus rides home, but likes her independence at the same time.

“I miss walking down the hall and not seeing them there, but it’s enjoyable too because I have to do things all on my own and I can test my abilities,” Genevieve says.

Sister Margaret Zalot has been there from the beginning, teaching the oldest Roland offspring, Elizabeth, 35, who is now a major in the U.S. Air Force.

At the time, she didn’t know Elizabeth would be a long line of Roland girls, but she figured that out with the second youngest girl, Mary.

Zalot got a glimpse of Mary’s financial aid form, which required all the names of siblings.

“When there wasn’t enough room for all the kids on the financial aid form, I thought, ‘Oh, now that’s a big family,’” Zalot says. 

Through the years, Zalot progressed from science teacher to school president to president emeritus.

All the while, she’s watched the girls excel as the family produced salutatorians, valedictorians, student body class presidents and vice presidents, captains of varsity teams, scholarship winners and sports stars.

Zalot says it's sad to see Genevieve go, but she’s hopeful that it’s not the end of the Rolands for Maria High School.

“We will definitely miss them being around,” Zalot says. “But who knows? Genevieve says she wants to be a teacher, so maybe we’ll get one back one day.”