St. Angela principal honored with street sign

When the street sign was unveiled recently to honor Sister Mary Finnegan, principal of St. Angela Elementary School, she was surprised. And not at all upset that the wrong name had been printed on the sign.

“The name, ‘Mary Gonzalez’ was on the sign,” chuckled Alderman Brian Doherty (D-41), a 1971 graduate of St. Angela. “But by the time the ceremony started they got it right. Her students got a good laugh out of it though.”

Ignoring the error, Sister Finnegan was surprised that one mile of Massasoit Avenue, from North Avenue to Division Street, was named after her.

An educator for 48 years, Sister Finnegan began her career as a Sister of Mercy. In grammar school and high school she saw the example that the Sisters of Mercy set as teachers and wanted to follow in their footsteps, she says.

“The Sisters seemed to be pretty sharp and seemed to have a good time and they were good teachers and I thought I could do that,” says Sister Finnegan.

Over the years, she taught at St. Gabriel Elementary School, St. Malachy Elementary School and St. Catherine Siena-St. Lucy Elementary School. She moved on to become principal at St. Joachim and then principal at St. Helena of the Cross. In 1984, she was ready to make a move and interviewed at St. Angela.

Sister Finnegan is still leading St. Angela 25 years later, in spite of the obstacles facing the school. Three years ago, the St. Angela Parish closed, crippling the elementary school spiritually and financially. In addition, St. Angela is located in North Austin, a neighborhood struggling with gangs, crime and illegal drug activity.

Despite these odds, St. Angela students have excelled. This school year, 13 students were Chicago Tribune Book Review authors, 11 students had poetry published in the Anthology of Poetry, 5 students were essay contest winners and three students were DARE contest winners. In addition, one student received the Presidential Award for an outstanding grade point average.

Under the leadership of Sister Finnegan, St. Angela has worked with two Chicago area universities to improve the quality of the students’ education. Starting in 2008, Dominican University students volunteer as after school tutors and this past April, Rush University built a new science lab at the school. For ten years, St. Angela has participated in the Rush University’s Science and Math Excellence Network (SAME), which partners with low-income schools to improve opportunities for students in science and math.  

Yolanda Lewis who has a first and fifth grader at St. Angela, sees the difference the school makes in her children’s lives.

“I have nieces and nephews my daughter’s age, and sometimes when they are all together doing their homework... she’s showing them how do their math." she says. "And my son is learning to read really well. He’s only in the first grade, but he’s reading at a second grade level.”

Another big challenge at St. Angela is tuition. The average parent makes $25,000 a year and 90 percent of the students qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program. With the current economic recession, finding ways to subsidize tuition cost and offset expenses is difficult, Sister Finnegan says.

The school relies on help from the Archdiocese of Chicago, alumni members, and the Big Shoulders Fund, a non-for profit organization that provides support to inner city Catholic Schools.

St. Angela is also a part of the Sharing Parishes group, which links parishes throughout the Chicagoland area in an effort to build relationships and share resources. A collection is taken up and sent to St. Angela School from St. Mary of Vernon in Vernon Hills, and St. Thomas of Villanova in Palatine.

“One word I would use to describe Sister Mary Finnegan is 'compassionate' because while she runs a tight ship, she is always willing to help more families and more kids,"  says Rebecca Lindsay-Ryan, Director of External Affairs at Big Shoulders Fund. “Sister Mary will find a way to make it work and prepares her students for high school and beyond.”

“She is one of the few principals that everybody knows," says parent Melissa Young-Bridgeforth. “I can go to a Girl Scout meeting and tell people my child goes to St. Angela and they ask, ‘Is Sister Mary still there?’ If she wasn’t open and friendly, nobody would be bothered with St. Angela.”

Looking ahead, Sister Finnegan says her goal is to expand the children’s experiences academically and socially.

“I think we are moving in a positive direction. We have an art program, but we can probably do better," she says. "We have gym program, but we can probably do better. We would like to have a debate team, a chess team and we need people that know how to do that and will supervise. We can’t say to someone come and work for us for 15 hours a week and do it voluntarily. If we had the money we could probably do more.”