Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=117073
Story Retrieval Date: 5/19/2013 12:29:54 PM CST
Images of America: Chicago Lawn/Marquette Manor. Kathleen J. Headley
On the eve of the Great Depression, the small hospital at 69th and Washtenaw on Chicago’s Southwest Side was failing.
The neighborhood parish, mostly made up of Lithuanian immigrants, had started building it, but had run out of money and the hospital seemed likely to close.
In 1927, Cardinal Mundelein, the city’s charismatic archbishop, turned to the Sisters of St. Casimir, an order of Lithuanian nuns founded in Pennsylvania two decades earlier, for help. The sisters had moved to Chicago in 1911 and built their motherhouse at Rockwell and Marquette, in the heart of the city’s Lithuanian community and just a few blocks away from the hospital.
The sisters’ primary mission was education, not health care, but they spoke the language and had built good relations with the parishioners. So they took out a loan for a quarter of a million dollars, trained as nurses and administrators, and took over Holy Cross Hospital in 1928.
Today, the Lithuanian community is long gone, replaced by a population that is more than 95 percent Hispanic and African-American. All that remains are a street name – a half-mile stretch of 69th Street called Lithuanian Plaza Court – and Holy Cross Hospital, which is still sponsored by the Sisters of St. Casimir.
Five sisters sit on the board, and one, Dr. Nancy Streitmatter, who converted to Catholicism in 1984 and joined the order, is a cardiologist and director of the intensive care unit. Sister Dolorine, the only Hispanic nun, works in the emergency room as a translator.
“This wasn’t what we set out to do, but this is what God asked of us,” Streitmatter said. “So we’re staying.”
When Chicago’s Lithuanian community began moving to the suburbs in the 1980s, the sisters’ leadership found itself at a crossroads.
“Everything was changing, and we had a real decision to make,” said Sister Margaret Zalot, a Holy Cross board member. “Do we follow the people we originally served? Is our loyalty to the people or to the physical community that we’ve been in all this time?”
There was talk of moving Maria High School to Lemont, which had become a suburban “Little Lithuania.”
But in 1992, the leadership voted to stay. And in the decade and a half since, the sisters have thrown themselves into the community. They still sponsor Holy Cross Hospital and Maria High School, a Catholic school with 300 girls and a 98 percent college acceptance rate.
“Our belief is that when the community around us is stronger, our institutions are stronger and our mission is stronger,” Sister Zalot said.
The order runs a food pantry out of the motherhouse and an adult English language program at Maria High School. Sisters have lobbied in Springfield for affordable housing. Several have learned Spanish. And last month, they attended a prayer vigil for a West Lawn teen who was shot and killed.
And their support of Holy Cross Hospital has been absolute, said Dennis Ryan, the hospital’s vice president of community affairs. The hospital is the only one for almost four miles on the city’s Southwest Side, and has provided increasing amounts of uncompensated care in recent years.
“The sisters have held their hand to the fire to make sure we would be able to stay here and deliver care,” Ryan said. “It’s a very impressive commitment that you don’t see very often.”
Though the face of the community has changed, the sisters said they will continue to keep the promise they made to Cardinal Mundelein more than eight decades ago.
“This is our mission now,” Streitmatter said. “We’re here to stay.”