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A parade of the Holy Rosary Society in front of the first church at St. Florian in Hegewisch from the late 1920's.
This photo inspired a journalist to write an article on St. Florian.

The Sisters at St. Florian in Hegewisch

The Franciscan Sisters of Chicago have a long history in the ministry of education as many Sisters in their Congregation served in schools across the Chicago area and several states across the United States. One of the earliest schools where the Sisters taught was St. Florian in Hegewisch, a community in Chicago located on the south side of the city. They served there between 1908 and 1989. Hegewisch was originally part of Hyde Park Township but was later incorporated into Chicago in 1889. It was home to many steel mills which lured many Polish immigrants to take up residence there and work at these mills.


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Recently, an old photo from St. Florian was shared on the Sisters’ official Facebook page. This photo depicted a parade of the Holy Rosary Society in front of St. Florian Church from approximately the late 1920’s. It received some attention among St. Florian parishioners and also former students of the school. One of the people that saw this photo online was a man named Gerard Dupczak. Mr. Dupczak is a volunteer journalist with the Hegewisch Times, and writes historical and genealogy articles about Hegewisch. Thus, this photo piqued his interest. “I saw this photo from the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago archives that someone posted on Facebook. I decided to contact them to get material for a historical article I wanted to write on St. Florian. The Franciscan Sisters of Chicago were in Hegewisch for 80 plus years, thus many of the residents had contact with them and went to school at St. Florian,” Mr. Dupzak said.

Gerard Dupczak

Mr. Dupczak went to St. Florian as well throughout his childhood. “I attended St. Florian starting with kindergarten all the way through 8th grade graduation. I am still friends with some of my classmates. We were  all together for those nine years. It’s not unusual for us to retell stories about our time there, even though we all know those stories.” Mr. Dupczak grew up in Hegewisch and lived there for 47 years and is third generation as his grandparents moved to Hegewisch in the early 1900’s. “My mother’s parents were married at St. Florian in 1911 and my parents were married there in 1944.” He has wonderful memories of growing up in Hegewisch and spending his summers going to the park and playing sandlot baseball games every day. “Hegewisch was its own little town, kind of like Mayberry. There were places to shop: food stores, clothing stores, bakeries, and more. You could walk anywhere at any time. I used to ride my bike almost every day for hours and never leave the town.”


Mr. Dupczak has always had an interest in history, especially of his home community Hegewisch. “The community of Hegewisch has a fascinating history. For me, it always had a small town, hometown feel. Everyone seemed to know everybody else. My father liked to tell me stories about things he experienced growing up in Hegewisch. He’d point out some spot and tell me about what happened there or what the building used to be. Writing my articles allows me to share those stories.” Mr. Dupczak met with Sister Jeanne Marie Toriskie to discuss the history of St. Florian and do research for his article. Sister Jeanne Marie was principal at St. Florian from 1984 to 1989 and was able to give him information for his article. After gathering research on St. Florian, he wrote the article and it was published in the Hegewisch Times. He has allowed us to share this article (printed in full) below. Many thanks to Mr. Dupczak for spending time with us and sharing his article!

How Did We Get Here?
by Gerard Dupczak, Hegewisch Times (hegtimes.com)

The Sisters of St. Florian School

Full disclosure—I attended St. Florian School from 1962 until 1971.
 

Hegewisch had four main schools during its history. I wrote about Henry Clay School in September 2016. Stories about Virgil Grissom and St. Columba may be forthcoming. The other major school was St. Florian. According to a history of St. Florian prepared for its 25th anniversary celebration, Polish immigrants were in the area of Hegewisch at least by 1884, right after the founding of the town. They were lacking funds to establish their own church but were committed to starting their own parish by 1902. Father Florian Chodniewicz was appointed to organize the parish honoring his namesake. A small wooden church was built in 1905, soon to be followed by a four-story school building in 1908. (Today that school building is known as Konsowski Hall. The wooden church was razed in the 1960s.) Construction of a combined church and school began in August 1927. This building is still in service as Christ Our Light Parish. The value that the Polish immigrants in Hegewisch placed on education is evident by the erection of a permanent school building before a permanent church. From the 25th anniversary book: “The Catholic parish school is without a doubt our pride and joy here in America. Our school and churches are the refuge and basis of our existence and our strength.” From almost the very beginning St. Florian School was served by the Franciscan Sisters of Blessed Kunegunda (the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago's original Congregation name).

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Front view of St. Florian Church and School

Mother Mary Theresa Dudzik


Josephine Dudzik was born in Plocicz, Poland. Her family immigrated to Chicago in 1881, settling near St. Stanislaus Kostka Church on the city’s Northwest Side. St. Stanislaus Kostka is known as the “Mother Church” for Poles in Chicago. St. Florian in Hegewisch, being one of the “Polish Cathedrals” in Chicago, can trace its roots to that church. Dudzik, following the advice of the pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka, took the name Sister Mary Theresa and formed the religious community of the Franciscan Sisters of Blessed Kunegunda in 1894. The Franciscan Sisters were dedicated to serving in various ministries: care of the elderly and sick; childcare centers; teaching in elementary and secondary schools and universities; pastoral care; and social service work, including sheltering victims of domestic violence. Today the order is known as the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago, with their motherhouse in Lemont, Ill.

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Sr. Martha Bywalec with students at St. Florian (1914).

The Sisters Arrive at St. Florian

The persistent pleas by Fr. Chodniewicz persuaded the head of the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago, Mother M. Vincent Czyzewski, in 1908 to send four from the Order, along with a postulant. Sister M. Colette Nowak was the superior and principal. Sr. M. Chester Dziarnowski, Sr. M. Boniface Pranke, and Sr. M. Barbara Grochola assisted her; the postulant was Sr. M. Antoinette Jasinski, who later became Sr. M. Agnella. Three hundred sixty children were enrolled in grades two through six when St. Florian School opened. Lacking a convent, the Sisters used three classrooms in the school building as their residence.

By 1922 enrollment was up to 585 students. The increasing number of students required more Sisters to staff the school. The 25th anniversary book boasts that about 1,000 students were in attendance by 1933. In that year, there were 20 Sisters, including Mother Superior Mary Antonina. They had been given what was formerly the rectory, a building they called “Noah’s Ark,” to be their
convent. They utilized that convent until 1963.

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Original St. Florian convent, aka “Noah’s Ark,” located on the
site where the current school/convent building stands at the
corner of 131st and Baltimore.

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(Seated) Sr. Gerarda and Mother M. Antonina. (Standing) Srs. Melanie, Emmanuel and Ludmilla.

After the tragic death of Fr. Chodniewicz, Rev. Vincent Nowicki was appointed pastor. He quickly acquired land north of the school that included a small Lutheran church. (That congregation moved to 132nd and Burley, today known as Trinity Lutheran Church.) The small church building functioned as additional classroom space until the present church/school structure was finished in 1928. Sisters were needed. A shortage of space in “Noah’s Ark” forced some of the Sisters to use two classrooms in the new school as their sleeping quarters.


Father Nowicki was replaced by Father Francis Kulinski in 1934. He worked to start a two-year commercial high school located in the original grade school building. Sr. Theophane Rakowski was the first teacher of a class of 27 students. Class size grew until World War II when the high school closed in 1943. Financial problems plagued the school. The Great Depression, which began in 1929, brought tough times to Hegewisch. Many residents had to either cut back on expenses or move to find jobs. Enrollment declined drastically. Father Kulinski requested to Mother M. Antonina that one of the Sisters on the staff teach without a monthly stipend. The school had only 392 students enrolled.

The end of World War II began the “baby boom” and enrollment began to rise again. A youth center with classrooms and a gymnasium was erected beginning in March 1952 and was dedicated in June 1954. Five hundred sixty children were enrolled. Father Kulinski died in 1963 and was replaced by Father Chester Konsowski. “Noah’s Ark” was torn down and ground was broken for a new school and convent in 1965. While the new complex was being built, the Sisters again utilized the original school building as their convent. Lacking separate rooms, they hung sheets between their beds in the open classrooms for privacy. The gymnasium building and the school/convent complex remain today, although no longer in use. Enrollment in 1971 was at 795 students.

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St. Florian Faculty, 1966. (Sitting) Srs. Electa, Theresine, Loretta, Crescentine, Antonia, Innocentine, and Edna.(Row 2) Rev. Konsowski, lay teacher, Sr. David, lay teacher, Sr. Dominic Marie, lay teacher, and Rev. Norman Kunz.(Row 3) Sr. Theodore Marie, lay teacher, Sr. Doloria, lay teacher, and Sr. Juanita Marie.

Sister Jeanne Marie Toriskie was the 21st and last Sister to serve as school principal while the Order was at St. Florian. I had the opportunity to speak with her for this article. She explained a typical school day for the Sisters began with prayers and Mass. They would then attend to the students, after which they would grade papers and prepare lesson plans. A community meal was followed by some recreation time. Originally the Sisters may have had only a high school education themselves. The Order attracted a lot of women who were from Poland or were of Polish descent. Women of other ethnicities would join. Higher education for those Sisters was difficult to obtain. Sister Jeanne Marie said that the Sisters were educated according to state requirements for teaching positions. Some states demanded a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, while others looked for a master’s degree; some states had lesser requirements. The Sisters would take a few courses a year but would work up to what was needed to continue in education. Sometimes that would take as much as eight to 10 years. (Sister Jeanne Marie has a doctorate.)

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Sr. Jeanne Marie Toriskie was the last Sister to be principal at St. Florian.

Many Sisters came and went, and some came again and went again, over the tenure of the Order at St. Florian. Their numbers ebbed and flowed according to student attendance. Sister Jeanne Marie became principal in 1984 when the school had a little less than 300 students. Through her efforts, which included a nursery school for three-year-old children, two preschool classes for age 4, and two full-time kindergarten classes for age 5, enrollment increased slightly. She also brought the use of computers into the school curriculum. Unfortunately, many Catholic schools began to experience declining enrollment, and St. Florian was no exception. It was announced in April 1989 that the Franciscan Order of Chicago would be withdrawn from service at the end of the school year. Sister Jeanne Marie said that a number of factors played into the decision by the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago to withdraw. Many Sisters were in their retirement years. Declining interest in choosing the church as a vocation brought about shortages. Lack of new vocations meant fewer Sisters to fill teaching positions. Only three Sisters, including Sister Jeanne Marie, remained at St. Florian. Critically, the parish was struggling financially. The steel mills, which had provided employment for the community for many years, were closing. Families had to make serious choices on spending their dwindling resources. The outcome was inevitable. Eighty-one years of dedicated service had to come to an end.

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