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Together, We Are Tolton

A letter to the editor from the pastor of St. Columbanus Church

Jenna Johnson

In mid-April, the Weekly published a story on the closure of St. Columbanus School, a Catholic institution in Park Manor. The pastor of the St. Columbanus parish, Matt O’Donnell, wrote this response.

St. Columbanus Catholic Church has been serving the community of Park Manor since 1909—impacting thousands of families through the many ministries of the parish. One ministry that makes me most proud as pastor is our ministry of education. Educating the children of our neighborhood has been a consistent ministry since the founding of our parish. In 2015, St. Columbanus School and St. Dorothy School merged to create Augustus Tolton Catholic Academy. This merger has not been easy and it has caused many emotions within our community.

When the announcement came, many believed that St. Columbanus School would no longer exist. Anger, frustration, sadness, and uncertainty became common among students, families, and alumni. St. Columbanus School’s motto was “Good, Better, Best. Never let it rest. Until the good is better and the better is best.” As a school community, we lived by this motto. The students, faculty, leadership, and alumni worked tirelessly to make the school its very best.

Sadly, as enrollment declined and expenses increased, it became a critical moment in the life of St. Columbanus School. The pastor of St. Dorothy and I began to meet to dream up ways we could ensure that the ministry of Catholic education would continue in Park Manor and Chatham. With that goal in mind, Tolton Academy was born.

Tolton Academy isn’t just a rebranding of St. Columbanus School or a repackaging of what was. Tolton Academy is an innovative learning community focused on preparing scholars for the demands of the twenty-first century. I am convinced that at Tolton Academy, we are, as our new motto states, “Streaming Traditions and Creating Futures.”

We took the very best of St. Columbanus and St. Dorothy Schools to create the foundation of Tolton Academy. What makes Tolton Academy unique is the “S.T.R.E.A.M.” curriculum—it is the only school in Chicago with a unique focus on science, technology, religion, engineering, arts, and math. That sets us apart.

The school is named after Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first Black priest ordained in the United States. Tolton was born into slavery, faced discrimination and racism, and, in the face of extreme opposition, was ordained in 1886. Tolton arrived in Chicago in 1889 and in 1891 founded St. Monica Church. He is a great model for our scholars—and all children—because he teaches that when God has a plan for your life, nothing will stand in the way of its fulfillment. We remind our students that they are called to be scholars and saints. We believe in our mission of academically preparing our students to live in a world they can transform through working for justice and sharing love.

Although St. Columbanus School is closed, the creation of Tolton Academy promises to provide new opportunities for our scholars. Tolton Academy students and families come from over twenty-five ZIP codes across Chicago and its suburbs.

We are a community of dreamers who believe that God has great things in store for each student. We are beginning the work of becoming a one-to-one learning device community. This summer we will build a new playground that also includes an outdoor classroom. Our partnerships with artists and scientists inspire our scholars daily.

One thing remains constant: Students have entered through the doors of our school building for 108 years. In yesteryear, they walked under the banner of St. Columbanus School. Today, the scholars look up and see the name Augustus Tolton Catholic Academy. Our doors remain open. Our mission of education continues. Together, we are Tolton.

Fr. Matt O’Donnell has been the pastor of St. Columbanus Parish and Augustus Tolton Catholic Academy for four years. He can be reached at frmatt@stcolumbanus.org. To donate to the Parish and School’s GoFundMe Campaign to help with the projects in the works visit: https://www.gofundme.com/st-c-help.

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