Mission of Our Lady of the Angels Plans $1M Renovation
By Jess Lynk
At the corner of Iowa and Avers in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park neighborhood, the site of one of the most horrific fires in city history, something beautiful is underway.
A white piece of paper taped to the side of the brick building humbly invites visitors inside: “Welcome to Our Lady of the Angels Food Pantry.”
Guests enter a dining room where they can enjoy coffee and baked goods. Once their number is called – by a nun with a megaphone – they walk into a hallway lined with stacks of bread and a bounty of produce that includes green beans, potatoes, apples, grapefruit, squash and more.
On the opposite side of the building, newly renovated rooms with gleaming floors and empty shelves provide a glimpse of what’s to come.
Recently, Our Lady of the Angels community members commemorated the 60 year anniversary of the devastating fire that took the lives of 92 children and three nuns. Although the community recalled memories of the past, the sisters at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels turned their sights forward to a $1 million project that includes a new pantry, kitchen and volunteer facilities. The new pantry opens in late January.
“We all live past, present, future here,” said Sister Stephanie Baliga, 30. “We live with this understanding: living in the now, but the past is with us and the future is coming. I can feel this culmination of this sense of eternity at the ground of the school. It’s a beautiful place to be to be helping others out.”
The Mission of Our Lady of the Angels is one of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s 700 partner agencies. The Food Depository provides the Mission with fresh produce and non-perishables for their Tuesday pantry. Every first Saturday of the month, the Mission hosts a Producemobile, providing the community with fresh fruits and vegetables.
A piece of the past
Few people know the story of Our Lady of the Angels as well as Angela Schreiner, who handed out pastries and coffee on a recent Tuesday morning at the pantry.
Schreiner, 74, went to school at the location of the pantry. She graduated in 1958, six months before the deadly fire.
Two years after the fire, the school was rebuilt. But the impact of the tragedy still resonates today, Schreiner said.
“A lot of people left the community after the fire,” Schreiner said. “The fire changed the community, even though no one wanted to talk about it. The memories of the fire left people heartbroken — even today.”
Schreiner took over the pantry in 2000 after the Catholic school closed.
At the time, the pantry resided in Kelly Hall, a building constructed in memory of the victims of the fire.
“No matter what, we kept it going and that is the important thing,” Schreiner said. “I always felt good about that because there is such a need in this community and there has always been such a need.”
In 2005, Father Bob Lombardo came to the community to build a mission. He noticed that Schreiner was distributing out of Kelly Hall, which was “a tad run down.”
“There was no heat or running water,” Schreiner said. “The pantry was horrible compared to what it is now.”
In 2014, Schreiner had emergency brain surgery. Her sister called Baliga, who started with the Mission in 2010, from the hospital.
“I guess that was a sign it was time for others to take over,” Schreiner said. “I still volunteer every week, because my mother taught us that whatever you have, you give back.”
When the Mission took over the pantry in 2014, it served 250 families a month. Today, the pantry feeds about 1,000.
“We have grown a lot in both buildings and number and scope, since I have been here,” Baliga said. “We weren’t as well connected with the neighborhood because there weren’t as many of us and we weren’t doing as much. Now, we are very connected with our neighborhood at this point and our presence is known.”
One of those families is the Cody family.
Lisa Cody started visiting the pantry a year ago, after a car accident. The accident left her disabled. Now, she also cares for her five grandchildren. Coming to the pantry is vital, Cody said.
“Access to meat, milk and eggs helps me immensely, especially living on disability,” said Cody, 59. “You leave this pantry with a full cart of groceries. It is so incredible to come here and feel valued.”
Cody has lived in the neighborhood her whole life.
“To see the impact this pantry has had on our community, it is just moving,” Cody said.
Cassandra Wells, 54, sat with her daughter Debrianna, 29, and her granddaughter Xaria, just 3 months old, as they waited for their number to be called. Debrianna Wells had recently lost her diaper bag, which contained her food assistance card through the Women, Infants and Children program.
Until the card can be replaced, it’s yet another challenge for a family struggling to pay bills, including rent, heat, light and car payments, the elder Wells said.
“Even working, it’s hard to buy food,” said Cassandra Wells, who works for a healthcare company.
The food pantry has helped keep them afloat in recent months, the mother and daughter said. And they were impressed by the kindness and good humor of the nuns.
“It’s nothing like in ‘Sister Act,’ I can say that,” said Debrianna, smiling, referencing the 1992 comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg.
In the shadow of the 60th anniversary of the fire, the food pantry is undergoing a $1 million dollar renovation.
“It is going to change everything,” Baliga said.
The renovation involves putting in a 24-by-24 foot walk-in fridge and freezer, creating a dock for food delivery and more room for food storage. Baliga said the expansion will allow for the pantry to accept more donations then they do now.
The project also includes residential facilities for 60 volunteers to accommodate helpers from schools and other parishes.
“We unfortunately have had to turn away food in the past because we just don’t have the capacity for it,” Baliga said. “But this will transform the way we receive and store food.”
Beyond that, Baliga said they spend a lot of time moving and reorganizing food because it is stored in a variety of areas. The renovations will centralize their operations and allow for the Mission to focus their resources on other programming.
“We are trying to integrate nutrition education in the pantry experience,” Baliga said. “It is going to be like Costco in here. We are going to have samples for people to try. If someone says they don’t know how to make squash, we will show them.”
For more information on the renovation project, visit the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels website.