Chicago, part 2: The mystery of the missing Madonna

The author, standing in front of the former Immaculata High School on Chicago’s North Side. A statue of the Madonna is missing from the building. Photo by Tim Burnett

During a recent visit to my hometown of Chicago, I decided to visit my high school on the north side of the city. The Immaculata was a Catholic girls high school operated by the the order of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and closed in 1981.

But as I posed in front of the gates for the above photo, my husband remarked that something was missing. The concave carving right above the doors had probably housed a statue, he remarked.

I looked and said, “yes, the Virgin Mary is missing.” What happened to her?

[1] What the stone carving looked like before the statue was removed. This file comes from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)C.

The BVM nuns ran and taught at the school from its inception in 1921 til it closed in 1981, just two years after I graduated in 1979. I have fond memories of the school, which was a real melting pot of races and ethnicities. I remember going to school with girls from various heritages: African American, European-American, Cuban, Slavic, Italian and others. In its latest incarnation, the school has gone on to celebrate diversity: it is now an Islamic College.

I attended from 1975 to 1979. The nuns were mostly fair and not the stereotypical horrors that you might hear about in Catholic school stories. We even had a celebrity: Sister Joan Newhart, the sister of comedian actor Bob Newhart. We always said Sr. Newhart had the dry familiar wit of her brother. I recall the time I told her I needed to run to my locker because I’d left Hamlet in there. “Well, hurry and let him out!” she cried.

Like many parochial high schools, lay teachers — some male — taught, too. I had Mr. Korn for homeroom and Mr. McGrath for Biology. I admit I had a huge crush on Mr. McGrath, but I probably wasn’t the only one. With few male teachers at the school, and hundreds of girls with hormones running high, crushes were expected.

Not expected was anyone ever removing the figure of the Virgin.

The Outer Drive

Home base for my recent trip was the Hyatt Regency Chicago, at Wacker between Michigan and Columbus. It was well-located to Chicago’s famous public transportation system. A block away from the bus line, it made sense to hop on a northbound bus instead of calling a cab, Uber or Lyft.

I remembered how I got to school from the city’s South Side and what bus lines I took (the Jeffery Express #6 to the Sheridan Express #151), but I didn’t want to stop at every stop between downtown and the North Side. Plus I wanted to show off lovely Lake Michigan to my husband, who had never been to the city . So, I had two choices, the #146 Inner Drive or the #147 Outer Drive.

Amy Irving as Gillian, right, walking along a Chicago beach near in a clip from the movie “The Fury.” Video still from IMDB.com

The Outer Drive is the section of Lake Shore Drive closest to the lake. It’s a beautiful drive along the shore and shows the beaches, walking paths and the marina. It is featured in several movies, but for me, memorably in the horror movie “The Fury,” starring ’70s “It” girl, Amy Irving.

The Inner Drive faces the Outer Drive, but is a little farther away from the lake.

So of course I picked the #147, soaking up the beautiful scenery that is Chicago’s Lake Michigan, but forgetting that this bus overshoots the stop for my high school. We rode a little farther on, to Foster Ave., where we hopped off and caught the #146 back to Irving Park Road and Marine Drive.

[2] The building looks remarkably the same as this 1965 image shot from the southwest. The only differences arethe lack of a wrought iron fence, and come of course, the Madonna. This file comes from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS).

Hopping off the bus, I noticed that the school remarkably looked the same. The same reddish-brown brick and paving stone walkways. The same steps leading up to the main entrance of the school, which was apart from the entrance that led to the auditorium, where the statue was. We couldn’t go inside because it was 4 p.m. on a Saturday and the office was closed.

A sign said to ring the door for entrance and I didn’t remember having to do that as a high school girl. I wondered if its identity as an Islamic College had posed problems. I did notice the neighborhood bus riders appeared to be primarily of Middle Eastern ancestry, apart from me and my husband. In the past, Chicago could be a very polarizing city for minority groups, as I mention in part one of this Chicago series, but I don’t know first-hand how the college or students have been treated.

The Madonna is found!

When I got home, I did some digging and discovered that the statue of the Virgin is safe and on display at her birthplace in Park Ridge, Ill. But she made a long stop along the way before arriving at her final destination.

The 11-foot-tall Virgin was created by the sculptor Alfonso Iannelli in Park Ridge, Illinois, who did work for celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentice, Barry Byne. According to the Kalo Foundation/Iannelli Heritage Center, Iannelli was “best known for his sculptural sprites in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Midway Gardens project.” But he also created works for several buildings in Illinois, as well as many works outside of the state, including Christ the King Church in Tulsa, Okla. in 1923.

The not-for-profit Kalo Foundation was founded in Park Ridge, Iannelli’s stomping grounds. According to the foundation website, Iannelli “was an instrumental force in bringing about the modernist design movement in Chicago.”

A video about the Madonna, “The Journey of Immaculata High School’s Madonna” is located at the Kalo Foundation’s YouTube page. The video describes the statue’s journey, with interviews from several Immaculata alumae who worked to preserve not only the statue, but first the building itself.

When the high school was closing and the building was about to be sold, community members worked to get Immaculata on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. This was done to ensure the building would not be torn down.

But according to a video interview of aluma Toni Sons Kibort, who said she was on the board of the Landmarks Preservation Council at the time, the buyers of Immaculata received permission to remove the Madonna. The buyers were the Islamic College, and, as Sons Kibort explained in he video, the Islamic religion does not allow icons.

The statue was removed and was sent to the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago. Whether the nuns thought the Madonna would be displayed is unknown, but it sat in storage for more than 30 years.

It was moved back to Park Ridge and Iannelli’s former studio at 255 N Northwest Hwy in 2014. Park Ridge is a western suburb of Chicago, so I plan to visit whenever I return. Hours are Saturday from 10–3 and by appointment by calling 847–792–1970.

If you visit, you may meet Judy Barclay, co-president of the Kalo Foundation and owner and operator of Iannelli Heritage Center. An aluma of Immaculata, she is also featured on the Kalo video and is a self-professed fan of the sculptor.

In a phone interview, she told a great story about the installation of the Madonna and her facial expression. Apparently, her original expression was brighter, happier.

“Story has it that they assembled it (in three pieces) and put it all together, and Mother Superior said, ‘no this is not acceptable. The Blessed Virgin does not have a smile. She is serene.’ So Ianelli had to get back up the scaffold and fix the mouth.”

Barclay referred to the book “Alfonso Iannelli: Modern by Design” written by David Jameson, as a great source for all things Iannelli.

As an aluma, I’m glad the Virgin has found her way back home. So is aluma Beverly Avery, who is intereviewed in the video.

“I think that the statue is an awesome legacy that was left to us. It’s back in the public where it should be,” she said. “I think it’s a good place, it’s her home.”

copyright credits

[1]: Historic American Buildings Survey HABS ILL,16-CHIG,73–2

[2] Historic American Buildings Survey HABS ILL,16-CHIG,73–1.tif

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Yvette Walker of the Positively Joy podcast

Walker is the host of Positively Joy, a multicultural podcast that takes a mostly Christian look at the search for light in all seasons. www.positivelyjoy.com