When Marie Wagner graduated St. Matthias School in 1920, she couldn’t have predicted four generations would follow in her footsteps.
Her grandchildren, Nancy Ortiz and Mary Spina, continued the tradition when they sent their children to be taught in the same building as their great-grandmother.
But St. Matthias is more than a school for this family. Ortiz and her husband, Jose, were married in the parish church and their daughter baptized within its walls. Jose Ortiz is a basketball coach at the school and Mary Spina works part time in the office.
”It’s always continued to be a good school,” Spina said. “Now I think it’s very much a part of Lincoln Square, it’s such a vibrant area that it’s nice everything melds together.”
The family is one of many helping St. Matthias celebrate 125 years of education. To commemorate the anniversary, the school is hosting “A Stitch in Time” gala Feb. 23. The theme honors Saint Matthias, the patron saint of tailors.
Principal Adam Dufault and a group of parents began planning the gala in August. Although the event is primarily a fundraiser for the school, Dufault said he wanted to have a more serious atmosphere with community tie-ins. That’s why they’re hosting it at the DANK Haus rather than the school at 4910 N. Claremont Ave.
The principal hopes to raise about $30,000 through the gala, with funds going toward student scholarships and eliminating the school budget’s operating gap.
“We want to be able to accept children at any economic level, so diversity includes ability, it includes background and it includes financial diversity,” he said.
That diversity is one of the reasons Spina chose the school for her 10-year-old son Jeremy.
St. Matthias is in the process of becoming the first Catholic school in the archdiocese—and one of the first in the nation—to offer the International Baccalaureate program.
The program’s curriculum is constant throughout more than 144 countries and focuses on learning through writing and projects. All 6-8 graders will be automatically enrolled when the two-year application process is complete in 2014, Dufault said.
Former principal Sandria Morten is coordinating the program for St. Matthias and also worked as a teacher at the school. Morten taught Ortiz’s daughter, Taylor, who graduated eighth grade in 2009.
Taylor is now a senior at Lane Tech High School, a selective enrollment school.
“Getting into high school is almost like getting into college nowadays,” Ortiz said. “The teachers coached them really well. (Lane Tech) was harder to get into and they prepared her for that.”
Taylor is also considering a career in education and Ortiz said her decision comes largely from Morten’s mentoring.
And Morten isn’t the only teacher that’s influenced the career of a student. Spina said she was inspired by her math teacher Mrs. Snelson, and worked as an accountant before having her son.
“She was the strictest lady, but was such a good math teacher,” she said. “I remember going into high school and having such an easy time.”
Dufault credits the school’s success to a caring environment and the neighborhood’s younger family demographic.
While St. Matthias hasn’t changed much physically since opening in 1888, the student body has grown immensely. Enrollment is up 90 percent since 2004, Dufault said, with an average growth of 18 students a year since then.
About 330 students attend the school, nearing the 375-person cap. St. Matthias currently has two classrooms in preschool through second grades, and will add another third grade class in the 2013-2014 school year. Registration is open for the school, serving preschool through eighth grade.
For Spina and Ortiz, the constant growth is a reassuring contrast to what they see in the news about Chicago Public Schools. With a teachers’ strike in September and the threat of schools closing, Spina is grateful for a stable environment at St. Matthias.
"I can’t imagine any circumstance where St. Matthias would go through anything similar,” she said. “Whether you’re Catholic or not, you’re taught to be kind to others."