Loretto Academy and The Institute of the Blessed Virgin (Mary) is a picturesque four-and-a-half-story building, with a three-and-a-half story addition, situated in Chicago’s Woodlawn community and a short distance west of historic Jackson Park. The area was known locally as “Carmelite Way,” with several former and present Catholic institutions including The Shrine and Institute of Christ the King (originally St. Clara Church and School and later St. Clara–St. Cyril, then St. Gelasius), Mount Carmel High School and the affiliation with this once prominent school for girls.
After the school closed in the early 1970s, the Loretto Academy building served a variety of uses and has witnessed changes in ownership. It is currently vacant and falling into disrepair.
Established by the Sisters of Loretto, a Roman Catholic religious community of uncloistered women dedicated to both faith and education. The Sisters of Loretto was founded in 1609 by an Englishwoman named Mary Ward (1585-1645). The order of the Loretto Sisters and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM) experienced tremendous growth over time. Their first school in the United States, St. Mary’s Academy, was established in Joliet, Illinois in 1880 as an extension of the Order and their work in Toronto, Canada. The community and order is now part of a worldwide organization seeking greater justice and peace, and it operates literacy and counseling programs and an estimated 150 schools worldwide, including many in the United States. Mother Teresa, now known as St. Teresa of Calcutta, was also part of this order of nuns in India from 1928 to 1950 before starting the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta.
At the invitation of the Carmelite priests of nearby Mount Carmel High School, a private Catholic school for boys, the Loretto Sisters were asked in 1905 to establish and construct a school for girls at this site in Woodlawn in 1905. It opened as a four-year high school in August 1906. This school, with an affiliation in part to nearby St. Cyril Church, also a Carmelite Church, became formally known as the Loretto Academy of the Immaculate Conception in Woodlawn-Chicago. The same order had established a similar school, known as Loretto Academy of Our Lady of Good Council, in the nearby Englewood community in 1893, in a former school building in the St. Bernard parish, to also serve girls in that community. Both were called Loretto Academy, for short, which often lead to some confusion. Later the Englewood branch changed its name to Loretto High School.
By the mid-1950s, both schools became noted for embracing African-American women into its student body without any racial quotas, as this was not a common practice with other nearby education institutions. This idea separated the school from others in the vicinity, especially when Woodlawn was experiencing large racial changes in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. The Sisters of Loretto were also very active in Civil Rights marches in Chicago and in the South, fighting against discrimination and advocating for equality for all.
The two Loretto schools were later merged into other institutions as population in the community declined and continued to change from multi-cultural, white ethnic and mixed race to predominately African American. This was also followed by decades of disinvestment in the community. The building was sold to the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation (WCDC), the development arm of The Woodlawn Organization, and repurposed for a variety of uses since the school’s closing, including a social service building and a church affiliated with Metropolitan Church. As a non-profit, WCDC does not pay property taxes on the building.
While owners and uses have changed over the past four decades, the building has been vacant and mothballed in recent years. In addition, vandals have removed much of the patinated copper cornice and fascia of the upper facades. Large blue tarps were stretched over the high gabled mansard roofs over the last couple of years, and these have become shredded over time. While the building appears secure, we are concerned that water infiltration from a leaking roof may be contributing to further deterioration of the building.
This remarkable building should be considered for a reuse by another institution or as residential housing. The community is in need of permanent, affordable housing, and its close proximity to several transportation lines makes it an ideal location for such a use. It could also be used in tandem with Mount Carmel High School, as it is situated across the street from Mount Carmel’s Athletic Fields on 65th Street and a short distance to Stony Island Avenue and nearby Jackson Park.
The former Loretto Academy Building is currently owned by Reverend Leon Finney of the Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church located in the Bronzeville community. Reverend Finney is also the long-time president of The Woodlawn Organization and the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation.