Sister Stephanie Baliga, of the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, stands in a roomful of Christmas presents Dec. 7, 2018, awaiting volunteers to load them into a truck for a Christmas party for the needy. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune)
By Mary Schmich, Contact Reporter, Chicago Tribune
“You gotta see these shoes,” Sister Stephanie Baliga said.
In the frigid afternoon on Friday, she maneuvered past the bags of toys that crowded the old schoolroom. She reached into a big, brown box and pulled out a sneaker decorated in pink, blue, green and orange frogs.
“They’re psychedelic girls’ shoes that if I weren’t a nun I’d be wearing myself,” she said.
As it was, Sister Stephanie, who is 30, was wearing sandals, with socks, under her long brown clerical robe. The psychedelic shoes were gifts for the girls who would attend Saturday’s Christmas party here at Mission of Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago.
The mission sits on what Sister Stephanie and her community call “hallowed ground,” though if you were to stand out front on West Iowa Street and look across North Avers Avenue — toward a boarded-up building and a vacant lot — you wouldn’t easily guess why.
It was here that on a December day 60 years ago a fire broke out in Our Lady of the Angels School. Ninety-two students and three nuns died.
It was here that almost half a century later, a priest named Father Bob Lombardo arrived to establish a mission on the garbage-strewn site in a neighborhood that had known better times.
There are now 10 Franciscans in the community he founded, eight women and two men. A friend of mine who has met some of the sisters describes them as a “bunch of young, funny, hard-charging nuns kicking ass.”
Sister Stephanie, as she’s known, laughs at the description. What’s dead serious is the fact that little by little, through the generosity of donors, this little band of Franciscans has restored the old church and surrounding buildings, creating a social-service oasis in a neighborhood short on everything.
Sister Stephanie Baliga, of Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, and volunteer Donna Morrone lug coffee and chocolate on Dec. 7, 2018, for a Christmas party. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune)
Kids come for tutoring. Senior citizens come for exercise and computer classes. A thousand families a month are fed by the food pantry.
And every Christmas for the past decade, people come for a party. A hundred came to the first one. A thousand were expected this year.
“It is the craziest day of the year for us,” said Sister Stephanie, who in addition to her duties as the mission’s maintenance manager is the chief party wrangler.
On the day after Thanksgiving, neighbors lined up early to get tickets for the event. It didn’t matter that the mission is Catholic and most of the neighbors are Baptist. Christmas is Christmas, and for at least a few partygoers, it’s the most Christmas they get.
Sister Stephanie remembers a previous party when she saw a 5-year-old boy race into the toy room in search of a football.
“In this crazy world we live in,” she said, “all he wanted was a football.”
Watching him, she knew she was doing what she ought to be doing with her life.
As a student at the University of Illinois, Stephanie Baliga had been an accomplished long-distance runner. She still runs. She and another sister ran this year’s Chicago Marathon to raise money for the mission. But she hurt her foot in college, which changed her life.
“Being a professional runner isn’t going to work out,” she recalls thinking. “So what is my life going to be?”
She said this as we walked into the school that had been built to replace the school that burned down. No longer a school, it’s under renovation as part of the mission’s compound. In recent days, it has been the storage space for the Christmas party.
Sister Stephanie pointed to a mound of new sheet sets, noting that bedding is a popular gift.
“There are a lot of bed bug problems in the neighborhood,” she said.
Not all the gifts were so practical. There were dolls and basketballs, games of many kinds, something for all ages and tastes.
On Saturday, 400 party volunteers would show up. Among them would be at least a couple of survivors of the 1958 fire.
“As Catholics we live at the intersection of the past, the present and the future,” Sister Stephanie said.
It’s a belief she would carry anywhere, but this hallowed ground on Chicago’s West Side makes the thought more profound.
All over the city this time of year, people extend themselves a little more than usual for other people. The party at Mission of Our Lady of the Angels is just one example. I asked Sister Stephanie what she’d like for readers of this story to walk away and think about.
Standing on the hallowed land, she crossed her arms and reflected for a moment. Then she said:
“A lot of people are looking to other people for solutions to the crazy world we live in, pointing fingers. But we’ve all been called to do something for others. Everyone needs to pray about what to do. And to do it.”