For 88 years now, nearly 200 friars have rolled up their sleeves to help make Fenwick a beacon of light and hope.
By Father Jim Marchionda, O.P.
Dominican friar Father James Dominic Kavanaugh “worked all day long with the housecleaning brigade, putting his hand to any task that presented itself with a good will and cheerfulness that were an inspiration in themselves.” – from the Rosary Convent Annals of October 5, 1922
Years before Fenwick High School first opened its doors nearly 88 years ago, Dominican friars flourished in a multitude of ways throughout the developing western suburbs of Chicago. Dominicans have made major contributions and significant differences in the lives of countless high school and college students, parents of students, members of their own Dominican Family, and thousands upon thousands of parishioners in the villages of Oak Park, River Forest and beyond, for close to 100 years.
The opening quote above, referring to the dirty, dusty and dramatic opening days of Rosary College (now Dominican University) in River Forest, Illinois, established by our beloved Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, demonstrates the meaning, joy and power of collaboration that has existed between Dominican women and men for centuries. Fr. Kavanaugh, then chaplain at the Sinsinawa Mound (located near Dubuque, Iowa), came to Chicago with the sisters, rolled up his sleeves, got down on his hands and knees and did whatever work was necessary in preparation for the opening of Rosary College in 1922. For eight full days, he helped wherever and however he could. All those many years ago, Fr. Kavanaugh already resembled the brave, bold words that our own Pope Francis has used to describe and define anew how priests, bishops and all ecclesial leaders can best serve the church of today. “Roll up your sleeves and get to work!” (Pope Francis interview: “A Big Heart Open to God”)
Advancing the spirit of Dominican collaboration on the West side of Chicago, friars served as chaplains at both Rosary College and Trinity High School for many years. Residing at the Dominican House of Studies on the corner of Harlem Avenue and Division Street in River Forest, friars provided great spiritual formation to both men and women. It was in the early 1920s that Cardinal Mundelein gave the Dominican Friars permission to build the House of Studies on the condition that they also found a high school in the archdiocese. We are well-aware of the great grandeur that followed. On September 9, 1929, 11 Dominican priests opened wide Fenwick’s doors to 200 students, leading to the first graduating class of 1932. By 1936, a mere seven years later, Fenwick won its First Catholic League football championship. It did not take long for the Fenwick Friars to flex their cumulative muscles, demonstrating their great aptitude for sports, while at the same time raising the bar for the decades that followed!
Build and Rebuild
Even before Fenwick’s doors opened, other dynamic Dominicans such as Fr. Kavanaugh were making their own marks on the West side. Cardinal Mundelein granted the Dominican Order a unique privilege by giving it permission to establish a parish to serve the territories of North River Forest and South Elmwood Park. The Order assumed complete responsibility for financing, developing and maintaining the proposed parish of St. Vincent Ferrer, named after the Dominican known as the “Patron of Builders.” Fr. John Dooley, O.P., who was appointed pastor in 1923, purchased the full square block which encompasses the present church, school, former convent and priory building for approximately $33,000. The Dominicans would go on building for years to come, and doing so boldly, a trait and tradition we observe to this very day, not only at St. Vincent Ferrer’s recent ground-breaking ceremony to begin construction of the new “Fr. Michael Kyte, O.P.” Social Hall, but just as courageously so at Fenwick, through its Centennial Capital Campaign, stepping-up to the school’s need for new, improved facilities to serve the student friars of the future.
Throughout this near-century history of the Order’s vibrant presence on the West Side, Dominican values have definitely had an influence on society. Such energy, coupled with deep insight and the creative vision required to address the signs and needs of the times, is what led to the establishment of today’s renowned and highly-revered Fenwick High School in the first place. It is what continues to define Fenwick today and tells an inspiring story of collaboration between Dominican men, women and laity, a tale in which we can all take pride.
A critical cornerstone of collaboration throughout the entirety of Fenwick’s acclaimed history is the dynamic relationship that has existed between the school and the Chicago-based Dominican Province of St. Albert the Great, headquartered at 1910 South Ashland Avenue. At its inception, Fenwick was established by the Eastern Dominican Province of St. Joseph, which had already constructed the Priory and House of Studies in River Forest, now, the Dominican University Priory Campus and home to 14 acres of Fenwick practice and playing fields. The Eastern Province’s vision that birthed Fenwick and the responsibility for its success and growth towards the future was transferred to the Central (Chicago) Province friars at its own establishment in 1939. I am proud to say that the relationship between Fenwick and the Province has been mutually enriching ever since.
The Province of St. Albert the Great takes great pride in its ownership of one of the most celebrated Catholic high schools in the entire United States. The province is extremely grateful, not only to the long list of friars who have ministered at Fenwick throughout its history, but also to the lay staff and faculty who have contributed equally so, through their own dedication and areas of expertise, to the great success and renown of the school. For our part, the province claims a faithful near-90-year history of having sent many of its best and brightest Dominicans to teach and administrate at the school. As committed to Fenwick today as it was all those years ago, the province is prepared to continue doing so for the next 90 years!
Names You May Know!
Consider the names of Fenwick’s impressive list of former friar principals and presidents: Fathers Leo Gainor, Jordan Baeszler, William Fincel, John Kelleher, Daniel VanRooy, Gordon Walter, John O’Connell, Thomas Cumiskey, Andrew Kolzow, Gerald McGreevy, William Bernacki, Robert Botthof, Daniel Davis, Richard LaPata, dePorres Durham, and current President, Richard Peddicord. No wonder Fenwick has maintained the highest quality among Catholic high schools in the country – look at its leaders!
Over the course of these nine decades, 196 friars have served the ministry at Fenwick, representing roughly 2,000 total “friar years” among them. In these brief pages, I cannot name all the friars who have so faithfully served Fenwick, but, I am happy that every one of them are, in fact, listed in the main hallway just outside the school’s chapel. Although I do not wish to slight any of the friars who have served in Fenwick’s esteemed history, names that I recognize from my own 50 years in the Order come to mind: Joseph Hren, Malachy Dooley, Jordan McGrath, John Gambro, Nick Ashenbrenner, Angelo Della Penta, John Gerlach, Carlos Griego, James Motl, Dana Osdiek, Ferrer Pieper, Benjamin Russell, Tom Poulsen, Walter O’Connell, John Schwind, Peter Witchousky and Paul Whittington. Of special note are the names of Fenwick graduates who entered the Order of Preachers themselves: Kevin O’Rourke, Joseph Bidwill, David Hynous, Richard LaPata, Jack O’Malley, Ed Riley, Al Judy and Fran Dyer. Today, the friars currently serving with Fr. Peddicord are Mike Winkels, Joseph Trout, Paul Byrd, Douglas Greer, Nick Monco, Dennis Woerter and Richard LaPata. Each of these brothers possesses a profound dedication to Fenwick, demonstrating that they, too, believe in this ministry with all their hearts!
An important reality not to be missed is that the friars listed above, and hundreds more, serve to reinforce the rich connection between Fenwick High School and the Dominican Province of St. Albert the Great. Together, we represent both a ‘mission of unity’ and a ‘unity of mission’ – a mission of preaching the word of God in what we say and in how we live. That all of us working together are passing on the Dominican charism to so many thousands of young men and women, is a sign that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is alive and well and flourishing on the West side of Chicago! Alongside other friar ministries of significance in the area and the important work of our Dominican Sisters, Fenwick High School continues to be a beacon of light not only for itself, but for any with whom it comes into contact. If truth be told, Fenwick not only impacts Oak Park, but has made a major difference in the United States, as well as in other parts of the world.
The Province of St. Albert the Great wishes to express its sincere gratitude for a depth of collaboration with Fenwick and its Board of Directors – a collaboration which is foundational to Fenwick’s beacon of light. As stated earlier, the province has been proud to assign many of our brightest and best friars to the school for close to 90 years. As together we approach the school’s first century mark and look beyond, the province does so with the same level of commitment it has shown since Fenwick’s beginnings. May God, who has begun this great work among all of us, see it to its completion and well into the future!