ROGERS PARK — A portion of the defunct St. Jerome School building is getting a second life as the headquarters of a local — and growing — refugee education nonprofit.
Anticipating an increase in demand for its services, Madonna Mission has moved from a two-room storefront at 7110 N. Sheridan Road to the former school building at 1706 W. Morse Ave.
Madonna Mission, which provides tutoring and other programs for refugee adults and children, has taken over three classrooms and office space in the St. Jerome School building. The group moved to its new building Dec. 1.
Moving to the school building gives Madonna Mission more space to expand its services and puts the nonprofit into a setting more fit for educational purposes, Executive Director Peggy Forbes said.
“We’ve been searching a long time for a new space because we’ve had to turn people away,” Forbes said. “St. Jerome, it just seems like a nice fit. The stars didn’t align until now.”
Madonna Mission was formed in 2011 by Lynn Gordon, a veteran volunteer with Catholic Charities who wanted to do more to help refugees on the Far North Side settle into their new home.
The organization provides English-language lessons to refugee women, and it offers an after-school program and summer program for refugee kids.
In the past five years, enrollment in Madonna Mission’s programs has doubled as Rogers Park and West Ridge increasingly have become the center of refugee life in Chicago, Forbes said.
The growth in enrollment has happened despite the Trump administration slashing the number of refugees admitted into the United States. But admission for refugees is set to increase under the Biden administration, Forbes said, signaling further demand for Madonna Mission’s services.
“We’re at this really great sweet spot,” Forbes said. “We’ll have space to grow and meet higher demand.”
Madonna Mission previously operated out of a two-room storefront on Sheridan Road across from Loyola Park. The space was often cramped, with multiple lessons happening at once.
Programs are virtual during the pandemic. Once organizers are able to resume in-person tutoring, the new school spaces will allow for individual classrooms that will help Madonna Mission divide the kids and moms into groups based on ability level, which will improve the quality of instruction, Forbes said.
Madonna Mission will also have access to St. Jerome’s gym, allowing for year-round physical education and recess in the space, Forbes said.
The new facilities will allow Madonna Mission to double the capacity of its programs, Forbes said. Currently, there are 50 adult clients, 70 kids in the after-school program and 80 in the summer camp.
The nonprofit had been looking for a new space when they turned to a familiar face: St. Jerome’s pastor, Noel Reyes.
Madonna Mission has previously used St. Jerome’s gym for summer camp and special occasions, including a visit from the Chicago Fire soccer team. St. Jerome’s school building has been closed for years, with neighbors fending off a number of charter school proposals for the space.
St. Jerome, which is absorbing a portion of the St. Ignatius parish that is closing, is known for its diverse congregation and community services. Reyes said his parish’s goals are similar to Madonna Mission’s, so it made for a perfect fit for the church campus.
“Their ministry will be a good addition to our community,” he said in a statement. “And I anticipate that the presence of the children they teach will
add a joyful noise, a childlike commotion and an energy-generating atmosphere to the parish campus.”
For more information on Madonna Mission and how to donate, click here.
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