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End of an era for Catholic nuns at Bronzeville church

Corpus Christi Catholic Church parishioner Jason Stapleton with Sisters Ann Rubly and Marilyn Freking and Stapleton's wife, Ivy, and daughter, Aria. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

“We’re going to miss them,” said Jason Stapleton, 38, a parishioner at Corpus Christi Catholic Church. After Mass, he chatted with Sisters Ann Rubly (left) and Marilyn Freking, alongside his wife, Ivy, and toddler daughter, Aria. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

A mass celebrating the retirement of two Catholic nuns Sunday at a church in Bronzeville capped a decades-old pipeline that transported dozens of Iowa farm girls to do God’s work in one of the country’s most renowned black communities.

Sister Ann Rubly and Sister Marilyn Freking were the last in a long line of nuns from the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque who began arriving at Corpus Christi Parish in 1933 to teach at the parish’s grade school.

“At one time there were more than 20 sisters here, but over the years, the sisterhood has dwindled, the parish has dwindled and the Catholic school here closed back in 1993,” Rubly, 82, said Sunday.

Franciscan priests ministering at Corpus Christi in 1932 asked the sisters in Iowa for help running a school. Thus began their 83-year presence at Corpus Christi.

“I’m sure more [nuns] would be welcome to come, but the sisterhoods aren’t drawing like they once did. . . . We simply don’t have anybody to send,” said Rubly, who for years has provided ministry to elderly shut-ins in the Bronzeville neighborhood.

Joseph Preacely, 60, who works as a Loop security guard, was taught by Freking in grade school.

“They were strict and straight to the point, and you loved them for that. You respected them,” Preacely said. “They gave you all the foundation you needed to become a man and know how to deal with things in the world.”

Preacely will miss inviting Rubly to his home to watch White Sox games.

Corpus Christi Catholic Church parishioner Joseph Preacely with Sister Ann Rubly. Rubly and Sister Marilyn Freking are the last members of the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque, Iowa, to serve the South Side church. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Joseph Preacely with Sister Ann Rubly on Sunday.
Preacely, 60, who works as a Loop security guard, was taught by Sister Marilyn Freking in grade school. “They were strict and straight to the point and you loved them for that. You respected them,” he said. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Margaret McCowan, 60, graduated from eighth grade in 1969. “Sr. Marilyn is like my family, they had holiday dinners at my house and they just had so much patience and love for the kids growing up,” said McCowan, who traveled from North Carolina to attend the celebration.

Freking, 76, who has coordinated social services at the parish since her teaching days ended, said she had almost no interaction with black people before she came to Chicago in her early 20s.

“It’s been a privilege for me to live and work here,” she said.

Parishioner Larry Cope received a few ruler whacks from nuns in his unruly youth, but now he looks back on how Freking and her colleagues helped shape his life.

“With all Catholic nuns as teachers, they’re pretty strict disciplinarians,” said Cope, 56. “But you had to have a lot of respect for them because they did it out of love, even though we didn’t realize it back then. Now the sisters are like family, like aunts to myself and all the parishioners.”

Cope, a graphic designer, paused while sharing memories and suggested asking Rubly about the time she tackled a robber.

She was hesitant to share the story, but she did, after some friendly cajoling.

“We were counting bingo money in the parish office and this man reached and grabbed the bag with the money. I followed him and he was taunting me, saying, ‘What are you going to do?’ And he said he had a gun but he didn’t. And I just managed to just grab him around the leg and hold on until police arrived.”

“I don’t like to be gotten the best of,” she explained.

Sisters Ann Rubly (left) and Marilyn Freking are the last two members of the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque, Iowa, to serve at Corpus Christi Catholic Church on the South Side. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Sister Ann Rubly (left) and Sister Marilyn Freking are the last two members of the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque, Iowa, to serve at Corpus Christi Catholic Church on the South Side. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Several other sisters who work in suburban parishes — some doing social work — as well as the head of their religious order, Sister Kate Katoski, also attended the Mass.

Rubly and Freking, who were raised on Iowa farms, will leave at the end the month to live in the Mother House, a retirement home for nuns from their religious order in Dubuque.

“We’re going to miss them,” said Jason Stapleton, 38, as he chatted after Mass alongside his wife, Ivy, and their toddler daughter, Aria. “They were always here. They were at my wedding. My daughter’s baptism. . . . I guess it’s a sad day, but also a happy day.”