New Catholic school planned in Lemont

Chicago Tribune/April 3, 2008

The Legion of Christ, one of the lesser-known Catholic religious orders, is preparing to begin construction of a new school in Lemont.

School officials envision a campus with hundreds of students, athletic fields and maybe even a university one day, but for now they're starting with a primary school for children in kindergarten through 8th grade.

White Pines Academy is the first school in the Chicago area established by the Legion of Christ, a conservative Catholic order founded in 1941 in Mexico. The school has been housed in the Lithuanian World Center a few miles away since 1996.

School officials held a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday to launch the project. The school board bought the 32-acre property at 115th Street and Bell Road in 1999 and raised money from active families to build the school.

The new academy will serve a need in the southwest suburbs for Catholic schools, officials said. For instance, the nearby village of Homer Glen has boomed in recent years but doesn't have a Catholic school.

"Many schools in the area have waiting lists," said John DeRoche, former president of the White Pines school board. "When we selected this property, that was all a part of the concept. It will be overflowing."

White Pines Academy is a private and independent school recognized by the archdiocese of Chicago. The school recruits students from dozens of communities from Naperville to Evergreen Park.

The school uses an education method developed by the Legion of Christ that aims to "form future leaders for society who possess knowledge, integrity, character and a disposition to service," according to several priests at the event. Ten schools are accredited by the Legion of Christ in the United States, including those in Atlanta and St. Louis.

The Legion of Christ has not been without controversy. Its founder, Rev. Marcial Maciel of Mexico, who died recently, was accused of sexual abuse and disciplined by the Vatican although never charged. The Legion of Christ denies the accusations.

The order has also been criticized by former seminarians and others for being too rigid, secretive and competitive.

In St. Paul the archbishop barred the Legion of Christ from working in the archdiocese and prohibited its associated lay movement, Regnum Christi, from using archdiocesan property or parishes for its activities.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests denounced Maciel for years. In 2006 Pope Benedict XVI ordered Maciel to cease his public ministry.

The survivors network founder and president, Barbara Blaine, lives in Chicago and expressed concern this week about the religious order because of Maciel.

"We are very worried about the safety and well-being of kids in this unhealthy atmosphere and hope that parents will thoroughly research the troubled and troubling history of the legion before enrolling their kids here," she said.

Colleen Dolan, a spokeswoman for the Chicago archdiocese, said in response that all recognized Catholic schools in the district are required to follow safety precautions to protect children.

Mary Ann Wood of Lockport has three children who have attended Legion of Christ schools. She said her experience has been positive and has brought her family back to the Catholic faith, she said.

"I love what they've done for my kids-daily mass, spiritual direction, confession," said Wood, 41.

Wood said the school's academics are the best part, and her daughter tested into all honors classes in high school. Her husband isn't Catholic, but he wants the children in the school because of the education.

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