After 101 Years, the Book Closes on Barat College

Associated Press Writer

Final exams, late-night study sessions, a cruise for graduating seniors -- all made the last days of Barat College much as it ever was. But this year the tears flowed more freely among students who realized they weren't simply saying goodbye to another semester.

They were bidding farewell to a way of life that had existed for more than a century.

Barat, a tiny liberal arts school in Chicago's north suburbs, closed at the end of June, a year after celebrating its 100th anniversary.

"It was kind of the happiest and saddest time of my life because it was the best environment I've ever been in," said sophomore Morgan Lemmer, her eyes welling up as she took a break from setting up chairs for commencement exercises for 150 students earlier this month.

The school, which was taken over by the much larger DePaul University in 2001, faced dwindling enrollment, tens of millions of dollars in needed repairs and a small endowment.

Six colleges remain of the 10 founded by the Society of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic religious order begun in France in 1800 by the college's namesake, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat. Two are independent -- Manhattanville College in New York and Maryville University in St. Louis -- and four have been absorbed by larger schools.

Barat's story is similar to that of its sister schools.

Originally an academy for young girls, it soon became a college. It thrived during a boom in Catholic women's schools in the 1950s. But like the other schools, Barat's enrollment lagged as women moved away from single-sex colleges in the 1960s and 1970s. The Society of the Sacred Heart got out of the business of running colleges in 1971. The schools struggled to stay afloat by accepting men -- as Barat did in 1982 -- or merging with bigger schools.

Survival was behind Barat's decision to become part of DePaul, the country's largest Catholic university. But after spending $6 million to buy the school and $16 million on repairs and upgrades, DePaul trustees voted last year to shut down Barat, saying an enrollment hovering around 800 didn't bring in enough to break even.

"It's just simply that the demand wasn't there at the Barat campus," said DePaul spokeswoman Denise Mattson. "It was a long and disappointing decision process."

Enrollment after the closing announcement dropped to about 350 students this quarter. Lemmer was one of only a few dozen students in dorms that once held more than 300. Like many other underclassmen, she will transfer to one of DePaul's Chicago campuses.

Even with few students left, the school worked hard to make its final year a celebration rather than a funeral, said acting Dean Gene Beiriger, a 20-year Barat veteran. Faculty made sure each gathering was not billed as "the last," preferring barbecues and bands to teary-eyed speeches.

"As long as many of us go out and are walking and talking and taking the experience of Barat with us, then it isn't closing," Beiriger said.

That attitude is echoed by the Barat Education Foundation, formed when the DePaul alliance was announced. The foundation, which aims to further the Sacred Heart mission of individual leadership and community service, offers scholarships, a center for women's leadership and a grant program for retired Sacred Heart nuns. It plans to continue the "Barat spirit" when it moves its offices to a nearby secondary school.

"Don't write this as an obituary," said Catherine Miserendino, the foundation's executive director and a 1973 Barat graduate. "One phase of our history is closing on June 30, but another phase is opening up."

Students and alumni, though, say it will be hard to replicate the family experience that comes from learning in a place where everyone knows everyone else.

"I'm going to miss this school. It has been home," said Lauren Harvey, a graduating senior who dug through school archives to put together a photo display of Barat's history that now lines the walls of the main building's basement.

After night classes, she said, the class would often go out for drinks -- with the professor.

"I would never have made it at a big school," she said. "I would have failed out. I would have been lost in the crowd."

It is unclear what will happen to the campus and its buildings. Mattson said DePaul has been in talks with several groups, including Classic Residence by Hyatt, which wants to build a luxury senior community on the site. The Barat Education Foundation has first right of refusal on the property and has been urging DePaul to sell the property to someone who will keep the educational focus.

Sally Bredemann, a 1948 Barat graduate, said that no matter what happened, it would hurt to no longer have a Barat campus to call home. She remembers the school as a place that was ahead of its time, filled with smart, independent women coming into their own as the nation coped with World War II.

"You're talking to a person with a broken heart," she said. "It's such a wonderful place. It's just a place that I loved and still love."

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