Sister Gema Juarez came to the Midwest from Texas more than 40 years ago to fulfill her mission as a youth leader — a mission that almost ended in disaster a few weeks ago when a massive fire nearly destroyed her home.
The devastating fire engulfed the former St. Elizabeth Catholic Church on Jan. 14. Juarez’s home sits right next door to the building, which the Christ Redeemed Missionary Baptist Church most recently called home. When neighbors noticed the church was on fire, they started banging on Juarez’s door, telling her to get out before the fire spread to her house.
Juarez, after safely escaping with her small dog, said she watched the church’s steeple fall. It fell away from her house, which only had minor smoke damage and a flooded basement from firefighting efforts. No one was injured in the blaze.
“It was like a miracle,” Juarez said. “God shows us what he can do for us.”
It was like a miracle. God shows us what he can do for us.
Sister Gema Juarez
It’s especially fortunate that the house was spared because the church plans to sell it. Juarez’s tenure in East St. Louis and that of her fellow sisters is coming to a close.
Juarez, 74, first came to East St. Louis from San Antonio in 1970 by invitation of then-Belleville Bishop Albert R. Zuroweste, who died in 1987. Juarez and three other sisters from the Sisters of Cordi-Marian, a congregation of Hispanic religious women based in Texas, were tasked with leading and sheltering struggling young women.
The effort eventually morphed into operating the Catholic Day Care Center in the former St. Adalbert Catholic School at 617 Summit Ave.
After more than 40 years in service, the day care is shutting down.
Enrollment declined over the last few years as the private day care’s daily fees rose to $28 a day. The last class that graduated in 2016 had just 26 students, down from about 70 in 2014.
“We just couldn’t keep on doing this,” said Provincial Superior Sister Cathy Marquez, who is based in San Antonio.
Marquez says enrollment decreased when new public day cares opened in town and after the economic downturn began.
The day care’s last day was Dec. 23. The sisters have been busy since then packing up toys, books, tiny chairs and tables. The day care had one other nun working with Juarez. The other nun has been there for about three years.
On a recent January afternoon, Juarez sat in the day care’s cafeteria, thumbing through boxes of old photos and reflecting on her time in East St. Louis.
“At that time the city was going down, and we wanted to work with these little people,” Juarez said of her early days in East St. Louis. “I think it (education) is the foundation of their later lives. If we give them a good start, they will be very successful in life.”
A good start was especially important for children — not only from East St. Louis, but from neighboring communities — who struggled with broken home lives, Juarez said.
The provincial superior says she remembers hearing a student openly telling peers and teachers about how her father beat her mother the night before, as if it were a matter of routine.
“Some came from broken families, and here they felt secure. Here we cared for them like they were someone valuable,” Marquez said. “The sisters were their second mothers.”
Some came from broken families, and here they felt secure. Here we cared for them like they were someone valuable.
Provincial Superior Sister Cathy Marquez
That oftentimes meant working holidays and long hours. If a child was late to day care, the sisters accepted them anyway. They picked students up and dropped them off at home, provided two meals and a snack daily, took them on field trips, celebrated Black History Month, taught Spanish and put on musicals and an annual graduation ceremony.
“We had a great mission here. I think God’s hand and his heart was in this place,” Juarez said.
When asked if she could recall one special memory, Juarez said she remembers a student who was giving a new student a tour of the building. The student showed one of the classrooms and said, “This is where you learn the basics.”
“I thought it was so beautiful,” Juarez said. “Whatever they learn from birth — 5 years old or 6 years old — that’s going to stay with them.”
Now that the day care is shutting down, the sisters are planning their next step. They will return to San Antonio to help with the older sisters there.
“I’m going from the youngest ones to the oldest ones,” Juarez said. “I’m happy for that. I like to help older people.”
But tears welled in Juarez’s eyes as she said she will miss her students, the city of East St. Louis and the metro-east, where she spent most of her life.
“It was my life, it was exciting, but now I’m going back to San Antonio because there is not much that I can do here,” Juarez said.
It was my life, it was exciting, but now I’m going back to San Antonio because there is not much that I can do here.
Sister Gema Juarez
But the building won’t be abandoned. The neighboring Christian Activity Center plans to purchase the former school, according to the organization’s executive director, Chet Cantrell. He says the building’s exact purpose remains to be seen, though it could be used in a number of ways to serve the city’s youth.
“We’ll see what the greater good requires of us,” Cantrell said. “There are all kinds of possibilities.”
However the center decides to use the building, Cantrell says the sisters will be missed.
“The Catholic Day Care and their staff are institutions of the Olivette Park neighborhood and over the city,” Cantrell said, using the neighborhood’s original name. “They were kind and good, supportive of parents and community initiatives. They really fulfilled their mission, and it’s sad to see them close.”