Less than a decade ago, the idea of an expanding mosque in Morton Grove was liable to cause uproar. But last weekend over lamb kabobs and chicken boti, the community discussed expanding the MCC Full-Time School to a Catholic facility.
It's a move that could have national implications regarding Muslim-Catholic dialogues, MCC School Council Chairman K. Rizwan Kadir said.
“This would be the first time a Muslim group and the [Catholic] Archdioceses would be using the same facility,” Father Dennis O’ Neill, pastor at Saint Martha Church.
At the 21st annual fundraising dinner at the earlier this month, more than 200 people gathered to celebrate the school's continued growth and to take a look at plans to develop an Islamic high school in Morton Grove.
The proposal would send the MCC’s preschool and kindergarten classes to the former facilities at 8523 Georgiana Ave. Although St. Martha’s still hosts church events, the school facilities have been vacant for the past year.
By doing so, MCC could add ninth-grade classes at its current site come August, said Kadir. Right now, the school operates under a special use permit limiting it to preschool through eighth grade, he said.
“Two good friends are talking,” Kadir said about the conversations between MCC and Saint Martha. However, nothing is definitive.
Citing a relationship with Saint Martha that goes back to shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Kadir gave the final presentation of the evening regarding the possible partnership--in a 42-slide production no less.
“September 11 changed a lot of things,” Kadir said. “Muslims have been in this country for a while but 9-11 has forced us to come out of our comfort zones and deal with the harsh reality out there.”
O'Neill, who had been pastor at Saint Martha Church for less than a week after the Sept. 11 events, paid a visit to the Muslim education center to check on its well-being in the midst of the chaos and public fears.
And so began the relationship between O’Neill and MCC, which has included attending each other’s events and, at one point, the repair of a broken window at the mosque even though it was never clear who was responsible for the damage.
“[Saint Martha] then paid for the repairs,” Kadir said. “It’s not a huge amount but it’s a gesture, and its little things like this that go a long way.”
With plans to lease several classrooms at the vacant Catholic school for the purposes of educating Islamic youth, these communities are merging more.
“Working within the system, the answers are here within us if we just communicate and come together,” said Morton Grove President Dan Staackmann. “It was a long arduous process, but we proved that here in Morton Grove…to one and all...that we can come together, and we have to constantly strive for that.”
Staackmann, who attended the anniversary event along with Trustee John Thill, sat at a table with O’Neill and several other members of the village near the front, while members of the Muslim Education Center (MEC) Masjid sat nearby.
A graduate of Saint Martha School, Staackmann was one of the first supporters of the MEC and has had continuous dialogue with MCC Principal Habeeb Quadri–by cell phone and speed dial, joked Kadir.
“One of things we have to overcome is Islamophobia–a lot of it stemming from fear of the unknown,” Kadir said. “There has not been any objection from any side about this deal. It’s just a matter of becoming familiar, to remove the 'unknown-ness.”
More and more, the communities at MCC and MEC are engaging with the larger community. They have held open houses for residents to explore the centers and have run voter registration drives in early March.
“That’s just [our] civic obligation: to vote,” Kadir said.
Although only 47 families in Morton Grove have children attending MCC, he said another 100-200 families attend religious services.
"They have certainly gotten more active in the community," O'Neill said.
History in the community
In 1990, the Islamic school in Morton Grove opened its doors with two classrooms of 25 students each. Now, 21 years later, they have more than 40 faculty members and staff and more than 400 students, many of whom commute to the facility from the neighboring area.
To put that number in perspective, there are 236 full-time Islamic schools in the U.S., but MCC in Morton Grove is one of the oldest and largest Islamic schools in the country, Kadir said. Of those schools, less than 40 are high schools and on average, they have less than 100 students.
In December, MCC parents met for three lengthy information sessions to discuss the proposed project, Kadir said. In January and February, they began meeting with village residents and Saint Martha Church members.
“There is a process, and we have met with the mayor,” he said.
Quadri said the school has a few other hurdles to clear before it seeks the permit change. He expressed reservations about rushing into the expansion deal by August of 2011, preferring to get it right instead of just getting it done.
With the staff at MCC certified to teach through the 12th-grade level, the decision to include a high school curriculum was “a logical progression,” Kadir said.
“We have thought about it for 20 years, but there is a right time for everything,” he said.