Forged from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire was an idea to turn a farm near Des Plaines into a cradle for young people who had no other home.
Patrick Feehan, Chicago's first Catholic archbishop, realized the 1871 fire had not only left the city in ruins; it also had created a homeless generation of children left to fend for themselves by leading a life of petty crime. Feehan helped raise the $30,000 necessary to buy a 440-acre farm near Des Plaines. St. Mary's Training School for Boys, which later became known as Maryville Academy, was born in 1883.
Maryville's City of Youth campus in its 125 years has endured fires, an influx of young residents during the Depression, changes in the child welfare system and scandal. Maryville went from housing 1,200 children in the 1900s to a painful public moment in 2003 when it lost all of its few hundred young residents after state welfare officials decided it was unsafe following the suicide of a 14-year-old girl, two sexual assaults, repeated violence and problems with youths running away.
That has been called one of the darkest periods in the institution's history, but its dawn appears to have arrived. Young people in the custody of the state began trickling back to the Des Plaines campus at River and Central roads last summer. They would have come sooner, but Maryville's homes had become a safe haven to Hurricane Katrina families who needed homes.
Today, 40 teen boys call the sprawling 96-acre Maryville campus home - and 171 young people live at its other homes in Bartlett, near Rockford and in Chicago. And outreach and support services to nonresidents have become a bigger part of its mission. In total, Maryville reaches about 2,500 youths a year.
As it marks its anniversary, Maryville is turning an eye toward the future while celebrating the mission that has served as its backbone despite all the changes over 125 years.
"We need to say that children are important. Children who have been traumatized are important. They too have dignity. They too have a value in our society. They too need the opportunity to learn and develop and dream and accomplish," said Sister Catherine Ryan, executive director. "And that can only happen if we, as a society, put our arms around them and help them know they are important."
Children who called Maryville home over the years felt that. Janine Cassinelli of Hanover Park lived there from 1961 to 1968, moving there as a seventh-grader. She attended Maryville's grade school and high school until her senior year, as the schools closed for lack of need.
"I was an only child, so I always longed for a friend. So God in his graciousness said, 'You want friends. I'll give you 800 friends,'" said Cassinelli, who came from a troubled home. "For the first time, I felt like I was safe."
Cassinelli has long felt an affinity for her former home. She had Maryville's longtime director, the Rev. John Smyth, marry her and baptize her son.
Smyth, captain of the University of Notre Dame basketball team, chose the priesthood as his calling rather than accept a spot on the NBA's St. Louis Hawks as a first-round draft pick in 1957. He arrived at Maryville in 1962, becoming its director in 1970.
Chicago's Catholic leaders at the time saw Maryville as a drain on resources, so Smyth was told to "sink or swim," said Maryville historian Bill Watson.
Smyth chose the latter. "He was out mowing the fields so the kids could play ball," Watson said.
Smyth began hosting fundraisers and reformed the care of children at the City of Youth, bringing in the family teaching model. By setting up small group homes on the site and having couples run them, it served as a family for the children, Ryan said.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Father Smyth was a champion for children. The insight and ability to bring the family teaching model here in the 1970s - that was cutting-edge," said Ryan, former head of the Cook County state's attorney's juvenile justice bureau.
Forced to step down in light of the scandal, Smyth still lives on campus, leads Mass every Sunday and runs his foundation. He now serves as president of Notre Dame High School For Boys in Niles. He couldn't be reached for comment.
Looking back at the events of 2003, Cassinelli harbors no hard feelings about the state's decision to remove the young people.
"My biggest feeling is I felt safe. If this is the last step for other kids who come from chaos and trauma, if there was not that safety, then it needed to close," Cassinelli said. "Father Smyth never turned away a kid, maybe to his detriment."
There are shades of Maryville's past around the nearly 100-acre campus as the institution builds a new life. Five American Indian boys from the Chippewa and Sioux tribes, sent by the government to Des Plaines in 1883, died during the harsh winter and remain at rest in a small cemetery on the north side of campus. Winding roads across the pastoral campus lead past group homes, some of which are leased out to another youth home institution. A popular outdoor shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe that gives Catholic Latinos a scenic setting to pray sits near Maryville's oldest building, supposedly modeled after Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home. The building, which continues to house priests, was moved to Des Plaines after being showcased at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Despite pitches from developers, the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago has no plans to sell the Des Plaines property, Ryan said. Maryville is focused on the process of making plans to continue its mission in the 21st century.
Rather than continuing the family teaching model Smyth started, Maryville today relies more on treatment and clinical care for its troubled children. There's also more outreach with clinicians going to the homes to help families "so that they will not have to leave the family," Ryan said.
Illinois, unlike other states, moved away from the large orphanage model in favor of trying to keep young people with family members over the past 15 years, said Richard Wexler, a child welfare expert based near Washington, D.C. "Children do not do well when they are raised by institutions," Wexler said. "Children know the difference between a Potemkin family and a real family."
There is talk of consolidating Maryville's services, including moving the only group of boys living at the Bartlett home to Des Plaines. That way, Ryan said, all the girls will be at the Eisenberg campus in Bartlett while all the boys will be at the City of Youth.
Ryan said she won't get into the business of placing blame for what went wrong five years ago because she feels it's time to look ahead. For example, Maryville is considering doing more work with immigrant families.
Perhaps it was Maryville's long history that blocked its progression quickly enough to a new way of treating a new generation of young, troubled residents.
"The difficult time for Maryville I believe was in large part that Maryville needed to identify this and move to this new kind of care," Ryan said. "When you see the movie a second time, you know how it's going to end."
Maryville through 125 years
1883 - In aftermath of Great Chicago Fire, the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago establishes St. Mary's Training School for Boys on the 440-acre Knotts Farm north of Des Plaines.
1887 - An extra 400 acres of farmland acquired to keep pace with St. Mary's growing population.
1899 - A fire starts in the chapel and spreads to other buildings. Everyone survives, but residents must be moved.
1906 - More than 690 boys return to the rebuilt St. Mary's Training School.
1911 - Girls from the St. Joseph Home for the Friendless, the St. Joseph Provident Asylum and the Chicago Industrial School for Girls are assimilated into St. Mary's Training School, bringing the school population to nearly 1,100.
1950 - St. Mary's young residents vote to rename their home; the school becomes Maryville Academy while the Des Plaines facility itself is renamed the City of Youth.
1968 - Maryville grade school closes because of too few students; high school closes in 1969.
1970 - New superintendent the Rev. John Smyth learns the Archdiocese can no longer afford the $400,000 year Maryville deficit. He leads fundraisers that fill the void.
1972 - Most children in Maryville's care are wards of the state and primary funding comes from the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services.
2003 - The state pulls 130 wards living at City of Youth in Des Plaines out amid scrutiny following reports of sexual abuse, runaways and a suicide in Des Plaines and other Maryville facilities.
2004 - The Rev. John P. Smyth steps aside and Sister Catherine M. Ryan succeeds him.
2005 - Maryville hosts families displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
2007 - Maryville City of Youth becomes a home once again for troubled youths.
2008 - Maryville serves 40 teen residents on its 96-acre Des Plaines campus, 160 at residences in Bartlett and Durand, which is near Rockford, and runs nonresident programs in other communities, including Chicago.
July 26 - Maryville celebrates 125 years with Mass.