Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Sister Giovanni

The histories of the church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and of Sister Giovanni (“Sister G” as she was known) are intertwined. In 1931. the Guild of Catholic women rented space in a grocery store at 123 S. Wabasha on the West Side to found a “Mexican Mission.” Incorporated in 1939 as a parish it continued to hold masses and provide educational and social services to the Hispanic immigrants in the community.

As it expanded, the mission church moved to 286 E. Fairfield. Enough congregants joined the parish to participate in Spanish-language masses to name the church in honor of its shrine to the Lady of Guadalupe. As a result of the constant flooding in that area the church purchased land further south and east to construct a new building at 401 Concord Ave., completed in 1961.

Sister Mary Giovanni Gourhan, affectionately known as “Sister G”, was born in 1914 and entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame when she was 18 years old. Sister G was sent to the Sacred Heart Mission School in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she began her career in education. She focused particularly on students who were having difficulties in a standard school environment, believing that alternatives to that standard would benefit underserved students.

She was sent in 1963 to Our Lady of Guadalupe to continue that work. In 1964 she created a summer school program that introduced children to crafts and recreation. In 1967 she founded the Guadalupe Alternative Program that remains a vibrant and successful program now called GAP, after a merger with Change.Inc, another program that was developed along the same ideas.

Sister Giovanni was a charismatic and beloved teacher and advocate. Remembered to this day, she appears in a mosaic over the doorway to the GAP School, and an image of her face is hiding in one of the West Side murals.

She seemed never to tire of facing down politicians and bureaucrats who might be reluctant to pursue change. She was a force of nature whose work radically changed the face of education and social services in the community.