In mid-November, the naturalist staff of the Forest Preserve District of Kane County will move from Tekakwitha Woods Nature Center to the District’s new Creek Bend Nature Center at LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve in St. Charles.
Moving is a reflective, if not hectic, time. As I’ve been filling and stacking boxes, I have frequently paused and look out into the autumn woods.
There’s a lot of history here. I’m putting aside the Sharpies and the packing tape now to share a bit of the history of these woods.
Tekakwitha Woods’ beginnings can be traced to the formation of the Fox River more than 12,000 years ago. The great ice sheets had retreated and glacial meltwater rushed in torrents from present-day Wisconsin toward the Illinois River.
Along the way, the Fox River took a turn. Ever since, it has flowed east to west for a short distance before turning south again.
As the postglacial landscape took form, a forest grew along the river. The flowing water served as a fire break when furious prairie fires roared across the land, fanned by the prevailing southwest winds. The land now known as Tekakwitha Woods was on the lee side of the water, protected in the river bend.
It was, from its geologic beginnings, a special place.
Indigenous people frequented the forest at the bend in the river, where fish and game were abundant. In the course of time, European-Americans moved in and displaced the native people.
As early as the 1830s the Pottawatomies “very reluctantly turned their unwilling footsteps westward” and left the valley of the Fox River, according to writer John S. Wilcox in “The History of Kane County” (1906).
By the late 19th century, the area at the river’s bend became known as Valley View. Summer homes dotted the river’s wooded shores and farm fields covered the countryside to the east.
In the late 1800s, interurban electric railways were constructed to transport people from city to city. The Fox River Line connected Elgin and Aurora, skirting the river from north to south. There were stops with entertainment venues along the way, and the bend in the river was a notable stop.
Five small islands by the river bend were a convenient site for an amusement park along the train line. A dance hall was constructed on the bluff uphill from Five Islands Park. The building became known as the Five Islands Pavilion.
In 1905, Father Hugh McGuire, a priest from St. James Parish in Chicago, purchased a large farm house on a parcel of land in the Valley View area. Father McGuire traveled by train from Chicago to Elgin, whence he rode by “surrey pulled by two spirited Arabian horses” to his property at the bend in the river, according to a former resident. His house, now known as the McGuire House, still has the porte-cochere for McGuire’s livery.
Soon after his initial purchase, McGuire bought another parcel of land that included the Five Islands Pavilion. An additional acquisition in 1909 connected the pavilion with his home, completing the property he called the Villa Maria.
Father McGuire’s health was precarious at best as he battled diabetes during these years. Unfortunately, he did not live long to enjoy his country retreat. Just prior to his death in 1911, he bequeathed the land to the Sisters of Mercy.
He had wanted to share with the sisters his love of nature and country living. Henceforth, this lovely wooded area nestled in the bend of the Fox River was a spot where nuns from far and wide could come for restful and spiritually enriching vacations.
Sister Mary Mark Kerin was one of the many sisters who came to Villa Maria for “R and R.” She was a regular at the Villa between 1915 and 1960.
In her 1977 memoir, “What I Remember about Villa Maria,” Sister Mary Mark told delightful stories of the life at the Villa. Such stories attest to the fact that scores of women found laughter and fellowship here at Tekakwitha Woods.
Prior to his untimely passing, Father McGuire had built a wing on the Pavilion to serve as a chapel. During his brief years at the Villa, he often performed Mass in the chapel.
Later, priests from the neighboring Servite seminary came to serve Mass and provide confession for the Sisters. Several years ago, I met a relative of a former priest who had studied at the seminary. He told me that the priests especially enjoyed the walk through the woods from the seminary to the chapel.
The seminary was later sold to the state of Illinois and served as a youth detention center. It is now owned by the Forest Preserve District’s River Bend and operated by the St. Charles Park District as River Bend Community Park.
The 1960s were challenging times for the Sisters at Villa Maria. In an undated article from Illinois Magazine, Margaret Downs reported, “Changes in the Catholic Church and prospects of land development in the Fox Valley met face to face. ... There was little time or inclination for secluded vacations, and the Villa was rarely used and difficult to maintain ... The Sisters wondered whether to give in to the many offers and sell the property.”
Garnering as much support as they could, the Sisters were able to shore up the Villa and open it to laypeople as the “Center for Renewal.” This spiritual retreat center soon drew some 3,000 people annually.
Downs wrote, “They share(d) a simple, ancient value: The land in its simplicity and in its natural state is a wealthy environment for simplifying one’s life.” People came here “to experience a peace within themselves.”
The Center for Renewal welcomed people of all faiths and races. Groups spent weekends in the large McGuire House and the Pavilion. Individuals could stay for days at a time in a small cabin known as Poustinia for meditation, prayer and spiritual healing.
There was even a tree house perched high in a big old oak tree, where individuals could “get away from it all” and experience contemplative solitude.
From 1994-1998, I was fortunate enough to live in the staff house (formerly the farm house) at Tekakwitha Woods. In those early years, nuns frequently stopped by to revisit their beloved woods. Chatting with the Sisters was always fun, and conversations were an important source of oral history.
I was told, for example, that the infamous Al Capone “took good care of the Sisters” at the Villa Maria. Although this is unconfirmed, it is not too far-fetched. In the 1920s, a speak-easy was built on property adjacent to the Sisters’ woods, and was, ostensibly, one of Capone’s notorious haunts.
It later became a restaurant called Al Capone’s Hideaway and Steakhouse. The restaurant closed earlier this year.
Other bits of oral history include the role that the Sisters played in social justice during their years at the Villa Maria. The Sisters offered refuge for battered women and children. The secluded Villa was a safe haven for victims of domestic violence. The Sisters of Mercy also provided asylum at the Villa for refugees fleeing Cambodia and Vietnam in the late 1970s.
Despite their best efforts to continue operating the Villa, the Sisters had to put the property up for sale in 1990.
The Forest Preserve District of Kane County purchased the land and its buildings. At the sale, the Sisters requested that the preserve be named “Tekakwitha Woods” in honor of the 17th century Mohawk Indian Kateri Tekakwitha, a Native American who converted to Christianity and died among tribulation at age 16.
“She was sort of the matriarch of all the Christian Indians,” said Sister Mary Catherine Daly in a 1992 interview with the Chicago Tribune.
“It was appealing to me that she was a woman, and I felt it was appropriate to name the place after something associated with Indians because the area is so reminiscent of their existence. I wanted to memorialize (the Indians’) connection to the land and the river.”
Just last month, Kateri Tekakwitha was canonized in the Catholic Church and is now called St. Catherine Tekakwitha.
At the time of the district’s acquisition of Tekakwitha Woods, then-president Arlene Shoemaker had a vision for environmental education in Kane County.
Shoemaker told the Chicago Tribune, “If we had prayed and said, ‘God, send us a nature center,’ he couldn’t have done a better job.” Her enthusiasm for Tekakwitha Woods Nature Center carried on throughout her tenure as a county board member, until her retirement in 2009.
Shoemaker’s work to build awareness of the natural world through the nature center and its programs resulted in tremendous strides in environmental education.
More than 54,000 students have come to Tekakwitha Woods since Shoemaker’s dedication of the nature center in 1992. District naturalists have led some 1,500 school field trips, Scout hikes, and community programs. And some 200,000 people have walked through the doors of the nature center.
It’s been bittersweet to see those doors closed for good. During my two decades here, I’ve witnessed the dreams of Father McGuire, the Sisters of Mercy, and Arlene Shoemaker slowly come to fruition. I’ve seen people walk along these paths and play along the river’s shore.
I’ve heard peals of laughter from children and I’ve watched people walk, purposefully, in the silence of winter snowfalls. I know people who came here to have fun and left renewed. I know that Tekakwitha Woods has changed lives with the healing touch of nature. Just as Father McGuire and the Sisters prayed it would.
Thus, I am a bit wistful as we pack up to leave. Mostly, though, I am grateful to have been part of this beautiful place. My life is forever changed.
ź The next column by Kane County Forest Preserve District naturalist Valerie Blaine will feature the move to Creek Bend Nature Center at LeRoy Oakes and the District’s new ventures there. You may contact Valerie at email@example.com.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.