Woman’s figurine collection praises nuns who raised her

Annemarie Mannion
Chicago Tribune

Chicago — Gloria Casper vividly remembers being trundled off to the Audy home, a juvenile detention center in Chicago, in a paddy wagon with white bars.

Fortunately, Casper also has many happy childhood memories after she was orphaned in 1945 in Chicago — especially of the women who raised her.

These recollections have inspired her to collect more than 100 nun figurines. She displays them in a curio cabinet in her living room, in her kitchen and stored in boxes in her apartment at Beacon Hill, the suburban Lombard senior living community where the soon-to-be 80-year-old lives.

Casper started amassing the collection 20 years ago. There are nuns singing, nuns jamming on musical instruments, nuns tending to babies or the sick, nuns playing with pets, nuns playing sports, nuns who are Mother Superiors, and of course, nuns who are praying.

For Casper, the figurines, clad in habits, with veils and rosaries dangling from their waists, are like guardian angels that remind her of the kindness and devotion of many of the religious women, members of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, who raised her.

“I never thought about it at the time,” she said. “But they were like my parents. They really gave us a sense of ethics, of being good to each other.”

After the frightening trip to the detention center, which happily only lasted a day, Casper, who was 9, and two of her sisters were taken to live at the Angel Guardian Orphanage in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.

Casper’s parents, both Italian immigrants, died in the 1940s. Her father fell victim to tuberculosis. Her mother died of heart disease. Casper also lived for a year at Ridge Farm, which was a tuberculosis preventorium in suburban Lake Forest at the time.

Casper stayed at the orphanage until she was 18. She lived in cottages, each overseen by a nun who had charge of about 40 children.

“It became like a family in the cottage,” Casper said. “When you knew a kid from your cottage, you’d stick up for that kid.”

In honor of the nuns who raised her, Casper has named some of the figurines in her collection after them.

“They all have stories to tell,” she said.

One smiling figure is dubbed Sister Gregory after a favorite nun who oversaw the cottage in which Casper lived for a time, and whose collar was always mussed from her work with children.

“I wish I could wrinkle her (the figurine’s) collar up,” Casper said. “I’d do that because she (Sister Gregory) was always holding and cuddling the little ones.”

Though corporal punishment also was doled out on occasion in the orphanage, Casper said she remembers mostly fun things like roller skating in the basement, playing basketball, watching movies and a priest who flooded the yard so the children could ice skate.

“I don’t know how he got all those ice skates,” she said.

Sister Gregory also recognized Casper’s abilities and gave her jobs to do like manning the popcorn machine on movie night and helping in the kindergarten.

“She gave me a lot of responsibility, so I felt like I was needed,” she said.

Casper graduated from St. Anne’s Hospital College of Nursing. She married husband Joe in 1957, and they raised three children before he died in 2002.

The couple lived in suburban Elk Grove Village for 42 years, where Sister Gregory’s influence on Casper showed. After working as a nurse, Casper operated the “Little People” Pre-School from 1973 to 1998.

Despite her zeal for collecting figurines, Casper knows her limits. She once saw a nun figurine in a catalog representing the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, the order that ran the orphanage where Gasper grew up. But the figurine was $179. Instead, Casper made a copy of it for display .

Casper said she is still on the hunt for nun figurines, but they are harder to find.

“I can’t find them,” she said. “They aren’t making them anymore because nuns aren’t wearing habits.”

Casper never imagined how large her group of nuns would grow. She purchased many and received others as gifts. When she had to downsize from her house to the retirement community about a year ago, there was no question the nuns were going with her.

“Oh, no. I wasn’t getting rid of them,” she said.