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Nite Lites Scrapbook: A 1979 composite class picture (shown above) of the year it started; Reverend Thomas Raftery (top right) on his trusty bike; and Sacred Heart church and school (below) as it was in 1908.

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Rite of Lites Every spring for 34 years, Sacred Heart School in Winnetka puts on a party that transcends most definitions of a parish school fundraiser. Nite Lites, as it is called, has morphed into a fundraising powerhouse that pulls the North Shore community together, across towns and across religious denominations. By Elizabeth Smiley

O

On the night of April 28, the lights will be on at Sacred

Heart School.

Lights in every first-floor classroom. Lights in the gym, and in the

cafeteria — with the illumination flowing outside to a one-night only

schools — in big trouble. Organizers began reaching out to the wider

garden walk and tent, glowing white and ready for the North Shore party

Catholic community for ideas.

of the year.

But there will be no fancy designer gowns on parade in Winnetka that

is an authority on the history of “Nite Lites” and how it all got started.

night. No black tie optional clause. No red carpet. This French-themed

He said the parish had tried for years to boost its income, hosting

It started in 1978. The school was — as were many Catholic

As a parishioner, parent and graduate at Sacred Heart Mike McNulty

soiree is called Nite Lites and despite the venue and the cause, it’s hardly

everything from carnivals to Monte Carlo Nights. It even tried out the

a typical Catholic school fundraiser.

rummage sale idea with The Attics of Sacred Heart. There were modest

When this fete started 34 years ago, it was a way to keep the doors

successes, but it was never quite enough.

open at a beloved Catholic institution. That part is ordinary. Yet from the

But with enrollment at the historic school down to about 100 students

very beginning, forward-thinking Sacred Heart parents knew that any

(from 548 at its peak) and a charismatic new principal on board, the time

successful effort would have to bring in the larger community and go

seemed right to do something big. So while the Bee Gees hit Stayin’ Alive

beyond parish boundaries. And it would have to have a wow factor.

was blaring on the radio that year, a determined gang of parents, teachers

and church leaders made a promise to each other to keep Sacred Heart

No one could have predicted then how the “Night Fever” fund-

raiser they would put on in 1979 (playing on the popularity of Saturday

School open.

Night Fever) would blossom into the event that it has become — a non-

But how?

denominational, community bash that draws some 1,000 people from

Based on past fundraising efforts, they all knew a simple parish

Lake Forest to Chicago at 6 p.m. and keeps them dancing until 2 a.m.

carnival wouldn’t do. According to Kathy Shinkle, who co-chaired the first

Whatever community boundaries of habit and custom were once

event with her husband D.J. (Sacred Heart’s first ordained deacon), they

in place began to crumble in 1979 with this party. Strong friendships and

knew they “couldn’t just serve brats and beer.”

shared values were built.

event,” Shinkle explained. To do this the PTO knew it must open to the

The little Catholic school continues. The community — all of it —

“The hope was to create a fundraiser that would develop into an annual

would not let the school perish. Yes, this is the real-life version of the old

wider community beyond the school’s front doors. 

movie inspiration, “let’s put on a show to save the school.” If Winnetka loves

the little school, Winnetkans — even those who have never lived there —

you can’t do big showbiz on a small stage.

To keep those doors open, they had to spread their arms wider. And

have a right to claim its survival as their testament. For a small Catholic school initiative run by parent volunteers and

 

a priest, the repeated results are miraculous.

The annual rite of spring event has not only kept the doors open at

Forget the proverb, “if you build it, they will come.” 

Father Thomas Raftery wasn’t taking any chances. He was old school,

Sacred Heart School, it has become a model for how to keep raising funds

believing that God helps those who help themselves. He was the self-

(and yes, making new friends) during the best and worst of times.

appointed chief of marketing, and he sent the principal to play basketball

in local gyms and talk up the two-night extravaganza.

Thus, the miracle of a little school with a big heart.

QNe wTr ier.com | Quintessential New Trier • 61


Rite of Lites

The priest also took to the streets himself. Mounting his bike, he

and sweets. Even the students got into the act.

peddled north to the neighboring village of Glencoe and beyond to spread

Eighth graders assisted with set-up, peeled shrimp, washed fruit and

the word.

bussed tables. But disco was dying so “Night Fever” was re-christened “Nite Lites” the

Raftery recognized the need to open the hearts and pockets of Catholics, Protestants and Jews, and he affixed a poster reading L’Chaim

next year, and that name has stuck.

to his bike. It was all part of his mission — “getting to know people and

getting the people to know one another.”

even if they didn’t have kids enrolled in the school, and the money raised

went into a general fund,” McNulty explained.

To keep costs down, the school was the venue. Armed with her hand-

“In the beginning many people from the parish worked on Nite Lites

drawn maps and the support of hundreds of volunteers (parishioners and

Eventually it was established that the school would receive a subsidy

non-parishioners alike), Shinkle supervised an extreme makeover of the

he said. Then the parents really stepped forward.

school that would last for only 48 hours.

Class of 1959, Sister Kathleen Donnelly recalls hearing about the first Nite

The first floor classrooms were emptied and refilled with stages, lights

The current principal of Sacred Heart School and a member of the

and cafe style tables. To entertain the guests, live half-hour shows would be

Lites events from her family after she had gone off to college, and then the

offered, each repeating four or five times throughout the evening.

convent. Donnelly had even been the beneficiary of Nite Lite’s 1995 event,

It is no wonder she is shown in the “Night Fever” program book with

“Set the Nite to Music,” when her brother won a trip to London and re-

the title to another Bee Gee’s song, “More Than A Woman.”

gifted his prize to her. But it wasn’t until Donnelly became principal in 1998

When the big night arrived on April. 27, 1979, Father Raftery stood

and experienced Nite Lites the following spring that she really understood

at the door. Legend now has it he stayed there, saluting everyone who came

what the fuss was all about.

and went.

It was a party like no other the North Shore had seen. Guests mingled as

people who had graduated came back even if they didn’t live in the parish

they navigated through seven “rooms.” There was an “Irish Pub” authenticated

any more. It was so cross-generational.”

“I was shocked. It was amazing,” she says. “I was surprised how a lot of

by the “proprietor,” County Mayo native Michael McDermott. Irish step dancers, musicians and singers regaled guests as they tossed back a pint.

The “International Restaurant,” catered by Forte Catering of Glenview,

 

Like all good traditions, Nite Lites evolved with the times,

served specialties from Greece, Mexico, Italy and England from six until

twice being hosted “off-campus” during school expansion. And there have

10 p.m. (before converting to “Deacon’s Disco” from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.)

been changes, some for practicality, others for legal propriety.

Eighth graders no longer serve at Nite Lites because liquor laws

There were also three show rooms. One featured a “Gong Show,”

complete with a Chuck Barris imitator, and two others starred the Tower

prohibit that (their role has been modified to a cameo appearance,

Players and a troupe from Chicago sister parish St. Ambrose. “The Casino”

performing skits to highlight the live auction items). Parents gave up the

was sponsored by the Shinkles and Al’s Meat Market, after which guests

slicing and dicing; the event went back to being fully catered. The school is

proceeded to “The Prize Room” to trade in chips for donated gifts.

still dramatically transformed, but the Winnetka Fire Department makes

its inspection before the doors open. For auctions and prize rooms, the

To keep everyone’s energy perking, the “Night Owl Café,” sponsored by

the Highland Park parents, promised to feed the masses from 11 p.m. until

solicitation of donations has evolved into a social calendar filled with “gift

well into the next morning. Though there would not be a day of rest.

gathering parties.” Despite all the changes, the community spirits that lit the first Nite Lites remains the same. As Kathy Shinkle wrote in the 1979 “Night Fever” program, this is a community effort. “We made new friends, shared

Everything was disassembled that Sunday. Like a

together, making possible the impossible. This is what makes a community

traveling circus, there was no sign of the weekend’s controlled high-spirited

great. A place where people love and care about each other.”

mayhem as the school bell rang on Monday morning. But what did remain

according to Shinkle was camaraderie. 

Lites event, “Vive La France,” marks the 34th anniversary and is expected to

draw in 1,000 guests. And this September will mark the 110th anniversary

“Christians and Jews from Wilmette to Highland Park and from

Today, Nite Lites raises more than $250,000 annually. This year’s Nite

Northfield to Deerfield have joined us in making Nite Lites the best evening

of Sacred Heart School. Today there are 334 students from 187 families

and bargain of the year,” the late Father Raftery once said.

enrolled in the school. They kept their promise. The doors stayed open. 

Next on the agenda was streamlining the production to make more money.

And every year come spring, those lights will go on.

The volunteers became the “slicers, dicers, stirrers, mixers, bakers,

cookers, washers, shuckers, peelers, planners, shoppers, servers, tasters,

Nite Lites "Vive La France" will be held from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Saturday,

and smilers” to eliminate catering costs. Along with chili and des oeufs,

April 28. Must be 21 to enter. For more information, including ticket prices,

they prepared everything from seafood to shish kebob and salad to soup

go to http://www.events.org/NiteLites.

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Sacred Heart School: 1902-2012

Sept. 8, 1902 Sacred Heart School opens on Tower Road in Winnetka as the first parochial school on the North Shore. Fifty six students enroll. Ribbons of pink and grey, the school’s original colors, mark the debut. Students are not required to wear uniforms (so as not to distinguish them from public school students) and no tuition is charged.   Nov. 1, 1908 The church and school are remodeled and reconfigured. The number of students enrolled is 85.   Oct. 1918 School is canceled for three weeks due to the influenza epidemic.   1939 The three-year old parish of Saints Faith, Hope and Charity opens a rival parochial school. Enrollment in Sacred Heart School drops from 169 to 90.    Nov. 1947 Monsignor Hillenbrand announces his plan to build a new school and convent on the occasion of the parish’s first Founders Day celebration.   Sept. 1952 The new school building, designed by Childs and Smith of Chicago, opens with a new address on Gage Street. Student enrollment is 335. The number of nuns rises to 12. 1957 Lay teachers are hired to aid the nuns.   1959 Sacred Heart’s current principal, Sr. Kathleen Donnelly, graduates from Sacred Heart School.

 1961 The enrollment hits an all-time high of 548 students.   1973 After helping to establish Sacred Heart School and teaching for seven decades, the nuns leave the school.   1974 Monsignor retires as pastor and passes the torch to Father Raftery.   1978 Immaculate Conception Parish in Highland Park closes its grade school and its remaining 60 students are bussed to Sacred Heart School. Even with this “saving grace,” enrollment for Sacred Heart School drops to 100.   April 27-28, 1979 The premier of “Night Fever.” A caterer provides the food. Sacred Heart parish’s Tower Players, and volunteers from sister parish, St. Ambrose provide the entertainment.     1989 The 10th anniversary of “Nite Lites.” The chairs proclaim, “Nite Lites has blossomed and grown wildly over a decade to become the most successful parish fundraiser on the North Shore.”    1997 Sacred Heart Church celebrates its 100th anniversary. “Nite Lites” raises $180,000.   1998 Sr. Kathleen Donnelly is appointed principal.   2002 Sacred Heart School celebrates its 100th anniversary.   2004-05 Sacred Heart School builds an addition. During construction, “Nite Lites” is hosted at Highland Park Country Club. Professional entertainment and a caterer are hired. Due to the cost of renting the club, “Nite Lites” is contained to one night.   Apr. 29, 2006 “Nite Lites” returns to the campus of Sacred Heart School. The theme is “Homecoming.” Realizing that the same amount of funds can be raised in one night, “Nite Lites” remains a one-night extravaganza. Also, the use of a caterer and professional entertainment remains in place. Nearly 800 guests attend. More than $250,000 is raised.    April 28, 2012 Enrollment at Sacred Heart School is 334. “Nite Lites, Vive La France!” marks the 34th anniversary of “Nite Lites.” An estimated 1,000 guests will attend. Natalie Hart ung, winnetka classic kids ph oto graphy

21st century Nite Lites

2008: Left to right: Sally O’Brien and Maria Gac of Glencoe with Laurie Bauer of Winnetka, were the Nite Lites shrimp ladies for 20 years. 2006: Left to right: Mary Johnston, Kathy Adler, Katie Mangan and Kristin DiPaolo all of Winnetka welcomed Nite Lites home.

2009: Therese and Michael Romano of Glencoe washed dishes in their first years of Nite Lites. By 2009 they had worked their way up to pasta chefs.

2012: Left to right: Co-Chairs Aisling Toland of Winnetka, Suzanne Kilroy of Glencoe and Sherri Mullins of Winnetka pose in a photo donated by Classic Kids Photography, one of the 2012 sponsors. Other sponsors are Grand Food Center and Apple A Day catering.

QNe wTr ier.com | Quintessential New Trier • 63


Rite of Lites  

Sacred Heart School, Winnetka, parish school fundraiser

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