When Stephanie Baliga runs the Chicago Marathon next month, she’ll have a time goal in mind. But more importantly for the former University of Illinois cross-country runner, she’ll be raising money to renovate a church that serves a poor west Chicago neighborhood.
The 23-year-old Baliga is in the process of becoming a nun. She will be running with a team — the “running nuns” — that she formed to raise money to rebuild Our Lady of the Angels church.
The Mission of Our Lady of the Angels serves the Humboldt Park neighborhood. It needs more space, though, as it shares the church with the YMCA and Chicago Food Depository.
“We feed and clothe about 700 families a month. There’s an afterschool program for 900 kids to keep them off the streets and out of gangs,” Baliga said.
The church also is used for prayer services for the neighborhood — the only quiet place in the neighborhood for prayer, Baliga said — and masses for the mission’s volunteers. Once it’s renovated, the basement will be able to seat 500 people for a meal.
The church was the site of a 1958 school fire that killed 92 children and three nuns. More recently, though, much of the church suffered water damage, and the basement and kitchen were unusable.
The $2 million in renovation work started in May. The mission still has about $50,000 of the cost to raise. Baliga and her team of runners hope to raise $20,000 through the Oct. 9 marathon.
Baliga began running at age 9 with a youth team in Rockford.
“It really introduced me to running in a healthy way. It was to keep kids healthy, and competition was an added benefit,” she said.
She was a star high school runner, winning 19 conference championships in track and cross-country and being named All-State in cross-country three times.
Baliga was recruited by the UI and ran track and cross-country from 2006 to 2010. She was one of the top five runners for the cross-country team during her freshman and sophomore years, and the sixth freshman in the nation in 2006.
But she was plagued with injuries — three stress fractures — during her junior and senior years.
Baliga got involved with the Newman Center on campus as a freshman, but running always came first. Her injuries led her to re-examine her priorities.
“Taking running away forced me to get the rest of my life figured out,” she said. “When running was taken from me because of these broken bones, I really had to re-evaluate my life and realize running was taking too big a part of my life. I realized my life was upside down, where faith should have been first.”
She began to think about becoming a religious sister.
“At first, I thought, I don’t want to do this, but this is what God is calling me to do,” Baliga said. “Then I came to terms with it. It was going to give me peace and going to help me be the person God is calling me to be.”
After she graduated in May 2010, she began looking around for a religious community. She was drawn to the Franciscan communities that stress working with the poor. She joined the community in west Chicago in August 2010.
"I’m extremely at peace with my decision to come here. I feel it’s really what God wants me to do,” she said. “I love what we do. I love the people I’m with. It’s really fantastic.”
The process of becoming a nun takes about four years. While Baliga will become an official sister in the week before the Chicago Marathon, she won’t take her vows for a few more years.
She has continued to run, but “it’s a completely different part of my life than it was when I was running for the UI.”
Baliga ran the Chicago Marathon last year with another sister, Alicia Torres. Torres began running to raise money to pay off her college debt in order to become a nun. She and the charity runners at last year’s Chicago Marathon inspired Baliga to organize a fundraising team of runners to support the church rebuilding project.
Baliga is running 30 to 35 miles a week while marathon training, far less than the 65 miles a week she put in during college cross-country season. She ran her first marathon without much training, and keeping pace with Torres, in 4:50.
But Baliga ran a speedy 1:33 half-marathon this past spring. Her goal for this year’s Chicago Marathon depends on whether she’ll be running with a friend or on her own. Her time goal for running with her friend will be 4:15, but if she’s on her own, she hopes to run a 3:30.
“I love doing it still. It keeps me healthy,” she said of running.
“I think it’s a really helpful metaphor in Christian life,” Baliga continued. “It’s a really tangible and easy way to understand how to overcome challenges and overcome obstacles and understand how your choices in your own life help determine the outcome.”
Photos: Top, Stephanie Baliga, front right, wearing number 1055, with a "Run 4 Nuns" charity team, before a half-marathon in Pittsburgh in the spring of 2011. Middle, Baliga running for the University of Illinois cross-country team in the 2007 NCAA cross-country championships. Bottom, Baliga at the top of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, during a visit to Rome.