This story wasn’t supposed to have a happy ending. After all, the writing already was on the wall.
Two years ago, the city watched as two beloved educational institutions, Cardinal Dougherty and North Catholic high schools, closed their doors despite frantic fund-raising efforts and desperate pleas for a second chance that never came.
So when the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced plans to close five Philadelphia Catholic high schools in early January, outsiders just assumed that all five, including St. Hubert, at 7320 Torresdale Ave., would be next to go on the chopping block. The decision to close Dougherty and North because of declining enrollment made every school seem vulnerable. However, something else unexpected happened along the way: The fall of these two schools made other communities stronger and more determined not to meet the same fate.
They were in for the fight of their lives, and wouldn’t give up until the casket was closed. Last Friday, after an arduous journey that sent thousands through the emotional wringer, all five high schools were granted a stunning reprieve by the archdiocese. With the casket lid still slightly ajar, all five climbed out with new life. There would be no funeral for Hubert, Conwell-Egan, West Catholic or Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast.
“To be honest, we never held a funeral because those inside these walls and all of the supporters within the community assumed we’d have a next year,” said elated Hubert athletic director Mike Prendergast by phone Saturday night. “For us, there were no final games held or acknowledged, because we were confident in our strength and the enormity of what this school means to so many people. To me, we were always a body with a pulse.”
The students, administrators, parents and alumni held countless rallies to save St. Hubert, and the other once-doomed schools followed suit in their own way, shape and form. From the moment the announcement was made to close the schools on Jan. 6, they made their voices heard, and it didn’t take long for people to recognize the seismic dynamic that closing these schools would create.
Together, their efforts — along with those of some generous, deep-pocketed donors — raised $12 million to help keep all five schools open. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput also announced plans for an independent foundation to raise $100 million over the next five years to help all Catholic schools avoid the fates of Cardinal Dougherty and North Catholic.
“After the shock, I would say the first emotion I had was to be thankful to God for allowing this to happen,” said West Catholic boys basketball coach Guy Moore, who came to know the sadness of a closure decision while coaching North Catholic’s hoops team in the school’s final year. “I’m grateful to the archdiocese for finding it in their hearts to give us another chance. Ever since the initial announcement to close the schools, the mood was really down here, so I can’t put into words how happy I am for these kids.”
Despite the constant, tireless efforts of so many, it was hard to fault anyone for fearing the worst. But at the same time, seeing everyone rally together helped transform initial pessimism into genuine hope.
“Before the announcement, we had all heard the rumors,” Hubert basketball coach Brian Kuzmick said. “I didn’t think we’d be on the list, but once we were, personally I was more pessimistic than optimistic. I had seen what happened with Cardinal Dougherty and North Catholic, and kind of figured the archdiocese had made its mind up and was unwilling to change. But the students, alumni and parents put the time, money and effort into this, and before we knew it we had gained steam.
“I remember the day the announcement was made … there were at least five hundred people on the steps of the school, singing the alma mater,” he continued. “Five hundred more people packed our gym for our game that night to show their support. We have a tradition to sing the alma mater on bus rides back to school following road games, and never did those words have more meaning and life to them as they did in the last six weeks. It was a really special feeling to see how much people care about this school.”
Hubert was among schools that made formal presentations to the archdiocese during an appeals process. When archdiocesan officials delayed a decision on the high schools for a week, hope began to break through more and more. Eighteen Catholic elementary schools had their appeals approved shortly before the delay was announced, and Hubert had no choice but to believe their prayers would be answered next.
ldquo;We all had that sense that there was a good reason for the delay,” Kuzmick said. “And, hey, any news they had couldn’t have been any worse than telling us we were still going to close.”
Now that the schools don’t have to dread the arrival of June, nobody wants to take anything for granted again. St. Hubert will indeed be open for the 2012-13 school year, and all 14 athletic teams and 275 student-athletes (of about 700 total students) have a next season to look forward to. The spring sports teams can rest easy knowing that the upcoming season will not be their last.
“I’m happy for the Catholic League that we get to keep these teams, but most importantly I’m happy for the girls,” said Archbishop Ryan women’s basketball coach Jackie Hartzell, a 2001 Hubert graduate. “I wasn’t even really that surprised by the good news. I told my sister that if we were still in school there, we would have been holding hands on those steps every morning along with everyone else. I think the people on the outside that didn’t understand why this was so important to us … they get it now.”
Added Prendergast: “It was an emotional roller-coaster for sure. I’ve only been here for a year and a half, but I got so involved with these kids that they became like my own. Like them, I did my fair share of crying over the last few weeks. Within days of me being here, they made me a part of their family. They love me, and I love them right back.”
Now, with their futures no longer in limbo, normal life can resume at these five high schools … or as normal as life can be after such a draining two months.
“I think the most important lesson the kids learned was that if you speak up, people will hear you,” said Moore, who can now avoid the unemployment line for the second time in three years. “Not only did they speak up, but they were powerful with their voices. I’m so thankful and grateful that this day came. I think everybody is.”
But before he hung up the phone on Sunday night, Moore had one more request: “Hey … let’s make this the last of these articles, because I don’t think I can handle going through all of this again.” ••EndFragment