Northeast Times

Do you believe in miracles? St. Hubert says yes!

“We nev­er held a fu­ner­al. To me, we were al­ways a body with a pulse.” — St. Hubert ath­let­ic dir­ect­or Mike Pren­der­gast on re­main­ing op­tim­ist­ic

Stu­dents at St. Hubert’s re­act to the news that their school will re­main open on Fri­day, Feb. 24.

Start­Frag­ment

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

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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