Remembering Catholic Schools in Philly

Getting an Archdiocesan education in this city wasn’t always just an option. For many, it was a decision steeped in tradition.

The Facebook rumors started before Christmas. “I hear from a reliable source that St. William’s is definitely closing,” one person posted. “No way McDevitt can survive the cuts,” wrote another. “A person who works at Ryan says they’re done,” said a third.

In my world, peppered with friends I made during 12 years of Catholic school in Philadelphia, Friday’s announcement about which high school and elementary schools would merge or shutter, was big news. All day, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were blowing up with rumors, announcements (“Just got the call from Pres! We’re safe!”) and calls for prayers for those impacted by the closings. Photos of the “Occupy St. Hubert’s” movement popped up in the late afternoon.

I understand the outcry. My high school—Cardinal Dougherty—closed last spring. Though I have a very neutral opinion about high school—it was neither the best nor the worst time of my life—I come from a family of proud CDHS alums. More than 40 years after his graduation, my dad is the musical director of the Cardinal Dougherty High School Alumni Band and my mom attends nearly every concert. My parents loved high school in a way that would seem corny if it weren’t so genuine. They were deeply saddened by the school’s closure and attended support rallies—much like the ones currently being organized for schools around the region.

St. William’s in Lawncrest—where I attended from kindergarten through eighth grade and where my mom taught for 10 years—made this year’s closure list. It will merge with St. Cecilia’s in Fox Chase next year.

It’s a strange feeling to know your alma maters no longer exist. Growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, going to Catholic school didn’t seem like a choice parents made. It was just what you did. Thinking back, I can remember exactly two kids in my neighborhood who attended public school. Surely there must’ve been more, but even as I got older and my neighborhood boundaries spread, I knew very few “publics.” It wasn’t until college—when I started meeting not only students who’d gone to public school in Philly, but students who’d grown up outside of the Northeast—that I realized that Philadelphia’s Catholic school system was so notable and widespread. In my first year at Temple, I met only two other kids who’d attended Catholic school.

When the announcement came on Friday, two very distinct memories kept rolling around in my head.

The first is the yearly May procession at St. William’s. One evening during the first week of May, we’d leave our itchy, pleated plaid uniforms on after school. After a quick dinner, we’d head back to the schoolyard where we’d line up with our classes and march, as a community, to the middle school’s large parking lot—when I attended, the student body was so large there were three buildings packed to the brim with students—where we’d sing hymns about the Blessed Mother. My favorite was “Hail Holy Queen,” because we’d each be given a flower to hoist in the air in time with the chorus. With each “Salve Regina,” hundreds of flowers would be thrust higher and higher toward the sky.

It’s the dwindling of this kind of tradition—May processions, Christmas plays, Walkathons, Christmas tree lightings and Catholic Schools Week events—that makes me sad about the closing of 48 Catholic schools in the Philadelphia region. Though I no longer consider myself attached to any religion, I like the sense of community that can come from being a part of a ritual larger than yourself. In Catholic school, everyone is unified, everyone is supposed to believe the same things, everyone prays for each other. It’s a nice idea.

My second memory reminds me that Catholic school isn’t all May processions and prayers.

In this recollection, I’m sitting in a theology class at Dougherty where a nun is railing against homosexuality. I forget the exact words of her screed, but it ended with her putting mismatched puzzle pieces on the overhead projector to showcase why being gay is wrong. “The parts just don’t fit,” she exclaimed as she tried to force them together. Looking back, I now know that at least three students in that classroom were—are—homosexual and my heart breaks thinking about how uncomfortable it must’ve been for them.

I don’t share that story to undercut Catholic schooling. I believe that despite a few negative experiences, I received a good education that prepared me for college and the real world. But it wasn’t perfect—and it’s important to remember that while the archdiocese reconfigures the educational system. This is an opportunity to improve things and start fresh and help keep the Philadelphia tradition of Catholic education alive.

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  • Natalie Hope McDonald

    Great piece. While I didn’t attend Catholic school in Philly, I did spent 12 years at a small parochial school elsewhere. And the memories are much the same – for better or worse. I never doubted the educational expectations, which far surpassed the local public school at the time. But with so many black eyes on the Catholic legacy, not to mention ongoing economic woes, it’s not entirely surprising that so many of these schools are closing their doors. But like you write, hopefully it becomes a time for improvement. No one should have to sit in a classroom and hear that AIDS is a punishment from God (similar to your story, I remember a deacon giving one of those lectures). It enrages me still.