My editor asked me to contribute a personal essay about a recent shake-up in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. On Jan. 6, a commission announced that four high schools and dozens of grade schools would close at the end of the year. My alma mater, St. Hubert’s High School, was on that list.
After a weeks-long appeals process, the diocese announced Hubert’s and the other three high schools will remain open for now.
This was an especially difficult piece to write, given that I rarely flex my personal essay-writing skills, but I was glad for the chance to share it with a larger audience.
My mom and about half the women in my family went to St. Hubert’s. The students wore blue uniforms then — the ones that are now encased in the school’s main hallway and that spark jealousy in every girl who’s ever tried on a brown jumper at the Flynn & O’Hara uniform store.
Catholic school is a way of life in Northeast Philadelphia, regardless of how much of the religion you actually practice. That’s why I spent four years at Hubert’s wearing an unattractive brown and gold uniform — the same uniform that’s been flashed all over evening TV news since the Jan. 6 announcement that the Blue Ribbon Commission would close the school. After being jerked around by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Hubert’s, and the three other high schools the Blue Ribbon Commission tried to close, has learned it will stay open. At least for the next couple of years, those unattractive brown-and-gold uniforms will mill about Torresdale Avenue, cluster at bus stops and dot the neighborhood business serving breakfast to bleary-eyed students.
I went to a school that our rivals called “St. Hobert’s.” We’ve been fighting for years against the notion that going to an all-girls Catholic school somehow makes you a baby factory, so it came as no surprise to me that we would fight the Blue Ribbon Commission’s ruling that our school should close at the end of the year. Anyone who thinks 1,000 teenage girls will go quietly into the night when they’re told their school will close must work for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
St. Hubert’s is where I played tennis, decided I wanted to be a journalist, stayed well into the evenings working on projects and made best friends. It’s where my teachers were humans who didn’t take every opportunity to force Catholicism down your throat, but could give just one sharp look to let a cafeteria full of teenage girls know it was time shut up and say the lunchtime prayer. It’s where many of the teachers have not only spent their whole careers, but where they attended themselves — and sent their daughters.
That way of life — a well-rounded education in a safe environment where discipline is just as important as math — was threatened when the Blue Ribbon Commission told an auditorium full of teary students and teachers that their school has an expiration date. So you’d think the news that Hubert’s has been spared, at least for a couple of years, would be a happy occasion.
When you look at the bigger picture, it is. But how happy can you be feeling as though the rug could be pulled out from under you again at any minute?
Every week brought a new message from the archdiocese. Don’t bother to appeal. Appeal only if you have the money to do so. File an appeal and pray you can raise the money. We’re announcing the appeals decisions today. No wait, we suddenly have another donation to consider that might just save you all. The four high schools can stay open, but let this be a warning to you all. It was a never-ending climb up a roller coaster track that left me in constant fear of what the other side of the hill held.
It’s not clear how long the donations and funds raised will keep these schools open. If we had to, could Hubert’s alumnae scrounge up another million dollars if the archdiocese decides in three years that the school needs to close? And why did we bother raising money at all when West Catholic and Conwell-Egan, who did not appeal their closures, also get to stay open?
I’m one of the lucky ones to have eventually benefited from the Blue Ribbon Commission. My school will stay open so I can continue writing checks and supporting the place that’s supported me. But the archdiocese doesn’t get off scot-free just because some schools will stay open. Its flip-flopping and mind-changing and late-Friday afternoon press conferences have sent a clear message that says, We have no real plan, and any proposal we could possibly formulate is meaningless if you shout loud enough.
That message will hopefully keep students and alumni of Philadelphia parochial schools on their toes and writing checks, but I also worry it’s yet another negative vibe the archdiocese is sending out, ultimately driving away the people who most want to support parochial education — the people who see it as the only option for a solid education in Philadelphia.
I don’t know where I’ll be when I have a high-school-aged daughter, but being from the Northeast means the odds are pretty good I’ll be close by. Will she have the chance I did to go to a neighborhood parochial school and then onto St. Hubert’s? Everyone wants better for their kids. So do I, which is why I’d be more than thrilled to send my daughter to school everyday in an unattractive brown and gold uniform