As South Philadelphia's two big Catholic high schools prepare to merge, there's no shortage of regret- and blame- to go around.
It's the third Thursday in May, Ascension Thursday, a holy day of obligation in the Catholic Church. The boys of St. John Neumann High School are slowly filing into the school's auditorium for morning Mass.
Today is yet another last in a year of lasts for the kids who go to Neumann, which will shut its doors for good on June 11 before merging with its sister school, St. Maria Goretti, in September. This morning marks the final time the entire Neumann student body will gather together as a group.
Preparing for Mass in a small room in the lobby of Neumann's auditorium is school president Father Michael Olivere. Stout, with a shaven-bald head and easy laugh, Olivere, 42, has a calming, authoritative presence that the Neumann boys admire.
Four years ago the Archdiocese of Philadelphia appointed Olivere to the top spot at Neumann, which, like Goretti and many other Catholic schools in Philadelphia, has been struggling for years with declining enrollment and rising deficits. Rumors of impending consolidation have plagued the two fiercely loyal, tradition-bound South Philadelphia institutions for nearly a quarter-century.
"Do your best," was the archdiocese's advice to Olivere when it handed him the Neumann assignment.
Founded in 1934 as Southeast Catholic, St. John Neumann High School was originally located in a small four-story building at Seventh and Christian streets.
In 1958, under the guidance of Cardinal John Francis O'Hara, the school was relocated to a new home at 26th and Moore streets and renamed in honor of John Neumann, the fourth bishop of Philadelphia--which was fitting, since Neumann, a friend to the poor and to immigrants, was responsible for the construction of many of the city's schools and parishes.
St. Maria Goretti High School, established in 1955, is as much a part of the fabric of South Philadelphia as Neumann. Over the decades, countless teens met at Neumann/Goretti mixers, later married and ultimately sent their children and grandchildren off to repeat the same life cycle. Both high schools were as much about perpetuating a way of life as they were about education.
But with the upcoming merger, that way of life will come to an end.
Members of both school communities say they're dedicated to the success of the new combined facility--St. John Neumann and St. Maria Goretti High School--as a way of at least preserving Catholic education in the neighborhood. But emotions about the merger remain raw.
It's the end of same-sex Catholic education in South Philly, the death of a certain tradition and yet another change for a neighborhood that's already seen its share of change in recent decades.
The consolidated school will have a new mission statement, along with new school colors, team names, a mascot and a coat of arms.
"Both schools are going through a grieving process," says Goretti principal Patricia Sticco. "We're all letting go of something."
But for Neumann the grieving is considerably tougher. Neumann is losing its building, its home, and that's a tough pill for Neumann alumni to swallow.
Making matters worse, many in the Neumann community resent how the archdiocese went about the consolidation. Some think Neumann wasn't given a fair chance at survival, while others wonder about the archdiocese's commitment to Catholic education in deeply Catholic South Philadelphia.
Mass has begun. The auditorium is thick with late spring heat. Sunlight streams through open windows. Wearing summer polo shirts, Neumann students shift in their wooden flip-up seats. Teachers fan themselves with Mass programs. Two large area fans flanking the stage hum loudly. Father Olivere sits at the altar, his hands folded across his lap.
Another priest reads the gospel.