Marriage of Convenience

As South Philadelphia's two big Catholic high schools prepare to merge, there's no shortage of regret- and blame- to go around.

By Mike Newall
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 5 | Posted Jun. 2, 2004

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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.

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Comments 1 - 5 of 5
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1. Frank Ferraro said... on Feb 20, 2013 at 08:56PM

“I will never forget Fr. Charles Urban at Southeast and Neumann. He was my greatest scientific infulence. Also, Fr. Feider I Master German enough to study at Heildelberg when I was in Germany. Most of Charlie Urban influenced my Career. Princeton Plasma Physics Labs. NASA near Earth Satellites, Consultant to the US Navy on the Aegis System. I am now retired WOW!! What a career. Southeast and Neumann the greatest Eduacation.”

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2. Frank Ferraro said... on Feb 20, 2013 at 09:03PM


OH! sorry I forgot to add Class of "56" Occupation Electronic Engineer.

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3. Duane E. Tressler, (Baltimore, Md.), said... on Feb 6, 2014 at 02:25AM

“A similar tragic situation ninety miles to the southwest in "The Monumental City" of Baltimore where Cardinal Gibbons High School in the southwestern part of the city was closed in a great controversy, similar to South Philadelphia except there was no merger with anyone. Gibbons was a more recent school, founded 1966 on the site of the old St. Mary's Industrial School, founded in the 1860's where the famous Babe Ruth attendedand lived as a child in the early 1900's and learned his game on a back field with Brother Mathias being his mentor. The field is still there with a suitable plaque about his first home run, although the modernistic Gothic stone buildings of Gibbons were smaller that replaced the old brick Victorian/French Second Empire massive pile that the old St. Mary's structure was. Ruth signed a contract in 1914 with the local Baltimore Orioles which then played in the minor league status of the old International League, later was sold to the Boston Red Sox, then Yankees.”

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4. Duane E. Tressler, (Baltimore, Md.), said... on Feb 6, 2014 at 02:38AM

“The boys at Gibbons had all this as part of their heritage and a newer girls Catholic school down the suburban road a few blocks named Archbishop Keough High School, in a modern 1960's era expansive building which earlier had absorbed the merger of another old inner city girls secondary school, Seton High School, (founded 1865 and in a beautiful brick building in north Baltimore's Charles Village, a Victorian neighborhood), now known as Seton-Keough High School. One historic city girls school is left: the Institute of Notre Dame which is run by the SSND. The saga of the giving Gibbons students went on several months. Those are two of the Catholic high schools that Baltimore lost along with a smaller female Academy of the Visitation in the 1980s. A large number of the elementary and middle schools of the Archdiocese of Baltimore have also been closed or merged along with a number of urban parishes although probably not on as bad or extensive a level that we have read about in other ci”

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5. Duane E. Tressler, (Baltimore, Md.), said... on Feb 6, 2014 at 02:44AM

“The boys at Cardinal Gibbons HS had all this as part of their heritage and a newer girls school down the suburban road a few blocks named Archbishop Keough High School, in a modern 1960's era expansive building which earlier had absorbed the merger of another old inner city girls secondary school, Seton High School, (founded 1865 and in a beautiful brick building in north Baltimore's Charles Village, a Victorian neighborhood), now known as Seton-Keough High School. One historic city girls school is left: the Institute of Notre Dame which is run by the SSND. The saga of the giving Gibbons students went on several months. Those are two of the Catholic high schools that Baltimore lost along with a smaller female Academy of the Visitation in the 1980s. A large number of the elementary and middle schools of the Archdiocese of Baltimore have also been closed or merged along with a number of urban parishes although probably not as bad or extensive a level that we have seen in other cities”

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