As South Philadelphia's two big Catholic high schools prepare to merge, there's no shortage of regret- and blame- to go around.
"When they had gathered together, they asked him, 'Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?' 'It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the father has established by his own authority,' the Lord answered them."
When the gospel's over, Father Olivere walks down off the stage and stands among the students, collecting his thoughts for a moment.
For months Olivere, who will become president of the combined school, has had to be both archdiocese company man in charge of overseeing the consolidation and minister to the wounded flock who resent the change.
It's why he takes special care when preparing his remarks.
"I think it's very significant that as we gather on this day that we meditate upon the mystery of the Lord's ascension into heaven," Olivere says, sweat beading on his forehead. "We should think about what the apostles had been through at this time. They had witnessed Jesus' arrest, his cruel suffering, his torturous death, his resurrection. In the course of these events, they did not understand what was happening. I'm sure they felt threatened and nervous. I'm sure that in some ways they may have even felt that their world was falling apart."
His voice rises.
"In many ways, in the course of the last year, we have undergone many of the same feelings the disciples experienced. In many ways we are nervous, worried. In many ways it may seem that in the closing of our school building that our world is falling apart ... Whether we are seniors ready to graduate or the rest of us about to venture into this new phase in the history of our school, Jesus is going to be with us. He will not abandon us."
Olivere continues to speak, hoping that his words penetrate, but the 14-month consolidation process has left many in the Neumann family numb.
Students continue to shift in their seats. Teachers keep fanning themselves. And Olivere's words blend into the din.
Father Olivere's desk is piled high with paperwork, and he apologizes for the state of his cluttered office. He puts down his briefcase, loosens his collar and falls into his leather chair.
It's a few days after Ascension Thursday, and Olivere says he's spending most of his time shuttling between Neumann, Goretti and the archdiocese offices.
"In order to survive, the consolidation was a necessary thing," he says, settling in at his desk, addressing the community's anger about the change. "What I keep saying throughout this process is, 'The Church is not abandoning you. We're going to have a high school in South Philadelphia. We won't have two anymore, but thank God we still have one.'"
Olivere's explanation may sound like spin, but his call for gratitude seems well placed. Over the past 50 years there's been a steady exodus of Catholics from the city. In 1960 there were 740,000 Catholics in Philadelphia. In 2002 there were 395,000.
In 1965 a record 115,000 attended Philadelphia parish elementary schools. Today that number is just under 31,000.
In 1980 there were 44,000 students attending 30 archdiocesan high schools. There are now 22 high schools and just fewer than 23,000 students.
Enrollment numbers at Neumann and Goretti have reflected the same decline. At one time the schools boasted 3,000 students each. Neumann now has 577 students. Goretti is only slightly bigger with 684.
Ten years ago there was a pool of 1,200 to 1,300 eighth-graders in South Philly for Neumann to draw from. The goal was to attract a quarter of the pool. Last year there were only 480.
"I think we're in a unique position--a difficult position, but a unique one nonetheless," says Olivere, now in full company-man mode, pointing out that 1,305 students have enrolled to attend the new school, up 44 students from the combined enrollment now.
"In order to make Catholic education work in this day and age," he says, "we have to think outside the box. Our model for Catholic education has to change. It's difficult for people to let go of what was."
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