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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"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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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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