As South Philadelphia's two big Catholic high schools prepare to merge, there's no shortage of regret- and blame- to go around.
On this Sunday in late May, there's a special Mass commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of Southeast Catholic/Neumann High and the closing of the current building.
Despite the unseasonably warm weather, a few hundred Neumann alumni stand in the school's auditorium and sing their alma mater.
"Glorious things of thee are spoken, hail to thee/ O great Neumann High/ Our hearts are always with you/ You're the finest guiding light."
After the Mass there's a beef-and-beer in the gymnasium.
Beneath the dozens of championship banners lining the walls, young and old sit at tables, sipping beer and trading memories--Southeast Catholic, the Saturday-night mixers, the Norbertine priests who once ran Neumann, legendary football and baseball coach Paul Bartolomeo and of course the Neumann-Southern Thanksgiving football classics.
There's some laughter, but it's the kind usually reserved for Irish wakes.
"This is it--it's over," says Ed McBride, the 66-year-old president of the Millay Club, the alumni association that represents some 20,000 graduates of Southeast Catholic-Bishop Neumann-St. John Neumann and contributes in excess of $400,000 a year to Neumann for scholarship money. The group also pays for maintenance of the sports fields.
"My feelings are tinged with some anger toward the archdiocese," says McBride, echoing the sentiments of many in the Neumann community. "If the new school succeeds, it be will despite them and not because of them."
McBride was on the front lines of the fight against consolidation in 1992, when the archdiocese first broached the idea of merging Neumann and Goretti. Then, he says, there were still enough students to make a case for saving Neumann. "With the reality of the numbers now," he says, "it's different."
In 1996, facing dwindling numbers of parishioners and rising debt, the archdiocese began a controversial restructuring process. Parishes became clusters, and dozens of struggling churches and schools were closed. Many in South Philadelphia began to begrudgingly accept the fact that consolidation was coming.
McBride says it's not the consolidation that's angered the Neumann community, but rather the way it was carried out--especially when it came to selecting the new school's site.
When the Neumann faculty were assembled in the school library on an icy March afternoon last year, many thought they knew why. Rumors of a pending merger between Neumann and Goretti had been flying for years.
But Philadelphia secretary for Catholic education Richard McCarron surprised the assembly with news that Neumann had the "choice" of either closing or finding another school with which to merge.
"It wasn't much of a choice, though," says Neumann principal Bill Miles. "The onus of the burden was on Neumann. There was a perception that Neumann was struggling and Goretti was thriving when the reality is that both schools had been suffering from declining enrollment and rising deficits."
By initially leaving Goretti out of the equation, it seems the archdiocese sparked some unneeded tension between the two schools' staffs. The Neumann folks thought the fix was in for Goretti.
"The Neumann faculty felt they had virtually no say at all when it came to the transition," says Paul Coyne, a longtime Neumann teacher.
Those at Goretti, meanwhile, were rankled by having to take on Neumann.
There was some initial resentment, admits Goretti principal Sticco, but she describes that as a "minority opinion" that was "short-lived."