Celebrating The Roman Century

Posted: September 08, 1989

Just off to the side of what is now Sister Diane's music room - past the oompah-pahs and rooty-toot-toots - stood the tower.

The tower of scribble.

It was an imposing landmark that stared proudly into the city's southwest sky for almost 70 years.

It also was "off limits."

But that didn't mean beans to hundreds - perhaps thousands - of prankish young men who tested their mettle by climbing into the musty, darkened tower to leave their mark for future generations.

With pen, pencil, chalk, even paint in hand, the defiant ones braved the 35-foot or so climb up the fire ladder and into the tower to scribble their names on its sides.

Over the years, many a generation has followed in their footsteps. Not into the tower, but through the halls and classrooms of Roman Catholic High School, which is about to kick off a year-long series of events to mark its 100th anniversary.

There was a time, not too long ago, that it appeared Roman, the oldest and first free Catholic high school in North America, wouldn't be around to celebrate its own centennial.

That was in 1986, when Cardinal John J. Krol, then archbishop of Philadelphia, threatened to close the landmark at Broad and Vine streets

because of declining enrollment and a deficit of more than $400,000.

But the school's alumni came to their alma mater's rescue.

Roman's glorious and honorable past had survived. Its future was preserved.

And what a past.

The school was founded and built through the benevolence of Thomas E. Cahill, a wealthy Catholic layman and Philadelphia merchant. When he died in 1878, Cahill left the bulk of his almost $1 million estate to establish a high school for the "practical and free education of boys over 11 living in Philadelphia."

At the time, there were a couple of Catholic prep schools in the city which charged tuition. But Roman, as stipulated in Cahill's will, would be free.

On Sept. 11, 1890, Roman Catholic High School opened its doors to 105 boys who four years later would be members of the school's first graduating class of 1894.

Since then, between 17,000 and 18,000 "Cahillites" have hit the books beneath Roman's golden dome . . . and copper-covered tower.

Some hit them pretty hard.

Among Roman's graduates were the late TV newscaster John Facenda, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Charles Fuller, sportscaster Matt Goukas Sr., All-Pro football player Jim Katcavage, former Archdiocesan Schools Superintendent Msgr. John J. Bonner (who also has a school named in his honor), and scads of judges, lawyers, businessmen and priests.

In fact, dozens of the latter will concelebrate an alumni Mass of Thanksgiving with Archbishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua Sept. 17 at the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul.

Also among Roman's legions is Charlie Barden.

Class of '13!

"They used to call me 'Mr. Catholic High'," boasted the 93-year-old Barden, one of Roman's two oldest living alumni. "In the four years I was there, I never missed a game, never missed an affair, never missed anything they ever had."

Barden never climbed into the tower, either.

"I remember that ladder only too well, but I never did get up there," said Barden, currently residing in a Montgomery County nursing home.

"I know we were doing it in my day, but my guts were not too strong when it came to doing things like that. I guess I was a coward. I'd rather write on a bathroom wall.

"I remember one day I got up to the ladder, but I lost my nerve," he added. "I might have gotten partway up, but then I got the lump."

The tower, destroyed by fire in July 1959, came with the school.

It was built as an observatory tower for an astronomy class that was to be formed later. Well, later came, the class went, and the tower became a sort of modern-day water tower, where upcoming graduates would inscribe their name, class year, and maybe a farewell message, for posterity.

What Charlie Barden left for posterity is his loyalty and love for the Purple and Gold.

After graduating, Barden, a retired mustard salesman, continued to attend Roman football games for 45 years. "The last one I attended was in 1955. It was Thanksgiving Day. We beat St. Joe's Prep 46-0. It was one of the happiest days in my life.

"After that game, I stayed home and helped my wife make the turkey filling. She was a wonderful woman."

Barden paused for a moment, then cleared his throat.

"My wife often asked me, 'Charlie, who do you love most. Me or Catholic High?' "

Well?

"I was always noncommittal," Barden laughed.

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