In December 2005, Tommy was a sixth-grader at St. Cyril when the Philadelphia Archdiocese announced plans to shutter the financially drowning school at the end of the academic year.
Tommy was devastated. He wanted to complete eighth grade at St. Cyril with kids he'd known since kindergarten, among staff who'd seen him through medical crises he'd been lucky to survive.
Tommy has cystic fibrosis, as does his older sister, Samantha. The disease creates excessive lung mucus that must be cleared every day with various therapies. It used to kill kids before they left their teens, but children with CF now survive well into adulthood.
They're still eligible, though, to make requests from Make-A-Wish, the foundation that grants wishes to kids with life-threatening medical conditions.
So Tommy, in a breathtaking letter that reiterated his belief in a merciful God, asked Make-a-Wish for $350,000 to keep St. Cyril's school alive for two more years. His parents, Dan and Connie, helped him address the letter, but every word was his own.
His request was beyond the ability of Make-a-Wish to grant. But folks at the charity were so moved by the poignant letter, they leaked it to the press. The resulting publicity galvanized hundreds of parishioners and school alums who'd felt helpless to save their sweet little school.
They held dance-a-thons and sports tourneys, pizza sales and raffles, each generating momentum that inspired communities beyond St. Cyril to help fulfill a faith-filled child's fervent wish.
I followed Tommy's mission in this column, and it was a joy to watch the people of St. Cyril take ownership of what they cherished.
"We should've been doing this years ago," a church member told me. "We've been so energized!"
Within two months, supporters had raised $200,000 - a staggering amount from a mostly blue-collar crowd, and enough to keep the school open for another year. By December, donations topped $400,000, enough to get Tommy to graduation and put the school on the road to solvency.
People called it "The Miracle at St. Cyril."
As Tommy entered Monsignor Bonner High School, a group called BLOCS - Business Leaders Organized for Catholic Schools - began helping the parish school think of itself as a private one: the kind with an endowment, elected board, long-range business plan, and marketing and fundraising strategies.
But the massive and, frankly, exhausting effort that had saved the school could not be sustained without a Tommy-like mission to focus it. Meanwhile, as elsewhere in the Archdiocese, parish membership dwindled, requiring St. Cyril to borrow from the Archdiocese to keep everything afloat.
By Friday, when the stunning announcement came that 49 Catholic schools would close come June, St. Cyril's parish debt was well over a million dollars.
The miracle had run its course.
Worse for Tommy, now an 18-year-old who'd hoped to send his future children to both St. Cyril and Monsignor Bonner (where he's a senior), is that Bonner, too, will cease to exist.
"I am so sad," said Tommy, now called "Tom," when I caught up with him after Sunday Mass at St. Cyril. In six years, he's matured from a short, cherubic adolescent to a strapping, 6-foot rugby player for Bonner. "These aren't just schools. They're our families."
"Can I give you a Bible quote? It's from Luke 23:34: 'Father forgive these people for they know not what they are doing.'
"I just don't know what the Archdiocese is doing," he said, swallowing hard.
St. Cyril's school was the place where he learned "how to be the best Catholic" he possibly could, which has comforted him through a chronic illness and brought him to God in ways that few teens would admit to.
Obviously, it's unrealistic to expect a shrinking church to support schools whose hallways and classrooms hold more memories than they do children.
But it's just as goofy to expect that families who've trusted their children to the everyday love in those places will direct their kids to other schools simply because the Archdiocese wants them to.
"I'm still proud to be Catholic," Tom said.
He just doesn't know where his own kids will learn to be proud Catholics, too.
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