Karen Heller: Those who lost beloved school keep spirit alive

Former assistant principal John Mooney, Class of 1950, kneels by a mural of St. James Catholic High in Chester that shows him leaving with Boomer the bulldog.
Former assistant principal John Mooney, Class of 1950, kneels by a mural of St. James Catholic High in Chester that shows him leaving with Boomer the bulldog. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 11, 2012

There is life after the death of a Catholic school, Michael Ritz wants students and parents to know, a spiritual resurrection.

Two decades ago, the archdiocese announced the closing of Ritz's beloved St. James Catholic High in Chester. Prayers, tears, and protests followed, the same emotional turmoil now experienced by the communities of 49 institutions slated for elimination.

St. James closed anyway. June 1993, as if the alumni could forget.

Assistant principal John Mooney, Class of 1950, St. James English teacher of 39 years, athletic director, coach of three sports (six Catholic League and two city baseball championships), was the man selected to shut St. James' blue metal doors a final time, with Boomer, the bulldog and school mascot, by his side.

"We were torn by our loss but are forever bound by our spirit," says Ritz, Class of '71, president of the St. James Alumni Association. "The school is closed, but St. James' legacy lives on."

The closing of the 53-year-old school wasn't personal, they understand, but economics. The fight lasted only a few months.

The alumni association has never been stronger, 1,550 dues-paying members. Mr. Mooney, 77, is very much in their lives. The men, in their 50s and 60s, still call their teacher and coach "Mr. Mooney." They're good Catholic boys that way.

In nearly two decades, the group has distributed more than a half-million dollars in scholarships, sponsoring 26 students with four-year awards at diocesan schools. The association also makes sizable contributions to nonacademic charities, church-affiliated and secular, many of which assist the poor.

"We want to tell the families of those schools that there's life after closure," says Lou Robinson Jr., Class of '68. He leads the group's 35-man choir, Blue and Gray Voices, which has produced three CDs and performs extensively to promote the association's charitable work.

St. James hosts 18 events every year, eight fund-raisers, with more than 700 alums and family members attending the "Bark at the Park" Phillies game. The men's closets are stuffed with new St. James jerseys and sweats. There are commemorative plates, pins, hats, and Christmas ornaments with a photo of Mr. Mooney and Boomer.

"We don't bleed red," says vice president Joseph "Jody" Poliafico, '65. "We bleed blue and gray." The group produces a newsletter, a website. The school history sold out.

St. James has everything except a school.

In 2003, the men of St. James purchased a building in nearby Eddystone, now decorated with virtually every photo, trophy, and sweater from the original building at 21st and Potter Streets.

Headquarters is known as "the Doghouse" in honor of the team, the Bulldogs. Also, Poliafico notes, because "we're here so much, our wives want to put us in one."

The Doghouse has a chapel for monthly Mass, a reception hall rented 60 times a year to raise more money, a boardroom, a Bulldog Pub with endowed bar stools. Benefactors have first rights or can "rent" them out for $5, payable to the scholarship box.

There's an alumni plaque affixed to everything but the urinals. Ritz doesn't think that's a bad idea, either.

"I learned two things quickly," he says near the outdoor grotto honoring St. James' deceased. "I don't like to pay for things, and our older guys like to see their names on things."

St. James is not alone in keeping a closed school's spirit alive. St. Thomas More in West Philadelphia was shuttered in 1975 to anger and anguish. "We didn't really have a very active alumni association before that. It took the closing to generate this interest," says St. Thomas More's assistant treasurer, Gerry Woods. "We're trying to hold on to the legacy as long as we can."

Since 1982, St. Thomas More alumni have also distributed more than half a million in scholarships, and last year were honored by the archdiocese.

St. James' men came from working-class families in industrial Chester, many the first to attend college. Their loyalty to St. James is greater than to their colleges or civic organizations. The school's closing increased their commitment to promoting the legacy. No younger men will duplicate their zeal. Says Ritz: "We're not a renewable organization."

Without their faith in St. James, in how the school shaped them into men, the memories will fade.

With more than four decades at the school as a student, teacher, coach, and administrator, the genial Mr. Mooney is the oral historian. Going over plaque after plaque in the reception hall, he rattles off the names of alums, where they attended college, graduate school, went to work. He knew all of St. James' bulldog mascots: Tuffy, Nellie, Raggedy Ann, and Boomer, whose ashes rest in a box in his Brookhaven home.

Each evening, Mr. Mooney remembers St. James' dead in his prayers, along with alumni who are ill.

"I can do 500 names," he says, and so he recites them nightly.

The men of St. James want the families of West Catholic, Conwell Egan, St. Hubert's, and Monsignor Bonner/Archbishop Prendergast to know that good can come from pain, as well as more than a half-million in scholarships.

"I know what they're going through," Ritz says, sporting his St. James ring, bulldog pin, and Knight crest. "It's not the end. Take the high road. Show them what a Catholic education is all about."

So when did Ritz stop being upset about St. James' closing? He shoots a stunned look. "I'm still upset."

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller.

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