'The imaginary line': Recalling when Bishop Egan High was coed

Cass Loveless (right) celebrates Conwell-Egan's reprieve with the Rev. Fidelis Weber and Pattie Fratantaro Amoroso (center).
Cass Loveless (right) celebrates Conwell-Egan's reprieve with the Rev. Fidelis Weber and Pattie Fratantaro Amoroso (center). (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 13, 2012

As students, faculty, and parents waited anxiously in the gym at Conwell-Egan High School last month to learn the fate of their school, alumni talked proudly of its heritage.

Women recalled the all-girls Bishop Conwell High School in Levittown. Men remembered the all-boys Bishop Egan High School in Fairless Hills.

And Cass Loveless, Class of 1961, boasted about an earlier, forgotten time, when Bishop Egan opened as the first Catholic high school in lower Bucks County, with 605 boys and girls taking classes, eating lunch, and going to dances together.

"A lot of alumni don't know that girls went to Bishop Egan," Loveless said. "Anyone younger than 50 tells us, 'You didn't go to Egan, you went to Conwell.' "

Last week, Loveless wore her Bishop Egan ring to lunch at Carlucci's restaurant with eight other members of the Class of '61 who have been getting together since celebrating the 50th anniversary of their graduation. They reminisced about classmates and teachers, keeping alive memories of the eight years when the school was coed.

"We're the founding mothers of the school," Mary Hayes Nichols said and laughed.

The school opened in 1957, as U.S. Steel's Fairless Works attracted thousands of workers to lower Bucks, and Levittown and Fairless Hills homes sprouted to house them. The four-story school next to St. Michael the Archangel Church on Levittown Parkway was the tallest building in the county, Nichols recalled.

It opened with only freshmen and sophomores who would have had to travel to Catholic schools in Northeast Philadelphia or Center City.

Those students were able to shape their school, choosing the eagle as the mascot and royal blue and gray as the colors. They started the school newspaper, drama club, and yearbook, which wasn't published until 1960, with the first graduating class.

Like the students, eight nuns came from surrounding parishes. Six priests, including the Rev. Fidelis Weber, came from high schools in the city.

In the first year, boys and girls attended classes and mingled throughout the day - unheard of in the era of boys' and girls' Catholic schools, the women said.

After the first year, the archdiocese weighed in, Father Weber said in his office as a guidance counselor at Conwell-Egan.

"The archdiocese said, 'We don't have coed classes,' " recalled the Franciscan, who taught religion and helped coach the football team. "We said, 'We only have one building, one library, one set of labs.' "

Life changed. There were segregated classes, designated stairways, and an "imaginary line," with boys on one end of the school and girls on the other.

Belinda Camillucci remembered the time her boyfriend, Fred, was disciplined for crossing into the girls' side to see her.

"A priest made him kneel, and, with his arms outstretched, hold his books in each hand," she said.

The couple had met at one of the school's Friday-night dances in the gym.

"We're still dancing," she said. "We're married 48 years, and we wouldn't have met if the school wasn't coed."

Boys and girls were allowed to "slow dance," but they were reminded "to leave room for the Holy Spirit," Camillucci said.

Most activities were coed, as were some classes, including French, German, science labs, and typing. Lunch was, too, though boys sat in the front of the cafeteria and girls in the back.

There were three ways to get to and from school - ride a parish bus, take a bus for $2 a week, or walk.

"There was a bus for adults that was always empty and a student bus that was always packed," Nichols said. "I stood for four years."

When they missed the bus, they walked. Those from Croydon trekked about seven miles along Route 13.

Students attended the school for a parish fee of $20 to $50 a year, the women said.

"In those days, parish priests paid for us to go to school . . . as long as we kept good grades," Rita Schroeder Anderson said.

In 1961, Anderson and her class of 305 young men and women was the first to graduate after four years at Egan.

As enrollment climbed to 2,400, a school was built for the boys where Conwell-Egan stands today. When the boys moved in January 1966, they took their school's name with them.

"We lost our identity, especially the women," Loveless said sadly.

The original school became an all-girls high school. Because Egan had been named for the archdiocese's first bishop, the girls' school was named Conwell for its second bishop.

After eight years, the era of Bishop Egan women was over.

Conwell and Egan went on for 28 years before merging in 1993. The original school was demolished in 2007.

"I scaled the fence and took some bricks," Loveless said.

Two and a half weeks ago, the Egan women cheered the news that Conwell-Egan would stay open.

They know how it feels to lose something so ingrained in their lives.

"With the school being saved, it's important for people to know where we're coming from and why it means so much to be remembered as females who went to Egan," Loveless said. "We were the originals."

Contact Bill Reed at 215-801-2964, wreed@philly.com, or follow @breedbucks on Twitter. Read his blog, "BucksInq," at www.philly.com/bucksinq.

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