By Christie L. Chicoine
CS&T Staff Writer
PHILADELPHIA – Turning pages in a textbook poses difficulty for Michael McDonnell, a graduate this year of Father Judge High School for Boys, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 6.
But that has not deterred Michael, who lost his ability to walk at age 12, from bearing his cross courageously and with class – in more than one sense of the word.
As Michael was approaching his June 3 graduation from Father Judge High at press time, he and his parents were celebrating his achievement with the high school and with St. Jerome School, where he graduated in 2005. The family appreciates how accommodating both Northeast Philadelphia schools have been to Michael’s situation.
“It’s been amazing at Jerome’s and Judge,” Michael said. “What I learned at Mass and in class taught me that everyone bears their own cross. That’s basically my motto.”
In preschool and kindergarten at St. Jerome, Michael’s parents and the school detected he was behind in the development of his gross motor skills. His gait appeared compromised, and he had difficulty in activities such as throwing a ball and running.
The summer before Michael entered first grade at St. Jerome School, his parents, James and Dorothy, were “hit with the sledgehammer of a muscular dystrophy diagnosis” for their son, James recalled.
However, “there was no time to feel sorry for ourselves – school was starting in just a couple weeks,” he said. “We were not going to be beaten by this, and we wouldn’t let Mike be beaten. Our goal was to give Mike the same opportunities any other child had available.”
St. Jerome School agreed. Michael’s parents recalled how then-principal Mary Rochford – who is now the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s superintendent of schools – assured them the school would do whatever was necessary to equip Michael with the education he deserved.
In fifth grade, Michael began using a manual wheelchair, which allowed him to control its movement. Since the summer before sixth grade, he has had to utilize a motorized wheelchair.
Beginning in the fourth grade, and throughout the rest of Michael’s years at the school, any classes that had been scheduled on the second floor were moved to the first floor. “That they were willing to do that was just amazing,” Dorothy said.
The only exception was the upstairs computer class, which met once a week. For that class, James would go to the school to carry Michael up the stairs while Dorothy, a registered nurse who worked at the school as a teacher’s aide, met them with the wheelchair at the top of the stairs. On the rare occasions that James could not come to the school because of work commitments, either a teacher or the maintenance men carried Michael up the stairs.
Father Judge High continued what St. Jerome School started. “From day one, they accepted him with open arms,” Dorothy said. “They treated him like the other guys.”
In that regard, Michael, who became a member of the National Honor Society, was held accountable for maintaining good grades and behavior, just like his classmates, his mother said. Among the Judge faculty who were particularly kind to him was Frank Cahill, his junior and senior English instructor.
Michael’s classmates helped him wherever and whenever needed, particularly on and off the school elevator, without complaint. “The students were so helpful to me,” he said.
The only logistical difficulty at Judge was getting to the lunchroom, since the elevator is not connected to the cafeteria floor. For that period, Michael’s mother reported to the school to help navigate his lunch route.
Jon Wolfe, a classmate since their days at St. Jerome, coordinated his lunch period with Michael’s so that he could help him at the lunch table every year at Judge.
Judge’s school nurse, Linda Connelly, attended Michael’s junior and senior proms to assist him during the formal dinner and dance.
Muscular dystrophy weakens the body’s muscles. Although Michael is able to move his extremities, he cannot open a can of soda or lift a book by himself. In order to feed himself, Michael must use his left arm to his pull his right arm toward his mouth.
Among Michael’s many happy memories at Judge was when Sheldon Brown, a Philadelphia Eagles cornerback, visited the school and quizzed the students on sports trivia. A friend of a friend gave Michael the answer, and for that Michael won an autographed football.
Throughout his years at Judge and St. Jerome, Michael has strived to give back to his peers, teachers and administrators by demonstrating a determined demeanor.
“I hope I’ve taught them how to get through life regardless of the hardships one goes through,” he said.
Michael has also realized the importance of just being himself.
At Judge, he was also a member of the Community Service Corps (CSC) and served as a math tutor to fellow Judge students.
A highlight of one of Michael’s CSC projects was calling out Bingo numbers for youngsters with disabilities. At the parish level, he has helped cut coupons to benefit the meal program run by the nonprofit organization Aid for Friends.
A history buff, Michael plans to major in history at Holy Family University in Philadelphia in the fall.
“His goal and our goal from the beginning was to have him go through a Catholic school,” Dorothy said. “It was a collaborative effort between us, St. Jerome’s and Father Judge. The teachers have been absolutely amazing. The inclusion was unbelievable.”
Concluded Michael’s father: “Such a unique young man will not receive All-Catholic praise or be valedictorian of his class, but in his way he has learned the most important lesson you can in 14 years of Catholic education – walk the path of Christ, do the little things well and with humility and God will provide what you need.”
An anonymous donor paid for half of Michael’s tuition throughout his four years of high school.
To congratulate Michael McDonnell on his achievements, send correspondence by standard mail to Father Judge High School for Boys, 3301 Solly Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19136 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
CS&T Staff Writer Christie L. Chicoine may be reached at (215) 587-2468 or email@example.com.