Their web site is “stmforever.com” and the alumni of St. Thomas More High School, which had a brief run in West Philadelphia from 1936 to 1975, truly mean it.
It easily has one of the most active and loyal alumni bases in the Archdiocese and they annually show their affection for their old school and Catholic education in general by making generous contributions to scholarships so that today’s youth may enjoy the type of education they experienced a generation ago.
“We have averaged $70,000 in scholarships for the last four years,” said Thomas More Alumni President John Millon, who graduated just one year before the school closed.
Right now the scholarship fund, which supports Catholic school students in the Archdiocese, has about $1.4 million; enough to keep it going for quite some time. That is crucial because the youngest grads of St. Thomas More are now in their mid-50s, and this fund is designed to keep their flame burning long after they are gone.
Two smaller funds have also been initiated: one helps descendants of alumni who have moved to other dioceses; and another focuses on funding from corporations as part of the Pennsylvania Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which allows companies to deduct most of their donations from their state taxes.
What was to become St. Thomas More High School started out as a freshman annex for nearby West Catholic High School at Our Mother of Sorrows Parochial School. At that time West Philadelphia was wall-to-wall row-house Catholic, and in 1936, when Our Mother of Sorrows was about to open a new parochial school building, Cardinal Dennis Dougherty decided the community would be better served with another boys’ high school.
So it instead opened with a student body composed of the former sophomores who had attended Our Mother of Sorrows in their freshman year and a new class of freshman as St. Thomas More High School for Boys.
The founding faculty was almost entirely young priests who were ordained in 1936, which wasn’t surprising considering Philadelphia ordained 49 priests that year. Toward the end, by Millon’s day, they had been replaced by Vincentian Fathers, Franciscans and lay teachers.
As archdiocesan high schools went, St. Thomas More was never large – it peaked at about 1,100 students, and most years there were quite a bit less. This made competing in Catholic League sports tough, but the Golden Bears found their niche in basketball and took home four Catholic crowns and three city championships.
The school was hard-hit by the Catholic flight to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, and finally in 1975, with enrollment plummeting, the school closed.
The alumni association remained dormant until 1982, when a group decided to hold a reunion Mass at Our Mother of Sorrows Church with a breakfast afterward. They expected around 300 to 400 people and were astonished when, through word of mouth, an estimated 1,200 showed up, a crowd so large that hundreds heard the Mass from the pavement.
All the good things that have happened since then flow from that first gathering. These days the St. Thomas More Alumni have a room filled with their memorabilia at Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield, where they hold their well-attended alumni meetings.
Bernard Cunniffe, class of 1952, well remembers that dramatic 1982 Communion Breakfast. “People were shocked back then, and they are still shocked we get 600, even though everyone is getting older,” he said. “That loyalty was taught to every one of us.”
Cunniffe, a past alumni president and board member for more than three decades, also heads the scholarship fund. “We invest it through BLOCS, and use interest and capital gains for the scholarships,” he explained.
The alumni also raise money through various fundraisers, including an annual golf outing chaired by Charles Bowes, class of 1956. “Our faculty were incredible and we made lifelong friendships,” he said. “We do a lot of things, but we’ve made the scholarship fund our focal point.”
Why the little school remains so popular, almost four decades after it was shuttered, is understandable to Millon. “It was the most fun four years of my life,” he said.
For more information see www.stmforever.com