By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

You could call it a case of succeeding too well. The chief reason given for the impending closing of Northeast Catholic High School for Boys and Cardinal Dougherty High at the end of the current school year is declining enrollment.

North Catholic (nobody who ever went there actually called it Northeast Catholic High School for Boys) has 551 students this year; that’s less than 35 percent of the enrollment in its peak year, 1953, when it had 4,410 students. Cardinal Dougherty, with 642 students, is less than 11 percent of its peak in 1965, when it had 5,944 students.

Demographic studies indicate the decline would continue if they stayed open.

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At their respective peaks, both schools billed themselves as the largest Catholic high schools in the world. What happened?

Many, if not most of the young men and women who graced their halls prospered to the point where they were able to move out into the suburbs. A fair number of those who remained are police officers, firefighters and other city employees who must live in the city, and they are mostly clustered in newer developments which are not in the vicinity of Dougherty or North Catholic.

Those who moved may love their alma mater, support fundraisers and even send a check, but very few send their sons and daughters, understandably so, because of distance.

There is also the problem of money. New Catholics arriving in the city tend to be immigrants at the bottom of the economic ladder. That would not have mattered when North Catholic and Dougherty were founded because the schools were free then, something which is impossible today given the cost of a 21st-century education.

Money aside, smaller schools have not only a higher per pupil cost but, unlike elementary schools, one size does not fit all. Low enrollment makes it difficult to offer the wide range of subjects needed to meet the various needs of inspanidual students.

At North Catholic, about 70 percent of the students are receiving some form of financial aid, and beyond question, it would have closed years ago if it weren’t for the money poured into it by alumni.

Since 2003, former alumni president Leonard Knobbs, class of ’53, estimates they gave $3 million in scholarships and another $1.5 million to offset operating deficits. But to do this they’ve eaten into their reserve funds too.

“We love the place and always wanted to do what we could to help the school and the Oblates,” Knobbs said.

North Catholic was founded in 1926 when the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales arrived from Delaware to take over Philadelphia’s newest Catholic high school, built on a property acquired from the Pennsylvania Railroad at Erie and Torresdale Avenues. The site was chosen for its proximity to public transportation – the Frankford El was just half a block away, which was very important in an era when teens did not have automobiles. For that matter, many of their parents didn’t either.

It was Philadelphia’s third Catholic boys’ high school, and it drew from all of Northeast Philadelphia, as well as some other Philadelphia parishes and Bucks County. It started out with a modest 280 freshmen but did it ever grow.

In 1952-53 when the school was peaking, (and the year they won their first Philadelphia City football championship), the faculty consisted of 55 Oblate priests, 32 Oblate scholastics still in their seminary years and nine religious sisters. Many of the Oblate priests and scholastics had themselves been educated at North Catholic. There were also 10 lay men and women, mostly in non-teaching roles.

At the time there was a single classroom building, as opposed to two today, and it could not possibly hold all 4,410 students. The freshmen and some sophomores were taught at annexes in the schools of St. Anne, St. Joachim and All Saints.

Father Joseph Graham, who graduated in 1953, remembers how crowded the school was.

“We had one bathroom for 4,000 kids,” he said. “But with all of that they managed to do a good job. I have nothing the best to say about the Oblates; but they were tough, but fair. I can’t say I had a sad day in the school. I’m sorry to see it close but under the circumstances, what else can you do?”

Among distinguished alumni were Bishop Martin N. Lohmuller, ’37 (he left earlier for St. Charles Seminary); Bil Keane, ’40, cartoonist; Frank Reagan, ’37, football All American at Penn and later all-pro with the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles; and Lt. General Thomas Kelly, ’50, chief of operations during the first Gulf War.

Overcrowding at North Catholic was ameliorated in 1954 when the Oblates opened Father Judge High School about five miles north in the Holmesburg section of the city. It was two years later, when the post-war baby boomers were still in grade school, that Cardinal Dougherty opened in Olney, further easing the pressure on North Catholic.

Dougherty was built at Second and Godfrey on land purchased from the Daughters of the Most Holy Redeemer, who had been considering building a hospital on the site.

At the time the Archdiocese was still wary of educating teen boys and girls in the same classrooms, so it wasn’t coeducational, it was co-institutional – boys attended class in one wing, girls in the other, and rarely did the twain meet. It wasn’t until 1983 that the two spanisions of the school merged.

Anne Claffey Baiada, class of ’65, director of Bayada Nurses of Moorestown, N.J., recalled at the time of her induction into Dougherty’s Hall of Fame “dances, proms and the occasional sightings of a male” as her memories.

She was also a member of the drill team, an integral part of the famous Cardinal Dougherty Band. They were so good that during Philadelphia’s civic parades you would hear them a few blocks off and know it had to be Dougherty coming with instruments blaring and scores of maroon and cream-clad majorettes.

The band was the baby of Father (now Msgr.) James Mortimer. They toured Europe in 1966, playing for Pope Paul VI, Grace Kelly and Juliana, Queen of the Netherlands. The highpoint of the tour was winning the world band championship in Kerkrade, Netherlands.

The school won its first city football championship in 1968.

When Father Joseph McLoone arrived as a student in 1976 the school was still very large; his graduating class had more than 1,000. By this time the faculty, originally mostly priests and religious, was evenly split, now half lay teachers.

He came from Incarnation Parish, which was then mostly Irish and German, and this was his first experience in a school of many nationalities and races.

“It brought you into a larger world. My whole community had been Olney,” he said. “It was a good experience, a big place with something for everybody – band, sports, clubs. I look back and Dougherty was a warm place that made us feel like we belonged to the Church and we could go out into the world and do something.”

Attorney William Sasso, Cardinal Dougherty, ’65, recalls “first and foremost the terrific education I received and how committed the teachers were. I participated in a number of honors programs which were new then and it gave me terrific preparation for college.”

Although Dougherty was a very young school, “There was great school spirit,” he said. “You really felt overwhelmed by the camaraderie among the students.”

Father Paul Kennedy, Dougherty, ’66, believes that one thing lost in recent discussion is the tremendous number of religious vocations to come out of the school. The faculty itself, he recalls, had 56 priests 75 sisters and about 100 lay men and women.

Because of this religious influence, “We have 90 priests ordained and about 135 sisters,” he said.

Other distinguished members of the school’s Hall of Fame include: Superintendent of Schools Mary Rochford, ’70; Msgr. Joseph Tracy, ’77; and Philadelphia Police Officer Chuck Cassidy, ’70, a 25-year veteran on the force killed in the line of duty in 2007.

But times were changing. In 1966 when Archbishop Ryan High School opened in the Far Northeast, no one realized it would probably be the last new Catholic high to be built within the city. St. Thomas More in West Philadelphia closed in 1975, West Catholic Boys and West Catholic Girls merged in 1989 and South Philadelphia’s St. Maria Goretti and St. John Neumann High Schools merged in 2004.

The high school trend was predictable from what was happening in the city parishes. In the last half century 33 city parishes closed, only partly offset by the creation of nine successor combined parishes.

But even if some high schools close, it is not as if they will no longer exist. They will continue through all of those who attended them, as Bishop Joseph P. McFadden made clear at the Oct. 8 announcement of the closing of North Catholic and Dougherty. They will exist not only through the memories of the many thousands of graduates, but through their lives and accomplishments too.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.