As North Catholic and Cardinal Dougherty close, their legacies live on

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

The announcement came last October, now it’s happening. Northeast Catholic High School for Boys and Cardinal Dougherty High School, both in the northeastern quadrant of Philadelphia, will close their doors forever at the end of the school year. Both, at different times over their distinguished histories, would boast they were “the largest Catholic high school in the world.”

In a way schools are very much like people. They leave an indelible impression on those who encounter them, and if they are good, when they die they are truly mourned. {{more}}

North, the senior of the two, opened its doors 84 years ago, Sept. 7, 1926. Placed under the direction of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, it was that congregation’s first mission in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The site chosen near the confluence of Erie and Torresdale Avenues was just a few yards away from the Frankford Elevated Line, an important factor in an era when virtually all students used public transportation.

The first year saw approximately 280 students, but the school would grow, literally bursting at the seams with freshmen and some sophomores attending classes at annexes located at feeder parish elementary schools. Peak enrollment was reached in the 1952-53 school year with 4,410 students.

In addition to high academic standards, North was fertile soil for future priests. In 1953, the Oblates of St. Francis listed 89 priests with Philadelphia as their home town, most of whom were North graduates. Scores more entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, and many others were in formation for the priesthood with the Oblates.

“First and foremost North Catholic did its best to sustain in young men an endearing love for the faith and for our Catholic tradition,” said Oblate Father Vincent Smith, president of North, himself a 1974 graduate, as was his father before him (class of ’37) and many relatives.

Although North served a huge swath of the city in its earlier years, its core has always been the ethnic communities along the Delaware River. Never a rich kids’ school, it has taken the boys from those blue-collar neighborhoods and trained them to be solid in faith and citizenship.

“Many did well in unseen ways; incredibly good men unknown to anyone but their families and their jobs,” Father Smith said.

Overcrowding at North was alleviated with the opening of more high schools. However, other factors were at play – smaller family sizes, the movement of Catholics to the suburbs and escalating costs of nonpublic education. This final year the listed enrollment at North was 551 students.

Cardinal Dougherty High School was founded in 1956 during the great school expansion drive instituted by Cardinal John F. O’Hara.

Dougherty was initially co-institutional; separate schools for boys and girls in the same building. Unlike North, the faculty consisted of diocesan priests, members of several congregations of women religious and lay men and women. Its peak enrollment of 5,944 students was reached in 1965, an all-time high for Philadelphia schools, and the two separate spanisions merged in 1983. Faced with the same factors experienced by North, this year’s enrollment is 642.

“You can’t go anywhere without running into a Dougherty graduate,” said Father Carl F. Janicki, the school’s president. “Part of our legacy is the sheer size of the school and the faculty and the influence they have had on the world.

“For me,” he said, “the school was always about mission; taking the sons and daughters of immigrants and getting them into college. Last year 96 percent of our graduates went on to college, and they had about $12 million in scholarships and aid. We still have parents who did not complete high school and their children are going to college. The spanersity of the school has changed but the mission is just the same.”

Just as is the case with North, Dougherty became a family tradition.

Frank Hopkins, ’79, and his wife Kate, ’84, have three daughters who graduated Dougherty – Katie, ’03; Becky, ’05 and Rachel, ’08. Caroline, a junior who would have been class president in her senior year, will finish at Bishop McDevitt in Wyncote, but at least she’s gotten her Dougherty class ring.

“We graduated 1,100 my year,” Frank Hopkins said. “I guess it was the education and the religious training I got at Cardinal Dougherty that I most remember. Also, the friendships, the leadership, the networking. We still have friends from St. Ambrose, Holy Child, Presentation and St. William. I call Dougherty the center of the universe … Dougherty absolutely served me well. I went on to La Salle College and got a master’s degree.”

Her Dougherty years “were the best years of my life,” Kate (McGuinn) Hopkins said. Her only regret is that all of their eight children will not have the advantage of a Dougherty education.

For her the legacy is “the strong faith, the great friendships and the wonderful education,” she said. “I think the key now is to build up strong alumni so we will stay together.”

For George Werez, a junior at North, the family feeling extends beyond blood relatives.

“I feel so close to the school, we are close-knit, we are like family,” he said. “The academics are wonderful, and I can go to any teacher for help if I need it.”

“The spirituality at North, he said, “is the spirit of St. Francis de Sales; seeing God every day in everyday things.”

Bob Fitzsimmons, a 1951 North graduate who has been on the faculty for the past 51 years teaching accounting, confessed he was a bit disappointed when his class at St. Stephen School was assigned to North because previously classes had been sent to Roman Catholic, and he had friends there. It didn’t take him long to grow to love North, and he still does.

“I never mind coming to school,” he said. For him it also comes back to that spirit of St. Francis de Sales. I think there is kindness, gentleness and understanding,” he said. “Love was fostered by the Oblates.”

Perhaps it was an incident a few days ago at North, which could have just as easily happened at Dougherty, that captures the feeling of the students, faculties and alumni.

An alumnus of a few decades ago stopped in for a final visit.

“I don’t think he knew that anyone saw it,” Father Smith recounted. “(But) after he walked out the door he turned around and saluted the school.”

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