By TOM WILLIAMS
The second week in June is underway. It is normally a time filled with graduations and preparations for graduations; for athletic and academic award ceremonies; for end of the school year celebrations.
Because of COVID-19, some of those activities will take place a little later, though in a different format. There may be less people on hand and some of the ceremonies could be the virtual type, making use of technology.
In Wildwood this week, there is a feeling of celebration. In Hammonton, the atmosphere is more tense and filled with deep concern.
Last week the Diocese of Camden, which oversees most Catholic schools in South Jersey, announced it would continue to keep Wildwood Catholic Academy open after announcing about two months ago that it would be closed. A day or so later, the Diocese declined the proposal to keep St. Joseph High School in Hammonton open.
Non-public schools, as the NJSIAA calls them, have become a target of some public schools who accuse them of taking students – particularly student-athletes – away from them. But the non-public schools don’t get students automatically because of where they live and they don’t get any taxpayer money. Plus the addition of the Public School Choice Program, started by the Christie Administration in 2010, which allows students to attend out-of-district public schools free of charge, has created additional challenges.
Catholic schools actually existed here before the United States was formed. The first such school was in Newtown, Maryland in 1640. A Jesuit school was opened in 1743 in Berks County, Pennsylvania. That was 33 years before the USA became official.
In last week’s letter reversing its decision to close Wildwood Catholic, the Diocese included this paragraph.
“It is unfortunate that it took the announcement of the closure of Wildwood Catholic High School and Cape Trinity before the community at large was willing to give Catholic school education in the Wildwoods the attention and concern it very much deserves.”
It seems like the writer of that paragraph doesn’t really know very much about the Wildwood Catholic family in the Wildwoods and Southern Cape May County. They fought hard a decade ago to keep their school open and have been working ever since to make things better. They didn’t need to be motivated by a threat.
Keep in mind, Catholic schools are closing around the country. And the absence of masses because of COVID-19 quarantines and the donations they generate is not making things better. Below is list of non-public high schools that are considered South Jersey, just to get an idea about what it costs to attend. These annual tuition prices are the latest listed on each school’s website or other online sources and are subject to change.
St. Joseph doesn’t seem to be in the same situation regarding the diocese. The proposals by St. Joe’s support group to remain open within the diocese were declined. One prominent St. Joseph grad – the award-winning and highly respected athletics director at Southern Regional High School, Chuck Donohue – had this reaction.
“I received news yesterday that my alma mater, St. Joe Hammonton, would be closing per the Diocese of Camden one day after allowing Wildwood Catholic High School to stay open,” Donohue said. “It is upsetting news to hear that people would take away an educational experience for the kids. I have been in education and high school athletics for 25 years. The last thing students, athletes, teachers & administrators should face is uncertainty, which we have faced these past 11 weeks in New Jersey.
“The Diocese of Camden is one that partially exists off of the generosity and faith of its community. It is a shame that they turn their backs on St. Joe, their students, athletes, teachers, staff & administration in a time of our country’s uncertainty.
“We need to support and listen to each other now in America more than ever. The last things we need is for educational opportunities and educational experiences to be taken away. What is good for one school in your diocese should be good for the other school.”
Though all of the negotiations between the diocese and St. Joe Strong, the group trying to keep the school open, are not known, sources have indicated that the group made a financial offer to purchase educational and athletic facilities owned by the diocese that was at least to equal to what the asking price would be. It was apparently turned down.
It almost seems to an observer that the diocese is not working to seek a solution that works for all but is determined to do everything to block a private school in Hammonton. It seems a lot like the way things happened seven years ago to Sacred Heart in Vineland, which still has a school and church sitting empty on Landis Avenue.
Lets hope that is not the case. Because the people in the Hammonton area, like those in Southern Cape May County, deserve to continue celebrating the small high school that has been part of their lives for nearly five generations.
Future Wildwood Catholic student-athletes – and non-athletes – will now have the chance to continue to appreciate what was also experienced by Charles Vogdes, Joe Bimbo, Mary Gavin, Al Wilson, Tom Feraco, Buddy Tarbotton, Carol Blum, Pat McCabe, Tara Wuko, Andrew Morrison, Emily Cimino, Anthony Raffa, Mark Rucci, the O’Donnell sisters and the Leahy family, among many others.
That special feeling was also part of the high school experiences at St. Joe of the Ordille brothers, Ralph Domenico, Candi Dean, Pete Lancetta, Tia Porreca, Mike Lista, Gina Comerford, George Getty, Bill Lista, Joanna Sulmonetti, Dave Calloway, Jade Howard, Tim Burns, Marcellus Ross and the Horne brothers. Future classes deserve that same opportunity..
Try to imagine what it would feel like if your alma mater – public or non-public – was taken away. Lets hope St. Joe Pride reaches its goal, with or without the diocese, and the tradition of St. Joseph can continue in some form.