With time running out, Hallahan and McDevitt Catholic High Schools are pulling for miracles.
Citing dwindling enrollment and shaky finances, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced in November that John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School, in Center City, and Bishop McDevitt, in Wyncote, would close in June. Church officials said the decision was final, with no appeals possible.
But supporters of both schools are raising funds and drawing attention to their causes to try to reverse the closures.
Hallahan’s board has attracted about $56,000 in pledges, held multiple rallies, lit Boathouse Row up in blue, and placed a billboard on I-95 to draw attention to its cause. McDevitt’s board — which is actively exploring the idea of running the school outside the archdiocese, as an independent Catholic school — has amassed nearly $400,000 in donations. City Council recently passed a resolution calling on the archdiocese to keep the schools open.
Hallahan is the oldest all-girls diocesan high school in the country, founded in 1911. McDevitt, a coed school, opened in 1958.
With fewer families choosing Catholic education and the high school-age population dwindling for the foreseeable future, the numbers were clear, said Irene Hannan, CEO of Faith in the Future, the nonprofit responsible for managing Hallahan, McDevitt, and 15 other high schools for the archdiocese. Many schools in the region and across the country are struggling; locally, more than a half dozen have announced closures since the coronavirus shuttered schools last spring. And though the pandemic did not cause the Hallahan and McDevitt closure decision, it underscored the schools’ precarious position, said Hannan.
Both schools have been running operating deficits for several years, and each educates about 360 students, numbers that limit course offerings and make it tough to compete with other schools. Hallahan’s building is operating at 36% capacity and McDevitt’s at 40%. (The biggest high school in the Catholic school system, Bishop Shanahan in Chester County, has nearly 1,000 students.)
Both boards said they were blindsided by the closure announcement — both were recruiting freshman classes, and McDevitt grew its board earlier this year at Faith in the Future’s direction. But Hannan said they should have been braced for the bad news.
“Nobody wants to acknowledge bad news and bad trends, but they were also given the tools,” said Hannan, adding that the decision was a big-picture one.
“We need to sustain and improve Catholic education for everyone,” she said. “How many years can you operate in a deficit before you start to pull down the entire system?”
On a recent freezing Wednesday, more than 100 Hallahan alumnae, students, and supporters gathered to pray outside the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, a few blocks from the school. They held candles, said a Hail Mary, then marched to the Art Museum, holding signs, some singing, some wiping tears from their eyes. Closing the school would end an important tradition of all-girls education in Center City, they said.
“Hallahan gave me an awesome experience, all about unity and sisterhood,” said Sinora Flemming, a 1985 graduate who lives in North Philadelphia and hoped to send her daughter to the school in the fall.
Many of the alumnae who marched said they believed the decision to close Hallahan was related to its Center City location and its valuable 19th Street property, just off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
“We know what that property is worth; we’re not naive,” said Paula Sahm, an alumnae and board member. Sahm said she was disappointed in Faith in the Future, formed in 2012 to manage the operations of archdiocesan high schools.
Hannan, of Faith in the Future, said the schools’ real estate was not taken into consideration when the closure decisions were made. She said she had no appraisals for any school building.
Mary Tracy, cochair of the Hallahan board, said it had asked Faith in the Future in the past to help Hallahan explore the possibility of selling one of its buildings, but the request was never addressed. Tracy also said Faith in the Future has refused to share the study it used to make the closure decision. It’s frustrating, especially in light of the special role Hallahan plays in Catholic education in the city, Tracy said.
In 1908, Mary Hallahan McMichan left the archdiocese $100,000 to build a high school, named after her brother, to educate young women. The school was a revelation at the time and, supporters say, remains a strong school with abundant academic and service opportunities for young women.
“Hallahan just has a special spirit; I’m sure it has something to do with its age, with its mission,” said Tracy, adding that Hallahan’s enrollment has stabilized and the board is positioned to grow it. “With so many things being knocked down and traditions disappearing, this is worth saving.”
McDevitt has struggled in the last few years, first with a president who board members say was not a good fit for the school, and recently with an interim president who only works part time..
Now convinced it’s not going to get a reprieve from the archdiocese, McDevitt is very quickly formulating plans to operate as an independent school, the way Holy Cross in Delran, Burlington County, reinvented itself when the Diocese of Trenton tried to close it in 2018.
Dan Greenberg, a McDevitt board member, alumnus, and parent, said the board hopes to rent or lease the existing building and be operational by September. It’s a huge undertaking but doable if the archdiocese gives the green light soon, the board believes. Archbishop Nelson Pérez is scheduled to meet with members of both McDevitt and Hallahan’s boards Monday.
Meanwhile, donations have been steady, including a recent $100,000 contribution from an alumnus who was heartened by the plan to separate from the archdiocese.
“We know it’s a long shot, but we have to explore every avenue,” said Greenberg. “I’ve had parents break down crying in front of me at the thought that their kids can’t graduate from McDevitt.”
Though McDevitt sits in Cheltenham Township, on the edge of Philadelphia, the majority of its students come from the city, and most are Black.
Kerri Meenagh, who also sits on the McDevitt board, said the body feels as if the archdiocese is giving up on it.
“The optic is that the archdiocese sees us as something they didn’t want to invest in. No people of color made this decision, and we’re such a diverse school,” said Meenagh. About 70% of McDevitt students are Black and 30% white. At Hallahan, about 53% of students are white, 28% Black, 10% Latina or Hispanic, and 5% Asian.
Hannan said diversity was not factored into whether schools should stay open. She understands the school communities’ pain, she said, but there’s no wiggle room now.
“I wish I had a magic wand and I could make everybody happy, but I’m more of a realist than that,” she said.