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Priest turns impresario to raise money for West Catholic High School

Entertainment producer was not a role that the Rev. Michael Marone, minister at West Catholic High School in Philadelphia, thought he would take on when he was ordained into the priesthood in 2007.

Correction: An article Saturday on a fund-raiser at West Catholic High School in Philadelphia gave incorrect information on the four original cast members of Jersey Boys, who perform as the Midtown Men. Christian Hoff, J. Robert Spencer, Daniel Reichard, and Michael Longoria - known as the Midtown Men - will appear at the Nov. 5 event at the high school.

Entertainment producer was not a role that the Rev. Michael Marone, minister at West Catholic High School in Philadelphia, thought he would take on when he was ordained into the priesthood in 2007.

But Marone, 38, who was assigned to West Catholic last year, has enlisted the help of Midtown Men - four members of the original Broadway cast of Jersey Boys - and the comedian Joe Piscopo to entertain alumni and other donors at a concert, to help bail out the school's cash-strapped extracurricular enrichment programs.

Of its student body of 365 young men and women, more than 95 percent receive financial assistance. Funds typically earmarked for sports, arts, and cocurricular programs have been cut and more money has been allocated to provide financial aid for students who cannot afford the $7,000 annual tuition.

"How do we spread this money out between all these students and still give them the quality education that they deserve?" Marone said. "Every day, that's a tough decision."

It takes $600,000 to fund the school's extracurricular programs, which include its 2010 state championship football team, a culinary and food safety class, music lessons, after-school counseling, and West Prep, a free class that helps students with poor reading and math skills catch up to their peers.

"We meet them where they're at," said Marone, whom students call "Father Mike."

It is with the altruism of Robin Hood and the demeanor of a more strapping Friar Tuck that Marone, a former football player for St. John Neumann High School in South Philadelphia, approaches fund-raising for West Catholic.

In the past, money has been raised through golf tournaments, black-tie dinners, and Burr Booster raffles. (The prickly brown burr is the school mascot.)

This is the first time for a star-studded entertainment event held at the high school.

"In the beginning of the year, I go around to all the different people I know who have money. . . . I'm pretty much using everybody I can think of," he said. "And the good thing is it's working, because people want to help."

A mutual friend connected Marone with Piscopo, the Saturday Night Live veteran and self-described "guilt-ridden Italian Catholic," who will host the Nov. 5 show at the school's John Cardinal O'Connor auditorium.

Piscopo said he expects to regale the audience with his Frank Sinatra impression.

"I am Joey Benefit," he said. "You got a charity? I got a tuxedo. I come early, I stay late."

That same friend put Marone in touch with Midtown Men, the quartet of former  Jersey Boys that performs 1960's hits.

Midtown Men tenor Daniel Reichard, a graduate of St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, said performing at West Catholic next month would bring back memories of his high school years.

"The passion of a lot of Catholic high schools about really richly educating their students is very inspiring," said Reichard, who will be joined on the stage by Christian Hoff, J. Robert Spencer, and John Lloyd Young.

Marone said he and his colleagues think creatively to keep West Catholic's many after-school programs afloat. For example, the winter track team practices in the hallways.

"You know what it's like for us to get ourselves together for football?" he said. "We have to wheel and deal just to find pads and cleats and buses."

Despite its financial struggles, West Catholic has a 98 percent graduation rate, and since 2007, seven of its graduates have been Gates Millennium Scholars, under a program sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that provides full undergraduate scholarships and professional guidance to minority students.

West Catholic's diversity is ethnic - hundreds of flags from the students' home countries hang from a first-floor hallway - and religious. More than 85 percent of the student body is not Roman Catholic.

"We have students who are Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Pentecostal, Baptist. You name the religion," Marone said.

Though the school's curriculum is rooted in the Catholic tradition, Marone said, students of other faiths bring fresh ideas to spiritual discourse in the school community.

Many West Catholic students belong to Pentecostal congregations, for which revival is a traditional style of worship. This past Lent, Marone invited a Catholic priest to preside over a two-day revival and Eucharist at the school.

"There's something good that's going on here," he said. "And I think that's obvious to anyone who walks in the door."