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Protesters rally outside Cardinal Dougherty

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By Joseph Tanfani INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

For SEPTA bus driver Joe Halbherr, who pays to send two sons to Cardinal Dougherty High, the decision to close the school felt like a sucker punch of betrayal.

"It stinks," said Halbherr, a 1976 graduate who joined alumni and students for a protest rally outside the school's locked gates Saturday. "More and more the church hierarchy is following the money, not serving the people."

Joseph P. McFadden, head of Catholic education for the archdiocese, says he knows how Halbherr feels.

In 1975, before he entered the seminary, McFadden says he was one of a crowd of alumni who protested, unsuccessfully, the church's decision to close St. Thomas More High in West Philadelphia.

"I added my voice, I signed the petitions," said McFadden, now an auxiliary bishop. "It's not like I don't understand the sadness of losing your school."

But McFadden says that doesn't mean he will change his mind. He said the church must close Cardinal Dougherty and the Northeast Catholic High School for Boys - two once-crowded schools that fell victim to changing neighborhoods and declining enrollments.

"We're between a rock and a hard place," he said in an interview. "We want to do all we can to maintain opportunities for a Catholic education but we can't do the impossible."

Several hundred Cardinal Dougherty alumni and students, refusing to concede defeat, stood in a cold drizzle Saturday chanting slogans and vowing to keep fighting.

Organizers are planning a march to the archdiocesan offices on Monday morning. "We're gonna give 'em hell," said Steve Schmidt, an organizer.

"We've had kids accepted to every Ivy League school in the country," he said. "The school is still doing what it's supposed to do."

For many in the crowd, the idea that the place would not last forever is still unthinkable.

They spoke of the school's traditions, its teachers, its glory days in the 1960s as the largest Catholic high school in the world.

Once the school was stuffed with nearly 6,000 kids, mostly the sons and daughters of the blue-collar German, Italian and Irish blue-collar families who lived nearby. But the classrooms began emptying as those families left Northeast rowhomes for the suburbs. Now the massive building at 6301 N. Second St. has just 600 students.

Ed Boyd, who grew up in Olney and graduated from the school in 1986, says his kids now attend Catholic schools near his home in Abington.

"Most of us have moved out to the suburbs and those who came in our place don't support it the same way," he said.

Supporters said those numbers don't tell everything. They described the school as a model of diversity and a refuge of quality education in an area that badly needs one. They bragged about the school's sports teams and cooperative work programs.

While growing up in Fern Rock, Andrew Johnson said he worked at the school in the summers to help offset tuition.

"You can't name an office at this school I haven't painted," said Johnson, who graduated in 1989. He now has two degrees from LaSalle and works as a martial arts instructor and security consultant.

Supporters said they want the archdiocese to at least consider alternatives.

"We're going to do everything we can to change their minds," said Ken Costello of Lawndale, treasurer of the school's parent association. One daughter graduated last year, he said, and the other is now a junior.

"Ideally, we'd like the school to stay open. Realistically, we'd like keep it open three more years", until the current freshmen graduate.

McFadden said it makes little sense to keep the schools lingering on life support. He pointed out the city will still have eight Catholic high schools after the two are closed.

If the archdiocese doesn't consolidate schools, he said, tuition - now $5,100 a year - will have to keep going up, he said.

For years, McFadden said, the archdiocese's lay financial council has "had the gun to my head" to cut costs. "They say, 'Bishop, what do you think you're doing? Bishop, you've got to make some decisions here,'" he said.

"If I hit the Powerball tonight, believe me, I would stop this tomorrow."

Contact staff writer Joseph Tanfani at 215-854-2684 or at jtanfani@phillynews.com.

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