About the St. Thomas More Alumni Association
How is it that a high school, housed in an architecturally unremarkable elementary school building of only three floors and having functioned for less than forty years in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, still manages, today, to enjoy a genuinely dedicated and enthusiastically active alumni association a full twenty five years after its closing? What magical ingredient is present in the bond that joins these younger and older men – attendees and graduates - of the former St. Thomas More Catholic Boys’ High School? And finally, how does that lively esprit de corps manage to survive knowing that, sadly, there is now among them the one to be the last of them? A few of the questions are clearly answered here, the answers to others, however, may prove as elusive as Utopia.
To those of you who have logged on to STMforever.com, either intentionally or by chance and know nothing of this most unusual of alumni associations anywhere, please remain with us for a while as we try, briefly, to tell you our story.
IN THE BEGINNING...
In the early years of the twentieth century the Catholic student population in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was growing steadily. Soon there came the need to establish a new Catholic Boys’ high school in the western part of the city. That school was West Philadelphia Catholic Boys’ High School. Joining those Philadelphia youngsters enrolling in the new school were others from the distant, more rural areas of the western suburbs.
The first graduating class from "West" was in 1920. As time rolled by, West’s student body grew to number around 2,500. The dream of most Catholic elementary schoolboys, at least
in that area of the city, was to graduate from their parish school and attend West Catholic. The school was three-quarters of a city block long and had its own outdoor sports practice facility, a full square block in size, right next door. Playing sports is the typical American schoolboy’s extracurricular interest and activity and going to West Catholic was to get the chance to become part of one of the most successful high school athletic programs in the city. With so vast a geographic area from which to draw this was not surprising. So rapid was the growth in population back then, that less than twenty years after its opening, West Catholic was deemed overpopulated, and a "new" Catholic high school had to be found.
For some western elementary school students who graduated in June of 1935 their West Catholic freshman year was spent in a little old building belonging to a parish in west Philadelphia known as Our Mother of Sorrows. A new parish elementary school had been built, but this group of about 120 boys was to occupy the older building situated across from a small neighborhood park near 48th St. and Lancaster Ave. The place was designated a "West" annex, and was to be the temporary home for this group of grammar school grads. Their first year at "West" wasn’t quite what they had imagined it would be. There weren’t the great halls or huge practice field and they were still being taught by nuns not Brothers or priests – men like themselves. During the summer of 1936, however, these same students, who were about to become high school sophomores, were informed that they no longer were West Catholic students and were to report in the fall to a school at the corner of 47th St. and Wyalusing Ave. This school, which was the new Our Mother Of Sorrows elementary school, was given the name St. Thomas More Catholic Boys’ High School.
In a 1998 interview of a group of original Tommy More graduates (class of 1939) it was interesting and quite revealing to hear their responses to an obvious question.
Q. How did you feel when you learned you were not longer going to West, but to a new and different school? A. "Terrible!"
"We called it the ‘Immaculate Deception’. Christian Brothers were teaching at West and they made you toe the line. We were going to get priests right out of St. Charles Seminary (St. Charles Borromeo in Philadelphia) and they didn’t know much more than we did!"
Greatly saddened by not being able to continue their education at the school of their dreams, they had little choice but to bravely accept the challenge of setting out on their own and establishing their own identity. Their new classrooms in the three-story elementary school building occupied an area, one-fourth that of a football field. With scarcely a recreation area or "campus" to speak of (the public park across the street) this was not an encouraging beginning. And knowing that the entire student body would amount to just about 400 (their number entering as sophomores and being joined by some 250 freshmen) meant the pickings would be slim in trying to field an athletically competitive team of any kind. The summer was short and much needed to be done: a faculty assembled, academic courses charted, the curriculum set, school colors chosen, a school paper, an alma mater, a school band, debate teams and discussion groups, a nickname and a mascot and, oh, yes, a sports program. As their disappointment, sense of angst and anger eased they became resolved into making the best of their situation and, with the help of a young, eager and determined faculty they became, eventually, a student body filled with pride and confidence. On September 8, 1936, St. Thomas More, the smallest high school in the entire Philadelphia archdiocese, standing ready to courageously challenge the world, took its first step into academia.
Maybe it was just a manifestation of their frustration but The Golden Bears of St. Tommy More lost no time in labeling West Catholic high school their archenemy in all sports. The rivalry grew more intense with each passing year as the Goliath that was West repeatedly crushed the David that was STM – especially in football. To this day, STMer’s and WC grads go at each other like cats and dogs – but the animus is hardly genuine. As you browse our Web site, should you get the impression that "bad blood" existed between these two schools, please regard it as banter. You will note a hyperlink to the West Catholic site and this was done out of respect for the actual lineage between the two schools. Take note of the drawing made by a St. Thomas More senior, which appeared in the school’s last yearbook, of West Catholic’s "hand" shaking the "hand" of St. Tommy More.
By the early 1970’s it became obvious that what had prompted the establishment of our beloved school in 1936, was now working in reverse and bringing about its demise. As the ranks of Catholic students in the city diminished the exodus to suburbia grew and the archdiocese closed St. Thomas More High School in 1975. Those students who had not completed their four years at STM were instructed to report to-you guessed it, West Catholic. Now the hue and cry of the Golden Bears of St. Tommy went up for the opposite reason – they didn’t want to leave STM! But the closing was final and there was no turning back – except for an almost miraculous event which occurred six years later.
Several of the school’s alumni had proposed a reunion for any and all interested Golden Bears. How about a Mass and Communion Breakfast? The plans were made and Mass was to be celebrated at Our Mother of Sorrows church (across from the old school building) followed by a light breakfast at a facility in the suburbs. They estimated the response to their publicly announced invitation to be about 300 men.
At 9:00 AM, on Sunday, March 21, 1982, Mass was about to begin at Our Mother of Sorrows church for a crowd of STM alumni so huge that hundreds had to stand outside. A conservative estimate of the number of men present that day was put at more than 1200! This response could not be ignored and the wheels were set in motion to officially reorganize the group as the St. Thomas More Alumni Association, a non-profit organization. Support for this action was overwhelming and continues to be even as our numbers dwindle with each passing year. The core of our purpose is the support of Catholic education via a High School Scholarship Fund established in conjunction with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and contracted to remain in perpetuity. The Scholarships are issued in the name of St. Thomas More, and our funds are derived from the donations of our alumni and the proceeds of several social events we conduct annually. Our newsletter Bear Tracks is our primary means of communication between the association’s governing body and the 4500 alumni listed in our database. And we are as one.
Finally, in spite of the growing average age of our alumni, we enter into the technology of today – cyberspace – to spread our words of support for Catholic education, to offer help to our diocesan youngsters in need and, through them and beyond them, to preserve the spirit of our patron and our school St. Thomas More… forever!
Thank you for visiting us.