Saturday, January 07, 2012

Oh, Girls of Prendergast High

By mid-afternoon on this, unusually warm for January Friday, workers from Radnor to Mayfair, in cubicles and behind Wawa counters were discussing the news from the Diocese of Philadelphia. The announcement culminated a week of speculation about the fate of our Catholic schools. Nowhere was the news more painful than on the “hill of Drexel” for there sits what was once described as “one of the finest buildings in the diocese”, Archbishop Prendergast High School for Girls and the more modern structure, Monsignor Bonner High School for Boys. After nearly 60 years of educating the young men and women of Delaware County, the schools will close in June. These bare facts, reported throughout the region this evening, seem flimsy and irrelevant to what the schools mean to the students there now as well as those of us long ago graduated. Talk of budgets, restructuring and dwindling enrollment belie the true impact the schools closing will have on its current students as well as the communities and parishes that support the high schools.

My first memory of “Prendie” is hazy but in it the school is a magical place. It is around Christmastime in 1964 and my sisters and I are on the bus coming from 69th Street to Darby. It is dusk and dark comes fast that time of year. As the bus lumbers down Marshall Road, my sister tells me to look across the field to the light at the top of the hill. I see the shadow of a magnificent building and the light of the bell tower. “That is my school”, she tells me, and “someday you will go there too”. I am 4 years old and for the next ten years, every time the bus turns the curve onto Marshall Road, I look across the field to the top of the hill and think “someday that will be my school”.

By the time I was in 5th grade, my second sister was a Prendie Senior and I had a close-up view of life at Prendie. Roseann was in the Glee Club and I attended her concerts and plays, always waiting in the wings with flowers of congratulations. Her love for Prendie was unwavering, giving her the family nickname of “rah rah”. As much as we teased her, those brief moments at Prendie made me consider that there was something special happening there.

In 1974, finally part of the Prendie family, I slowly came to realize that this beautiful building held within its walls an energy and vibrancy that created strong and resourceful women from little girls. Archbishop Prendergast held the highest standards of academics and even I learned to conjugate a Latin verb and still know the difference between a first and second declension noun. More importantly, Prendie was a place to explore and understand the meaning and significance of female friendships. We were encouraged to know and understand one another, to find the things we had in common rather than focus on our differences.

For Freshman, that common thread was Prendie itself. We were the “Girls of Prendergast High” and learning the fight song and alma mater were rites of passage as were “Big Sisters” and “Freshman Day”. We came from many parishes but by the end of that year, we were the “Class of ‘78”. The joys and tragedies of our high school years were shared with the friends we made and there always seemed to be more friends to meet. During gym you’d learn that your square dancing partner had the same affection for poodles that you held or at lunch the stranger next to you blossomed into your best confidant. By Senior year, the milestones you looked forward to such as Ring Day and Music on the Stairs were bittersweet with the knowledge that they would be your last.

Today’s announcement was the death knell to the Prendergast community and with it go the long traditions passed to my sisters and then to me and then to others behind me and upheld today by its current student body. Along with all of us who attended or are currently attending Prendergast, there is the loss to all those who may have attended Prendie in the future. All those little girls looking at the bell tower and thinking “some day that will be my school”.