Life after legacy

Two years and two months into his tenure at Northeast Catholic High School for boys, Michael Bradley learned that he would never graduate from his beloved alma mater.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia had decided to close the venerable school on Torresdale Avenue between Frankford and Kensington, along with another area parochial high school, Cardinal Dougherty.

For Bradley, a Juniata Park resident, an already difficult time for his family got a lot worse.

“My mom had just had a stroke and I was called out of school,” Bradley said. “I heard about [the closings] on the news. I ran down to the [protest] rally at school and the first thing I thought was, ‘They can’t do this. It’s not possible.’ We spent three years there and it’s heartbreaking we couldn’t spend a fourth.”

Bradley, like hundreds of his schoolmates, landed on his feet. He transferred to Father Judge, a school that ironically enough was founded in 1954 to relieve overcrowding at Northeast Catholic, or “North” as it was commonly known.

Other North underclassmen opted instead for Archbishop Ryan, Roman Catholic, other parochial schools or even public schools.

Many of their Dougherty counterparts, both boys and girls, moved on to Ryan or Bishop McDevitt in Wyncote, Montgomery County.

It was with mixed emotions that the former North and Dougherty students culminated their tumultuous times in high school with recent baccalaureate and commencement ceremonies.

“It’s a lot easier on the younger [transfer students],” said Michael Puchalski, a former North student from Mayfair who finished his senior year at Ryan.

“For us, we were looking forward to graduating from North. And there’s North alumni everywhere.”

As a junior in 2009–10, Puchalski was among a class of 125 boys. That school year, North had 149 sophomores and 120 freshmen. In its heyday of the 1950s and ’60s, the school hosted classes of five or six times that enrollment.

Like they did at North, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales oversee operations at Judge with a large lay faculty and staff.

John Rooney, another recent Ryan grad from Oxford Circle, feels that North’s closing robbed him and his classmates of the rewards and status they earned through three prior years of hard work.

“You’d get to wear your cardigan for your senior year and you think you’re going to graduate from what was going to be your alma mater. To have that pulled out from under you was hard,” Rooney said.

At Ryan, the former North and Dougherty students walked into a school with more than 1,500 boys and girls enrolled.

“When I first came here to Ryan, I was very nervous,” said Liliya Asadullina, a Bustleton resident whose junior class at Dougherty had just 202 students.

Asadullina is blind.

“Nobody had experienced a blind student before,” she said. “People made fun of me. But after I made a speech, they understood who I was, things got better and I made friends here.”

Other students made the best of their difficult circumstances, too.

Mark Menkevich of Oxford Circle, and formerly of North, became a diocesan scholar at Ryan and attended college classes for half of each school day. Then when it came time for choosing a college, the Ryan faculty and staff provided valuable support.

“They really helped me out with college. I got into Penn,” Menkevich said. “They told [colleges] that I was number one in my class at North.”

Menkevich graduated sixth in his senior class at Ryan.

“My mom forced me [to attend Judge],” said Mayfair’s James Rodriguez, formerly a North student. “She wanted me to finish at a Catholic school and wanted me to be safe. I didn’t want to come here, but I’ve changed my mind.”

Playing rugby helped Rodriguez establish himself in his new surroundings.

“Judge and North kids don’t usually do things together. [The Judge kids] had already been playing here since they were freshmen and it was hard to get into that,” Rodriguez said. “But they were real cool guys.”

Scott Mathews of Kensington and Andrew Milczarek of Mayfair chose to transfer from North to Judge, which was their former school’s fiercest rival, because Judge was willing to accept their financial aid packages.

“I had a full scholarship to North and they wouldn’t accept it anywhere else,” said Milczarek, who was ranked fifth in his class at North and graduated ninth from Judge.

Milczarek’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather all graduated from North. But his opinions of Judge and its people changed for the better with a new perspective.

“Before I was on the outside looking in,” Milczarek said. “But when I got here, it was different than I thought.”

Mathews, who still has one more year to go at Judge, made perhaps the most surprising transition. The former North Catholic Falcon mascot, it took him only a few weeks before he donned the sky-blue Judge Crusader costume.

“I’m trying to get a full ride to college [as a mascot], so I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ But it was hard,” he said. “I didn’t know any of their chants coming in and it was hard to get the crowds going. It took me about a month, maybe, to figure out how to work the crowd.”

Despite their success at their new schools, the transfer students would trade it in a heartbeat if given the chance.

“I would’ve loved to stay at North,” Milczarek said. “I don’t see how you close down eighty years of a legacy.”

“It was probably one of the hardest things I had to do personally,” Puchalski said. “You got really attached to the things you did, the traditions. If eople ask where I graduated from, I’m going to ay Ryan, but there’s going to be a big story behind it.” ••

Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or bkenny@bsmphilly.com