February 1, 2007
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom, Let it be . . .
— Paul McCartney, b. 1942
The news broke in late July. The powers that be who oversee the schools of the Harrisburg Catholic diocese were considering vacating the 75-year-old site of Bishop McDevitt High School and building a new facility in the suburbs. The reasons: the aging building is in need of renovation and is difficult to adapt to new technologies, and the six-acre property has nowhere to expand, making parking difficult and the creation of suitable athletic facilities impossible. (All that’s there now is a football field, in place since the 1930s. I have no idea where the baseball team, the track team, and the field hockey team practice or play.)
I was not surprised. A brief reference in an issue of the alumni newsletter about a year before suggested (perhaps if you read between the lines) that such a move was in at least the thinking stages. I chose not to think about it then. In July, when I was preparing for a month away from home, I thought about it only briefly, in the form of just about the only prayer I really pray: Let it be, let it be. Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.
Regular readers of this space probably know how much I treasure my time at Bishop McDevitt. I entered in the fall of 1961 and graduated with the school’s greatest generation (in my opinion, anyway), the Class of 1965. I’ve written about it frequently, most recently on the occasion of my Religion IV teacher’s retirement. I loved every single day that I spent there, a statement which sometimes elicits strange looks from people. High school? Who loves high school?
I did. I wasn’t “popular” but I had a lot of friends, some of whom I still see and all of whom I still love. I wasn’t a dazzling scholar — in fact, I was a deliberate underachiever. But my teachers were patient with me, gave me praise and encouragement and the unconditional acceptance I wasn’t getting anywhere else. If I have any future as a fiction writer, it’s because Sister Mary Kilian (my tenth grade English teacher), Miss Williams (the literary magazine advisor), and Michael Vergot said I had the potential.
The first newspaper articles last July laid out the options: renovate the existing structure and build new athletic facilities elsewhere, or build an entirely new facility in the suburbs. A new campus would require at least 50 acres (a Wal-Mart needs 10). A tract that large is probably not available in the near suburbs, and going ten miles out of the city means a Catholic education might be out of reach for the less affluent families whose children have always been the backbone of McDevitt’s population. The costs are formidable for each choice. The city’s mayor, himself a McDevitt grad, worries that the building could stand vacant for many years before a buyer were found, and there is no guarantee that a buyer would preserve its architectural integrity.
No one should be surprised that I favor staying, more for emotional than for intellectual reasons. I’m like a cat when it comes to place. The contours and the colors and even the remembered odors of a place hold memory for me. When my neighbor, a transplant from Delaware who visited the school for the first time when her oldest daughter was ready to enroll there, remarked that the place was “shabby,” I was shocked. I’d been out there for some reason only a week or two before and certainly hadn’t noticed that. It took me a while to realize that when I walk up that long cascading set of steps, pull open the red door, and step into the foyer dominated by the stained glass windows honoring Sant Maria Goretti and Saint Dominic Savio, I am seventeen again, and I see what I saw then. I’m Margaret of the Just-Under-a-Thousand-Days when it comes to that building, and I regard people who complain that it’s not air conditioned and doesn’t have a soccer field as annoying whiners. (My apologies to any classmates or other McDevitt alumni reading this who fall into that category.)
In December the school board sent out a survey to 24,000 alumni and friends of Bishop McDevitt in an effort to gauge the community’s wishes in this matter. I sent mine back with an indication that I favored staying and renovating. If the decision were made to move, I would continue to support the school at my ordinary level of alumni giving, but I would not make an increased pledge to cover new construction. And I continued to pray, as I had since July, not for a specific outcome, but for courage and wisdom for the energetic and charismatic young bishop of Harrisburg, on whose heart the decision rests.
The bishop did make an announcement yesterday, and although I found it ambiguous, I do think it puts us one step closer to closing what has been referred to as the “landmark” Twin Towers facility on Market Street and rebuilding elsewhere. Although no decision has been made, the bishop has ordered a search for a tract of land, within the city or not, on which to build. Depending on the outcome of that search (is there such a tract? where is it? what will it cost?), a final decision will be made at a later time.
I drove past the school today, taking the long, slow way from the West Shore through downtown Harrisburg and out to the area known as The Hill. The eastern border of the city is only a few blocks from Bishop McDevitt. I stopped for a moment, and breathed my prayer again.
How do you feel about this? someone asked me later in the afternoon. I feel resigned, accepting, confident that the bishop will make the decision that is the right one, even if it’s not the one I want. Nothing can take away the memory of the days I spent inside that building. I’ll be sad if it falls to another purpose and I can never again enter it as one returning home. But “the memory of your counsel,” as the Alma Mater puts it, lives inside me and helps every single day to keep my heart “serene and true.”
And when the night is cloudy,
There is still a light that shines on me.
Shine on till tomorrow,
Let it be.
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