There Is Still a Light That Shines On Me

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
                      English singer-songwriter

Bishop McDevittThe 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.

Love it? Hate it? Just want to say Hi? Leave a comment, or e-mail me:
margaretdeangelis [at] gmail [dot] com (replace the brackets with @ and a period)

This entry was posted in General.

3 thoughts on “There Is Still a Light That Shines On Me

  1. thanks I wish I could have said it better I have not given up hope 50 acres willl be hard to find

  2. Pardon my cynicism, but demanding 50 acres guaranteed that they\’d never find a site in the city. Most of the parents who won\’t send their kids to McDevitt don\’t want to send them into the city. It was probably a waste of time to survey anybody except the prospective parents of future students. According to them, 77 percent said they would only send them to a new school. 43 percent said they\’d send them to McDevitt. That\’s the only figure the Diocese cared about. Despite the fact that 57 percent of the people who responded said they favored renovation, the Diocese spun that into saying the plurality voted for a new school. That\’s because 43 percent said new school, 38 percent said major renovation, 19 percent said minor renovation. So, yes the most people voted for option 1, but anyway you count it, 57 percent wanted to renovate.

    Frankly, only 20 percent even responded to the survey. How many were alumni, I don\’t even know. 12,000 alums were sent surveys, the other 12,000 were sent to either members of the parishes that send kids to McDevitt, parents, and prospective parents. I\’m sure the Bishop thought long and hard about how he was going to pay for either renovation or a new school, and looked to the one alum who said he\’d give 10 million if they build a new school – Rocco Ortenzio – and figured at least he had a chance at raising enough money for a new school. I think that, and the comments of parents of prospective students sealed the decision in the Bishop\’s mind. Not sure too much prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit went into it.

    Again, pardon my cynicism. Don\’t get me wrong, the Bishop is a decent man, but in my opinion the decision on the new school was made the minute Rocco made the offer. The Bishop has been denying any offer was ever made, calling it \”an unsubstantiated rumor.\” But he\’s not telling the truth, for whatever reason, possibly that Rocco felt uncomfortable making that public, and probably feeling it made him sound like a bully.

    My question is do the 77 percent of parents who said they\’d send their kids to a new McDevitt really mean it? I wouldn\’t count on them, since their first thought is really about a new school. What happens when someone builds an even newer public school in their district. Or if the \”new\” McDevitt isn\’t as good as the recently built school (say Central Dauphin) in their district. I say they\’re going to send their kids to the public school. They\’re probably also going to say no to a 50 percent increase in tuition (I don\’t see how a new school can really be paid for without raising tuition to 6000). In the end, nowhere near 77 percent are sending their children to McDevitt. The 43 percent who said they would send them to McDevitt are really the only ones you can count on. They want their kids to get a Catholic education, despite the setting.

    My final question is how many alumni will give money in a capital campaign? There is not a strong fundraising tradition at Mcevitt. Probably because the school was, and continues to be, partially subsidized by the parishes. The majority of McDevitt alums never paid any, or very little, tuition. The idea that the school needs money to operate, over and above tuition, is foreign to them. What they should have been doing over the years was having a series of small capital campaigns to upgrade and renovate the school gradually. That way the school would have remained in good shape, and there wouldn\’t be a question about a new school. And very little new money, compared to what they\’re saying it\’s going to cost now, would be needed. I think the Diocese, the administration, and the McDevitt school board have been shortsighted for over 4 decades. Other schools, like York Catholic and Lancaster Catholic, have maintained their schools, and had some capital campaigns. McDevitt has not. One other factor that\’s going to make a capital campaign for McDevitt difficult is the fact many parishes in the diocese are also having, or have had, capital campaigns. This has tapped deeply into potential contributors.

  3. Bravo to those speaking out with their views on this move that most of us feel is not warranted. Perhaps the thought of a “New” school is appealing to some, but I would believe that the history and ambiance and legend of Bishop McDevitt would be more influencial in choosing a school.

    As prices continue to skyrocket, $10 million will have less of an impact on what was originally considered as being required for construction. Rising prices at the pump, grocery stores and drug stores also will necessitate smaller pledged donations. Alumni donations, parish contributions and necessary tuition will all be affected by the increased cost of living. I do not believe that this is the correct time for an expansive undertaking such as this.

    Potential solutions for at least some of the areas of concern with the present McDevitt location have been suggested. The front of the school could be made into a handsome parking lot without detracting too much from the overall regal look of our twin towers. Another location could be chosen for sports events. Renovations would certainly be less expensive than what would be required for a new building, a building that would presumably resemble a post office.

    Carmen made a good point, that most of the alumni have not been contributing to the school fund. However, I truly believe that those of us who have a strong sense of loyalty
    to our beloved school, will rise up to meet any challenge put forth to raise the necessary capital to renovate rather than rebuild. Maybe Mr. Ortenzio will reconsider and provide some
    of his funding for this worthwhile cause.

    Yes, Margaret, “65 was a wonderful McDevitt generation.”

    Veronica (McCurdy) Miller

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