The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has closed down a lot of Catholic schools recently including the elementary school my five children attend. But we're far from alone.
I was searching around the internet about all the different school closings when I came upon news that St. Cyril's school in Lansdowne which had been reccomended for closure by the archdiocesan Blue Ribbon commission was now remaining open as a mission school.
I saw the news and couldn't help but smile.
Why? Because there's a story behind the news story. And it's a great one. It happened just a few years ago. If you put this story in a movie nobody would believe it. Too corny, they’d say. Waaaay too Frank Capra. This is a story about community. The kind of community that many didn’t think still existed in America; the kind that still believed in wishes and miracles. But mostly this is a story about a little boy who refused to give up on a miracle. When told it was impossible he believed the way only 12 year olds can.
This is a story about Tommy Geromichalos. Six years ago, Tommy was a 12 year old boy from Philadelphia with a wish. Tommy has a serious form of cystic fibrosis. So when the Make-A-Wish Foundation asked him what he wished for he gave an answer they didn’t expect. His sister who also had C.F. had wished to meet Celine Dion.
Tommy didn’t want to meet a celebrity. He didn’t want to play basketball against an NBA hero. His wish was simple: Save my School. You see, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was closing Tommy’s elementary school because much of the Catholic population had moved into the suburbs and the urban neighborhood just couldn’t support the school anymore. Here’s the letter Tommy wrote:
“My name is Tommy. I am 12 years old and I have Cystic Fibrosis. I have a special EMERGENCY WISH that I hope can come true. You guys are my last hope. My wish is to keep my school open until I graduate 8th grade. I go to St. Cyril of Alexandria School in East Lansdowne, PA. I’m in 6th grade. The Archdiocese plans to close my school. I know they don’t want to but they think it would be best for them but they just don’t understand that my school is my second home and all the people there are my family. On October 31st, my Aunt Lorrie died of Leukemia and cancer. She graduated from St. Cyril’s in the 1950’s, so did my Aunt Marcella and my other relatives including my sister Samantha, she is 15 and she has CF too. I am the last one in my family to go to St. Cyril’s. All my life I have waited to be on the 3rd floor, that’s where the 6th 7th and 8th graders are. Everyone knows that Miss Cashwell is the best 8th grade teacher in the world. When I am in 8th grade I will have the chance to have fun and learn. It’s a tradition at St. Cyril’s that 8th grade goes to Washington D.C. and all the 8th grade Altar servers get to go to Dorney Park. We also have the best I.H.M. Sisters you will ever find in any school. Sometimes reading is hard for me because have Dyslexia but I have the best teacher named. S. Ann. She has taught me and all my buddies since we were in 1st grade. We are a team and she wants to stick with us and help until we graduate. S. Ann has always been there for me and my family even when I was in the hospital.
I don’t’ make CF a big part of my life because, I just want to be a normal kid but sometimes it’s just too hard. I’ve been in the hospital for C.F. with IV’s in my arm and I’ve had surgeries on my stomach and my polyps. One time when I went in the hospital I even cried because I was afraid that God didn’t love me because I asked my Mom “how can God love me if he makes me suffer?” My mom cried and told me God loves all of us and some things happen for reasons we don’t know about. Father Kearns came to visit me at St. Chris and he talked to me and I got my faith back again.
I don’t’ know how to save my school and I need your help. I’ll do anything that can make a difference. We need a MIRACLE. Please help me convince Cardinal Rigali to keep my school open. My faith is strong because I go to a Catholic School. The spirit of St. Cyril is alive in me and everyone else who has been a part of St. Cyril School. Please help me Save my school. This is my Christmas Make A Wish.”
Make A Wish Executive Director Dennis Heron said his request “blew us away.” But after researching the issue and contacting the archdiocese they came up against a cold hard reality. It cost $175,000 to run the school each year and the money just wasn't there.
Tommy’s mother Connie, who was a librarian at the school, told her son it was a “no-win situation.” It just wasn’t in anyone’s power to do. She warned him that if he didn’t change his wish he likely wouldn’t get another one. He insisted there was no other wish.
Pastor Kearns said his wish was the same as the little boy’s. “But there is a limit to what can be done,” he advised the boy.
The school announced it was closing. But here comes the fun part.
A waitress at a bar told a local newspaper columnist about Tommy’s story and he wrote a column. Soon, other newspapers and television stations ran the story about Tommy’s letter. The St. Cyril’s community and the entire city was moved.
Soon, there were Beef and Beer fundraisers, a Dance-A-Thon, a pizza sale, and a charity basketball tournament, and car washes. “I Believe” T-Shirts were sold. A local Dodge dealer even donated a car for a raffle. Alumni of the school came to fundraisers and met old friends they hadn't seen in years despite perhaps living within a mile of each other. The community was brought together.
By the end of March, the $200,000 “Save our School” goal was met and surpassed. Cardinal Justin Rigali paid a visit to the school and announced the school was off the chopping block.
Tommy graduated from St. Cyril's. In fact, he just graduated from Monsignor Bonner High School and starts college next semester. And this kid...well, young man, showed up at the newspaper to thank the columnist and the editors of the paper for all they'd done for him. He thanked them.
That's the kind of thing that just makes you think Catholic schools are doing something right.