It’s almost downright shocking the number of Parochial high schools that have closed their doors forever over the years in Hudson County.
There was Holy Rosary in Union City, St. Michael’s of both Union City and Jersey City. There was Sacred Heart Academy in Hoboken and St. Aloysius, both the Academy and the High School, in Jersey City.
Last year, Hudson Catholic and Holy Family Academy both announced that those schools would close, only to have influential alumni and parents step in and save the day at the last minute, keeping the schools open, sort of like a stay of execution.
But it’s been one after another, high schools shutting their doors, and with them goes the legacy and tradition that was established over the ages.
Now, the Archdiocese of Newark has announced the pending closing of another school, this one being St. Joseph of the Palisades High School in West New York.
Archdiocesan officials announced last week that the school will close its doors forever at the end of the current school year, ending its reign of excellence in northern Hudson County for seven decades.
The news wasn’t totally stunning. After all, there had been rumors over the years that St. Joseph was hanging on by a thread. And with all of the other school closings ordered by the Archdiocese, perhaps it was only a matter of time before the locks and chains went on the school on Broadway and 51st Streets known forever simply as “St. Joe’s.”
But it appeared as if St. Joseph was doing things the right way. They had a dedicated board of alumni on a committee that was working diligently to both raise funds and promote enrollment. There were activities, like golf tournaments, organized with the sole idea of keeping St. Joseph of the Palisades High School up and running.
However, the efforts apparently will fall short and the doors of a school that produced so many athletic memories and prominent figures over the years will close forever.
Mike Scerbo has spent 42 years of his life at St. Joe’s. Scerbo was a student at the school and then returned back to become a teacher and a coach. He was the head swimming coach for decades, leading the Blue Jays to unparalleled success in the pool, winning one HCIAA championship after another. Scerbo also coached tennis and later became the athletic director there.
“My emotions have been going up and down like a roller coaster,” Scerbo said. “One minute, there’s some hope and light that we’ll stay open and the next, we’re closing. It goes back and forth. We’re still hoping that we can pull something out.”
But the tone in Scerbo’s voice told the story. The end is coming. It’s inevitable this time.
“There have been a lot of people who have called and offered well wishes,” Scerbo said. “You can’t work at a place for so long and not have a lot of memories. A whole bunch of people want to keep it open, people who have dedicated their lives to this place.”
People like Mike Scerbo, who became the face of St. Joseph athletics much like Art Couch and Marty Seglio did before him. Couch and Seglio taught Scerbo the ropes and passed him the torch before they passed on.
“I have a lot of good memories here,” Scerbo said. “I’m still connected with a lot of people I’ve been with here. It’s a special place.”
Gerry Bellotti is another person who has dedicated a lot of his life to his alma mater. He was a standout athlete at St. Joe’s in the late 1950s-early ’60s and then went on to play football at Villanova. Bellotti then returned to his alma mater to serve as a football coach and was one of the members of the school board’s committee.
“We were working diligently to get new students to pay the tuitions,” Bellotti said. “We were working on it for a long time. As much as I’m saddened by it, I can understand what has taken place. There’s a different influx of people now. I think if I could donate a million dollars, I don’t even know if that would ease the burden. I’m very disappointed, but it’s just one of those things we have to do.”
Bellotti reflected about his experiences at St. Joseph.
“It was my second home when I got there in 1959,” Bellotti said. “I have a lot of memories that no one can ever take away. The fun we had, the school spirit we had, the environment. The people there kept us on the straight and narrow and I definitely needed that. I don’t think I could have done anything in my life without St. Joe’s.”
Bellotti said that he remembered the 1962 game against North Bergen, which had just opened with the legendary Joe Coviello as head coach.
“We were both undefeated at the time and we played at Miller Stadium in front of about 10,000 people,” Bellotti said. “And we won, 32-0. It was phenomenal. I learned to hate Joe Coviello then and then I later learned to love him. I think of the happiness I shared with guys like Marty [Seglio] and Artie [Couch]. There were thousands of great people who came from there. It’s very sad.”
St. Peter’s Prep head football coach and athletic director Rich Hansen is also an alumnus of the school and a former standout football player there.
“I was extremely disheartened to hear the news,” Hansen said. “I knew that there were conversations to keep it open, that there was a chance. There was always hope. But now, it’s sad. St. Joe’s is a great place and at one time was the premier high school in the county, both athletically and academically. It was a terrific athletic program. As an athlete and football captain at that time, it was special. You felt like you were special. You had a responsibility to be different. I can’t think of a better high school experience than St. Joe’s at that time. There was great school spirit.”
Hansen remembered beating rival Memorial in 1975 at the old Union City Roosevelt Stadium, scoring 36 points in the second quarter to knock off the Tigers.
“I have so many memories of that school,” Hansen said. “It really helped to make me who I am today.”
There are so many names that pop to mind when you think of St. Joseph of the Palisades, names like Frank Gargiulo, who played there, taught there, coached football there and later became the school’s principal before becoming the superintendent of the Hudson County Schools of Technology.
There were people like Tom Liggio and the late Michael Tanner and Don Fanelli and Eugene Napoleon and J.D. Maarleveld (who beat cancer and then played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Dennis Cooney and Rosie Cedeno…names that made St. Joseph of the Palisades legendary. There were state and county championships in all sports.
Ironically, the school just captured its last HCIAA championship two weeks ago, when the Blue Jays won the HCIAA Seglio title, a division named after the man who personified the school.
Damian Kennedy, the school’s current vice-principal and basketball coach, said that he had a feeling the school might close, so it made this last basketball season even more important.
“I thought that if we won the county championship, there might be a chance to stay open for another year,” Kennedy said. “That’s what we really wanted it. But when we lost 35 students due to the economy, because parents couldn’t afford to pay the tuitions, that’s when I knew.”
Added Kennedy, “To me, this was a very special place. We have really great kids here. To see it finally closing is still a big shock. I’ve spent 12 years here and I enjoyed my time here. It’s sad, but it’s a lesson to our kids that nothing is permanent. I don’t know if I’ll get another chance to coach again.”
That’s why Kennedy will make the pending game between the Blue Jays and St. Anthony in the NJSIAA state playoffs more important.
“For a lot of us, that could be the last game ever,” Kennedy said.
Scerbo said that it was “way too early to think about the future.”
At this time, it’s all about the past, the great athletic legacy that St. Joseph of the Palisades created – and hopefully will remain through the years.
“It’s all great stuff, but it’s tough to hold the tradition unless there’s something there to hold it for you,” Bellotti said.
So another Parochial high school bites the dust and simply goes away. It’s safe to say that the Archdiocese of Newark isn’t interested much in the field of education any longer. Maybe someone in the Archdiocesan office realizes what it is doing to history and tradition of education the county, not just athletics. But it doesn’t look that way.