‘The closing of a circle’: Philly’s historic Hallahan High holds its last graduation ceremony

Members of John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School Class of '21, the school's last class, leave the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul after their graduation ceremony. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Members of John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School Class of '21, the school's last class, leave the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul after their graduation ceremony. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Students, family members, teachers, and alumni of John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School celebrated the school’s final graduation ceremony Monday, with many uttering the word “bittersweet” as they contemplated the historic school’s last cohort.

Hallahan was the first all-girls Catholic School in the U.S., opening its doors in 1901.

Tiffany Lim, senior and salutatorian, opened the ceremony. She reminisced about her time in school and praised her classmates for their resilience through this pandemic year.

“We are all astonishing and ardent artists. Throughout our time at Hallahan, we were given colors to paint with,” said Lim. “Despite the surprising splatter [of the pandemic] we persevered and created something beautiful.”

Members of John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School Class of ’21, the school’s last class, leave the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul after their graduation ceremony. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This was the last time a Hallahan class gathered for commencement in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, a longtime tradition for the school. But Lim said the legacy lives on.

“This isn’t a complete goodbye, because we will always be the girls of Hallahan High,” said Lim.

Denise Kassekert, president of Hallahan, addressed the class of 2021 with some advice: “As you go forward, in the next chapter of your life, hold your family and those you love dear, close to you, very tightly, and never let go,” said Kassekert. “Know beyond doubt, that education is your future.”

Commencement closed and students walked down the aisle of the Basilica into the embraces of their loved ones. Family members whooped and cheered as the graduates left the church.

Nyree White, 18, from North Philadelphia, stood next to her best friend Jordan Williams, 18, from Germantown, full of glee. “We’re always together,” they said.

White is excited to see what’s next for her future. For now, “I’m just grateful to be here,” she said.

Williams said graduation comes with a mix of emotions as the school closes.

“It’s happy that we are here today and we could represent for the sisters before us, the sisters after us,” said White, “but it’s also sad because we won’t ever have a graduation like this again.”

Both White and Williams are attending Cheyney University in the Fall, both on a full scholarship.

Jordan Williams (left) and Nyree White stop for photos after their graduation ceremony at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. They were members of the last class to graduate from John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In total, this graduating class received more than $30 million in college scholarships, a record-breaking number for the school.

The graduation comes in the same school year the Hallahan community learned the school would close, a fate common among urban Catholic schools in recent decades.

In November, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced that Hallahan — along with Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote — would shutter. Officials said the schools were both operating well under 50% of capacity, and that enrollment projections showed further decline to come.

Mike Gallagher taught social studies at Hallahan for six years. He noticed in the final weeks of school a “bubbling” of emotions from the students.

“The reason why they’re so sad is because they had such a good experience here,” said Gallagher. “It sucks that it has to end. But the seniors had four good years.”

He said the students taught him a lot this year as well. Mostly about resiliency, in the way they engaged with the school year full of obstacles.

Gallagher isn’t sure where he’s headed next, but he plans to keep in touch with his students. “I always have more to teach them,” he said.

Bridget McCole (left), a graduate of John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School, attends the graduation ceremony of her granddaughter, Katie McCole, a member of the school’s last graduating class. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Brigitte McCole, grandmother of graduate Katie McCole, stood on the steps of the Basilica with pride. She graduated from Hallahan in 1963.

McCole traveled from Cape May to see Katie graduate from her alma mater. The 18-year-old Roxborough resident will attend St. Joseph’s University in the fall.

“It was a blessing for me to be here,” said Brigitte McCole.

Olivia Rescigno, 17, from South Philadelphia, snapped selfies with classmates outside the Basilica.

“I’m gonna miss all my friends,” said Rescigno, “it’s kinda sad there’s nothing to look back on, but I know I’ll stay in touch with everyone and the legacy will live on forever.”

 

”Golden Girls,” Linda Marrone Romanowski (left) and Jan Szczechowicz Ostroff, who graduated from John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School fifty years ago, attend the school’s final graduation ceremony. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The legacy will live on, and so will the party, said Linda Marrone Romanowski, class of 1971.

Romanowski attended the graduation with her graduating class. Hallahan traditionally invites the class from 50 years prior, naming them the “golden girls.”

“Our reunion is already scheduled,” said Romanowski, “We are ready… the partying continues.”

Jan Szczechowicz Ostroff, also class of 1971, laughed with Romanowski, she said all the women were screaming in the basement of the church when they first saw each other.

“They said it’s been 50 years, but I still feel 17 in a lot of ways.”

Ostroff went on from Hallahan to teach special education for 40 years at Cynwyd Elementary School in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania.

“It certainly is the closing of a circle, but not one that we are really happy about,” she said. “It’s bittersweet.”

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