Alumni Mourn Impending Loss of St. John Central High School in Bellaire

St. John Central High School is shown near the St. John Catholic Church in Bellaire. Photo by Miranda Sebroski

BELLAIRE — As members of the St. John Central High School community mourn the pending closure of their school in June, some are hoping for a miracle.

Joe DeGenova, a 1966 graduate and former teacher and principal at the grade school, said he was “devastated about the news” of the high school closing. He said he has received phone calls from alumni who also are upset and want to help.

“We have a lot of good alumni out there. They are contacting us and many of them are offering support. Hopefully the grade school will be able to survive. And who knows, there are miracles out there. We’re praying for a miracle that maybe the high school can stay open,” he said.

“It was a like a family. When the closing of a school happens it’s like experiencing a death. You have a period of time of grieving.”

DeGenova said he spent 12 years as a student at the school, attending the grade and high schools. His wife, Mary, also is a graduate and taught there as well.

“I couldn’t ask for a better education. Growing up I had many Sisters of Charity of Nazareth as teachers. They were a wonderful group of ladies. At the high school we had the best teachers you could want to have. They were loving and caring, like a family. I think a large part of it is that you got to express your faith. It was incorporated into every subject you were taught,” DeGenova said. “Faith is a big part of it. It’s missing in so many kids lives today. It’s needed now more than every before.”

DeGenova said he is not sure why enrollment has declined over the years. He said tuition costs might be part of it as the region’s economy has not been well in years.

“So many young people moved out of the area to look for jobs,” he said. “If you look at enrollment in public schools in our area, it’s not as big as it was 20 or 30 years ago. … It’s the economy.”

DeGenova said in terms of funding for the school, the diocese only contributes a certain amount. The remainder must be raised via tuition, fundraisers and donations from alumni. Since his retirement, DeGenova said he has continued to help raise funds via bingo, fish fries and other fundraisers.

“I’m wishing for the best. I’m always going to be hopeful that something can be done to ensure the grade school will continue to operate,” he said. “That’s the plan right now. We need to get he word out there that the grade school is not closing. That’s not in the plan at this point — we need people to understand that. I will do everything I can to maintain that,” he said.

Diocese spokesman Dino Orsatti said the Rev. Dan Heusel is heading the committee to see if the grade school can stay open. DeGenova noted he is not a member of that committee.

“They are working on a plan for the bishop and it is up to him if it can stay open beyond this school year. That decision should be made mid-April,” Orsatti said of the grade school.

“We haven’t decided anything about the future of the buildings. The diocese is working with Steubenville Catholic Central on incentives to bring the St. John’s students there. Nothing has been finalized since the decision to close the school has just been made,” he added.

Regarding the high school’s pending closure, Orsatti said Friday the decision regarding it cannot be changed. Those hoping to do otherwise would be working in vain, based on Orsatti’s comments.

“A final decision has been made on closing the high school. It’s not only money needed to keep the school open, but the enrollment and strain on the parishes. I would tell them to focus on trying to keep the grade school open with Father Dan, which is a major challenge at this point,” he said.

Meanwhile, Orsatti said he wanted to clarify the timeline in which the St. John staff and the community was informed last Tuesday of the pending closure.

“No families were aware of the decision prior to the official diocesan announcement. The principal, Jarett Kuhns, learned about the decision prior to the meeting that our superintendent had with the teachers at 2:45 p.m. Feb. 5. The chancery staff, principals of our schools in the diocese and every priest in the diocese were notified at 3:30 p.m., and then the media shortly after that,” he said.

John Magistro, a 1966 graduate of St. John and longtime Bellaire High football coach, said he has a lot of fond memories of attending the school and living in Bellaire in general.

“St. John’s is a special place. It’s the education my parents wanted us to have,” he said. “I was fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of good friends. Back then we had a lot of nuns and priests who taught us. They were all about school.”

Magistro said attending St. John allowed him to meet and become friends with kids from various cities in region. He said another aspect of St. John he liked was its traditions.

“We had a lot of traditions. The follies at the high school were very well attended. Just every sporting event we had was a tradition. As a kid growing up in Bellaire, I can’t think of a day in my life that I was bored. Not us. We enjoyed school and living in Bellaire. There was a dance every night of the week in the summer except on Sunday. There was always something to do,” Magistro said.

Magistro played football at St. John and two years of basketball. Magistro said he joked in the past that the nuns who taught him in school would have made great coaches. They were strict, but did things the right way.

“It’s sad other people won’t be able to experience that,” he said.

He noted, however, he was not surprised to hear the diocese’s plans to close the school.

“To be honest, I thought it was going to happen a couple years ago. I knew the money situation was bad. … I think the writing was on the wall,” he said.

Magistro said he is not sure why enrollment continued to decline. He conceded some may not want to or cannot afford to pay tuition. Where he now lives in Central Ohio the Catholic schools there seem to be thriving, he said.

“It seems like more can afford it here,” he said of a Catholic education. “For the people back home it’s hard to operate a school. A lot of people have moved out of town. The numbers aren’t what they used to be. … I don’t think the numbers are there. And tuition might be difficult. … The community is totally different. Bellaire isn’t even a city, it’s a village now.”

Robert “Bubba” Kapral, a 1974 graduate of St. John, described the school as his “second home.”

“Tuesday was a very sobering and numbing day for all those people who have St. John Central roots. It was a shattering moment for the current students, teachers and coaches when the news broke that afternoon,” said Kapral, who also is executive sports editor for The Times Leader. “I have been Irish Green since first grade. My graduating class had 111 students and Dr. Joe Maroon was our commencement speaker. The high school had some 500 students and the teaching staff was stocked with priests and nuns.

“The academics and athletics were excellent back then. There were no discipline issues as Father Clouston was a highly respected principal who wielded a painful paddle. Everyone loved him,” he said. “I have been fortunate to coach there for the past 31 years, lucky enough to coach some of the best in Ohio Valley history. I have had numerous offers to coach elsewhere but never thought of leaving. I love the place. It is my second home.”

Kapral is the St. John girls’ basketball coach and also coached track in the past.

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