First graduating class of Goretti marks 60-year reunion

First graduating class of Goretti marks 60-years

Close to 70 members of the 1958 class commemorated the diamond milestone last week.

Last week, the first graduating class of Saint Maria Goretti High School celebrated its 60-year reunion at Popi’s Italian Restaurant. Close to 70 “Goretti Girls” reflected on their high school experiences at South Philly’s first all-female Catholic School. (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

With rosary beads in one hand and locker keys in the other, young women garbed in various shades of calf-length blue uniforms walked through the doors of Saint Maria Goretti for the very first time more than 60 years ago.

The year was 1955, and this newly-established Catholic high school, located at 10th and Moore streets, was not only an acknowledgment of the recently canonized adolescent Italian virgin-martyr, but also an emerging sanctuary of education for South Philly girls — the first of its kind in this section of the city.

Six decades later, 67 of those same scholars gathered at Popi’s Italian Restaurant last week to commemorate the class of 1958’s diamond-year reunion, as the first graduating class marked its 60th anniversary this year for more than 470 alumnae.

(GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

While faces may have matured and, perhaps, so have the conversations, the spirit of the first Lambs has not dwindled.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 60 years. It’s amazing. It’s nice to look back on how it was when we were there,” said ’58 graduate Mary Fran Watters Griffith. “A lot of them weren’t familiar to me, because, over the years, we’ve all changed. And thank goodness for our name tags.”

Reminiscing sights and sounds — the bold red sashes worn by student body members, the hymns sung by glee club, the graduates recall those infancy years as if it were yesterday.

But, many say, their most distinct memory of attending the patroness-honoring school was serving as the pioneer batch of students at a time when South Philly girls were previously forced to commute to Center City for a Catholic school education.

“My earliest memory is just going into a brand new school — first class going into that school, and us being the first sophomores, juniors and seniors,” said ’58 graduate Kathleen Biondo. “It was just very exciting for me. Everything was so new, and it was great. I was always a little bashful. I didn’t feel that way, because we were like the seniors for three years, and that was special.”

“I was thrilled to be first in the brand new school,” added ’58 graduate Rosalie Herbig.

The school’s building, which broke ground in the early 1950s, was actually constructed upon an annex of St. Mary’s Cemetery in the now-East Passyunk Crossing neighborhood.

Two convents were also built beside the high school, including The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sisters of Saint Joseph, as both orders of nuns taught at Goretti alongside the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the Religious Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus under the administration of Goretti’s first principal Father Francis X. Tracey. Only one laywoman, Mrs. Kane, the physical education teacher, was on that original faculty.

Graduate Gloria Cipollini Endres recalls taking photos of the building’s construction — a request from her homeroom teacher, Sister Rosaria, RSM, at John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School.

“As it turned out, I was delighted to hear that Goretti was being built,” she said.

Endres, like her fellow graduates, actually entered Goretti as a sophomore, as when the school first opened its doors, only ninth and 10th graders scurried the hallowed hallways.

But, the class of 1958 prides itself as always serving as the “senior” class for all three years of its attendance.

Although Goretti eventually merged with Saint John Neumann in the fall of 2004, a decision that still remains contentious in the South Philly community, when the high school’s presence was all-females, the setting fostered a sense of women empowerment, especially in the era of the 1950s, graduates say.

“When you have single-sex schools, especially for females, there’s a whole different climate,” Endres said. “There’s a climate of empowerment.”

From manning the hallways as monitors to serving as musicians in the graduation orchestra, the girls of Goretti spearheaded a scope of clubs and activities that the high school still sustains today.

Along with a student government system, the hundreds of young women established a school newspaper, which, after voting upon the name, called it “The Crown,” as well as a literary magazine titled, “The Patroness.” They later christened their first year book “The Diadem,” also acknowledging their young patroness’s crown of martyrdom.

(GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

“I probably would have never been involved with anything, because I didn’t do that earlier in my grade school years,” Biondo said. “But, I said, getting into Goretti, and feeling like as though, we can do anything.”

Although close to 500 members made up Goretti’s first graduating class, only about 70 were in attendance at last week’s reunion. Considering this was the diamond event, folks say it was crucial to partake in this year’s milestone.

While most women traveled from around the tri-state area to attend the reunion, some even made trips across the country, like Ruth DeCristo Barone, who ventured all the way from Florida and even delivered a speech during the celebration.

“I’d do it again in a heartbeat — to meet everybody, to look at the faces that you went to school with 60 years ago. I just wanted to be here,” DeCristo Barone said. “ It was my last wish to be here…I feel so honored to be a Goretti girl and to be the first graduating class. Those were the greatest years of my life, and I’ll never forget them.”