Cardinal Hayes marks 75 years of brotherhood

Cardinal Hayes High School begins its school year with a celebration of its 75th anniversary.
Photo courtesy of Cardinal Hayes High School

Like the south Bronx area it calls home, Cardinal Hayes High School on Grand Concourse has seen more than a few changes, but its leaders say that as the school celebrates its 75th anniversary, its main mission to educate young men has remained unchanged.

Named for popular Cardinal Patrick Joseph Hayes, the school was opened in fall 1941 to educate the mostly Irish and Italian young boys that then called the area home in the Roman Catholic tradition.

The school can name several prominent alumni from that era, including film pioneer Martin Scorsese and entertainer Regis Philbin, who the Hayes auditorium is now named for.

Hayes has since also become a sports powerhouse, launching the careers of former NBA all-star Jamal Mashburn, longtime NBA player and coach Kevin Loughery and Super Bowl XLIII champion (and recent NY Jet) Willie Colon.

As the neighborhood ethnic makeup changed in the seventies and the eighties and nineties, the school changed along with it, becoming a destination for mostly black and Hispanic young men looking for a quality private school education.

“The area we serve is the poorest congressional district in the United States” said Fr. Joseph Tierney, who has overseen the school for the past 13 years.

“Our parents are in great need of a foundation for their sons. We offer what I like to say is a beacon to parents who want to have their child educated in the Catholic tradition. As we celebrate our 75th anniversary, we’re very proud that we’ve been able to continue that endeavor to provide a safe environment and a solid opportunity for success for young men.”

The school’s population has hovered around 1,000 students in recent years, down from the 2,700 or so that attended the school in its heyday, when it operated from several annexes besides the main location.

Tierney said he is particularly proud the school graduates 99 percent of its senior class each year, of which 98 percent go on to college.

Principal Bill Lessa started at the school in 1971 as a teacher when most of the staff were clergy and a number of students still came from lower Westchester and Manhattan.

Today, students are more likely to come from local immigrant families from the Caribbean or Latin America and even African countries such as Ghana and Kenya.

“It’s a great thing,” Lessa said. “It enriches our culture – we celebrate our culture, and Hispanic and African-American culture and roots. ”

One of the biggest values the school stresses is resilience, Lessa said.

Director of Finance Winston Van Buitenen said the school is rapidly revamping its curriculum and technology for a changing workplace. The entire school will be Wi-Fi enabled by the end of the year and all of the classrooms are Smart board enabled,

In recent years, the school has faced a new challenge: fundraising. In 2009, the Archdiocese of New York cut funding to the schools, leaving them to raise funds on their own.

Vice president for Development Tom Fike said donations from alumni have become more important than ever in keeping the school afloat.

The school hosts a number of fundraising events each year, which this year will include a 75th Anniversary Gala at the Plaza Hotel on October 21.

More information on alumni and fundraising events can be found on the school website, www.cardinalhayes.org.

Reach Reporter Arthur Cusano at (718) 260-4591. E-mail him at acusano@cnglocal.com.

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