Students and supporters cheer during a rally of students, parents… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
Defiance and dejection contended for the upper hand Saturday as parents, students and alumni of Cardinal Gibbons School held an emotional and at times angry rally at the campus to fight the Archdiocese of Baltimore's plans to close the South Baltimore landmark.
Many hundreds filled almost all the seats in the Catholic boys' high school's Coach Mullins Gymnasium. They exhorted members of the "Gibbons family" not to lose hope in what the archdiocese considers a hopeless cause: keeping the doors open amid mounting debts and anemic enrollment.
Gibbons supporters arriving for the 2 p.m. rally were greeted by music director John Crocken literally beating the drum - an impeccably played reproduction of a Revolutionary War instrument - for the school's survival. Gibbons was the lone high school among 13 the archdiocese announced last week that it would close in June because of financial problems.
Crocken said that during the past seven years he has built up the band and music program from nothing. "They close it, it goes right down the drain," he said.
Speaker after speaker testified to how much the 48-year-old school - described by many as a blue-collar alternative to such prestigious Catholic schools as nearby Mount St. Joseph's - means to them, their children, the community and the church itself.
"The young men who go to school here . . . have bought into everything the archdiocese has preached and practiced for hundreds of years," said sports journalist Keith Mills, father of a Gibbons senior. "Why would you not let us do it anymore?"
Suzie Grace, the mother of five sons who she hoped could all go to Gibbons, described the decision in apocalyptic terms. "It's the death of a dream. It's the death of a vision, the death of a future," she said.
At times, the bile directed at the archdiocese seemed about to boil over. One of the signs held up in the crowd said: "Bring Back Keeler" - a reference to the retired William Cardinal Keeler, the predecessor of Archbishop Edwin O'Brien.
Mike Matejevich, a Gibbons board member and 1968 graduate of the school, delivered an angry stemwinder during which he warned that "nothing is more dangerous than an angry man who has lost regard for his foes, is in self-preservation mode and has nothing to lose." He vowed to "fight the dirt that's been thrown in our faces with dirt in theirs."
Asked whether there was a realistic chance that the closing could be staved off, Gibbons vice principal Steve Cole paused before venturing that "there's always hope" as long as people pray that hearts change.
"That's what we're here to do - to change hearts," said the 12-year staff member.
But Sean Caine, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said there was no hope for a reversal and that hearts would not change in the face of economic realities.
Caine noted that Gibbons has a capacity of 900 but has enrolled only about 300 boys for many years as the archdiocese has invested $4.4 million in keeping it afloat. He said the archdiocese must focus its resources on the remaining Catholic high schools in the region.
The spokesman said there is ample capacity in those schools, which he said are operating at two-thirds capacity and have 10,000 empty seats, to absorb all Gibbons underclassmen. Caine said the archdiocese would provide tuition and transportation aid to transferring Gibbons students. Music director Crocken, in contrast with his upbeat drumming, expressed doubt the decision would change.
"I'm a pessimist. I don't think so," he said. "But I hope I'm wrong."