It has been nestled right smack in the middle of Third Street in Downtown Jersey City, almost anonymously, certainly without fanfare. If you drove down Third Street off Jersey Avenue toward Grove Street and didn’t pay attention, chances are you missed it. It’s a small, three-story structure that doesn’t even have a bold sign out front, proclaiming what it is.
Sure, there are more renowned and recognized high schools in the same vicinity, like St. Anthony and St. Peter’s Prep, but it’s always been there, right with the rest.
But there’s no way anyone who grew up in Hudson County over the last half-century or so who doesn’t know about St. Mary High School and understand the legacy and the tradition of the Ramblers.
It’s a school that produced a host of standout basketball players, including the former head coach of the Chicago Bulls in the NBA, a guy still coaching in the league as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks.
It’s a school that has proved to be the breeding ground of some of the best coaches in Hudson County history, legendary figures who are larger than their own legacies. It’s a school that has also nurtured its fair share of other athletes, like state champion track and field performers and standout baseball players.
And it’s a school that stood the test of time over the years, providing a quality Catholic education for the young men and women of Downtown Jersey City, a geographic and educational safe haven for those who came from moderate income families and couldn’t afford the higher-priced high schools.
It was announced last Monday in a school assembly that St. Mary High School will close its doors for good in June. The Third Street school will fall victim to the economy and the times, much like countless other Parochial schools have done over the years.
St. Michael’s and Holy Rosary, both in Union City, shut their doors in the 1960s and not much was said or done. St. Michael’s of Jersey City followed suit in the 1980s, without much fanfare or pomp and circumstance.
But then the rush of school closings ensued. St. Aloysius High School, a long-time staple in Jersey City’s West Side district, shut its doors for good five years ago. St. Joseph of the Palisades, another school with a long standing tradition of serving its community, put the padlock on the doors in 2009.
Through all those tough economic times for Parochial schools, St. Mary survived. The executioner might have been poised and ready to flip the switch and give the school its death knell, but it always managed to stay open.
“It’s always been year-to-year,” said long-time St. Mary athletic director, basketball coach and vice-principal Tom Lalicato. “But we were always able to pull the rabbit out of the hat in time. It was always based on registration. We also always had good people, good staff, that worked for less and kept us going. But we just ran out of steam.”
Lalicato had to be the one to break the news to the student body that this would be the last year for the small school on Third Street, that St. Mary would become just like the other Hudson County Parochial schools in the past, a piece of ancient history.
“The kids were okay with it,” Lalicato said. “They understood. It’s a sad day, no question. I think it’s a sign of a change in cultural tastes. The things that held Catholic education together in the past are not popular anymore. There’s always going to a place for Catholic education, just not the smaller schools.”
Lalicato has been a part of St. Mary High School since he entered the doors in 1965 as a student. He played basketball and baseball there, playing basketball for Bill Kuchar and baseball for the immortal Joe “Rocky” Pope, who went on to do even bigger and better things at Hudson Catholic. He then came back to St. Mary and coached for the last 25-plus years.
“There isn’t a moment of my adult consciousness that doesn’t involve St. Mary’s,” Lalicato said. “I’ve spent nearly my entire life here. Now, it’s all going to change.”
It’s also going to change for long-time baseball coach Pat Laguerre, another graduate of the school. Laguerre, who also serves as an assistant coach for the basketball team, was a fine basketball and baseball player for the Ramblers in the 1980s and went to Jacksonville University on a basketball scholarship.
“It’s definitely sad, but it’s not a shock,” Laguerre said. “It’s almost like we were waiting for someone to say it was a done deal. It’s now the final chapter. I feel bad, but I feel worse for the kids who have to find another school now. It’s sad and disappointing, but not shocking. For me, it was a great opportunity to come back home and do what I love doing. I’ve been fortunate to get that chance. It was always a family atmosphere here. For me, it was a dream come true. I grew up here and got a chance to coach here.”
Some of Lalicato’s basketball players were caught off guard by the decision.
“I had no idea it was going to happen,” said senior point guard Fransua Garcia. “It’s hard for me, because this is the second school I’ve seen close.”
Garcia came to St. Mary only after St. Joseph of the Palisades closed its doors two years ago.
“It’s a bad experience because I really felt at home here,” Garcia said. “When I came here, they wanted me and it felt like a family. It really surprised me.”
“I’m really hurt by it,” said senior forward Isaiah Miles. “I didn’t see it coming. It seals the future of this school.”
“I don’t know how to explain my emotions,” fellow senior Edgar Garcia said. “I was shocked and didn’t want to see it end. I transferred here from St. Anthony and I felt right at home here. I had that positive vibe right away. I just wonder and worry where all the other kids will go.”
Lalicato wanted to give credit to three influential people whom he worked with, namely Laguerre – “We are what we are because of him,” Lalicato said – current principal Beatriz Esteban-Messina and former principal Sister Jacqueline Carey.
“Beatriz dedicated 30 years of her life to the school,” Lalicato said. “And without Sister Jackie, we never would have prospered.”
After it was announced that the school was closing, Lalicato made a very tough and controversial decision. He decided that he will not enter the Ramblers in the upcoming NJSIAA Non-Public B state tournament, despite already having qualified with a solid 13-6 record.
“I don’t want the other team to feel sorry for us,” Lalicato said.
So the Ramblers’ season and basketball legacy will end when the Hudson County Tournament comes to an end. The Ramblers are slated to face Marist this weekend in the quarterfinals.
“We’re going to go hard for the championship,” Fransua Garcia said. “We want to leave something to remember about St. Mary’s basketball.”
“We can’t let [the school closing] disturb us,” Miles said. “We all want it more right now.”
“It’s definitely a big motivation now to play for everyone, for the school, for the alumni, for everyone,” Edgar Garcia said. “At least we can say we ended with a championship.”
However, another chapter in Hudson County sports will come to a close for good. It’s the place that produced basketball stars like Jim Boylan, who went on to win a national championship at Marquette in 1977 and eventually coach the Chicago Bulls.
It’s the place that also produced basketball legends like Percy Anderson, Craig Ross, Luke Griffin, Jason Roberts, Devon Stansberry, Tom Moriarty and Josh Lopez over the years. It produced baseball stars like Vin Capitani, Lou Campisano, Tom Caulfield and of course, Pat Laguerre.
It’s the school that provided two track standouts like Denisha Scott and Mia Campo the opportunity to win a state championship once on their own.
It’s the place where coaching legends like the aforementioned Kuchar and Pope got their starts, not to mention others like Mike Hogan and the area’s most well known and recognized baseball guru, Ed “The Faa” Ford.
And it produced two dedicated, wonderful souls like the current coaching tandem of Lalicato and Laguerre.
It’s almost unfathomable to think that the Ramblers won’t ramble much longer after the baseball season ends in the gloaming of May or the inception of June. It’s unthinkable to consider that St. Mary won’t be there come summer time.
But it’s just another true sign of the times, a sad sign at that.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.