Basketball a legacy at St. Mary’s

Talking with some of the dozens of men who play basketball at St. Mary’s school hall on Saturday mornings, it’s not difficult to learn what has shaped their lives.

Their heroes are still their peers who preceded them to the eighth grade, then high school and college.

Their spouses grew up attending neighboring parochial schools.

The names of the nuns who taught them are still fresh in their minds, and so are their parochial sports league rivalries.

St. Mary’s was once the largest parochial school in Altoona. And the school building is emblematic of the past, though the days are long gone when the school’s football team would take victory tours through the neighborhoods of Dutch Hill.

At that time, in the 70s, the city’s manufacturing jobs were strong. The players would wave and shout from the windows of “The Mighty Dutchman,” a blue and white school bus.

“There was a lot of tradition and rivalry within the parochial schools,” said Mike Miller, St. Mary’s class of 1972. “It comes down to demographics. The city’s gotten smaller, and

that’s reflected in the school system.”

Two public schools closed last year because of a decade of steadily declining enrollment as people have moved to the outskirts of the city.

It doesn’t come as a complete surprise to alumni that the 125-year-old St. Mary’s school building will cease to be a school by the start of summer.

St. Mary’s School technically closed 17 years ago when the Altoona Central Catholic School consolidation of nine parochial schools was formed.

The building has since served as a middle school for that system.

St. Mary’s Parish Pastor Monsignor Timothy Stein said he and the parish family will search for an appropriate use for the school building.

Purposes have been found for other parish buildings. Following a decline in women entering the parish convent, that building had been converted to a subsidized apartment dwelling for the elderly and the disabled, he stated.

“It’s my hope that our school building will continue to serve some function that will continue to promote the mission of the Church,” he said. “We will probably continue to use it for our religious education program for our public school students.”

Parishioners built all of St. Mary’s buildings. The school was built in 1889 by German immigrants who were employed to work in the railroad industry. The ethnic diversity of Altoona when it was defined as a railroad town gave rise to many ethnic churches, each with their own schools.

The school hall was later added by the German railworkers sons, said Kevin Roesch, class of 1972.

“It was a building ahead of its times. It has a bowling alley, a stage for plays, a band room, a cafeteria and a locker room,” he said. “In its day, it was a jewel.”

Each year from October to March, Roesch and dozens of men with ties to St. Mary’s rent the school hall for weekly pick-up basketball tournaments.

“With the Saturday pickup games, we just continued what we had thirty to forty years ago,” said John Franco, a former St. Mary’s rival from Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Children of Italian immigrants were schooled there.

With the NCAA Final Four tournament, more than 100 men with ties to St. Mary’s gather for a basketball party. But in their youth, many of the men also played football.

“It’s been a life-long family,” Franco said. “Parochial league was the NFL around here. And St. Mary’s, they were everybody’s rivals.”

Bill Casey’s reputation as one of St. Mary’s best athletes precedes him. The 1962 St. Mary’s graduate was an All-American at East Tennessee and subsequently played for the Philadelphia Eagles. But to speak with him, it’s immediately noticeable that the 66-year-old retired teacher and coach has been most influenced by his St. Mary’s roots.

“It was a matter of fellowship sportsmanship. It was a ritual on Saturdays to come down here and play ball. Since grade school, it just became part of your life,” he said at St. Mary’s school hall on Saturday.

St. Mary’s alumnus Willie Maier, 77, was a former semi-professional baseball player and coached “on and off” for 17 years at St. Mary’s.

“There’s no kids anymore like there used to be. It’s heartbreaking in a way,” Maier, said. “So many kids have been through this school.”

Photos of each graduating class hang in the school’s hallway, the men say.

“Your parents went to St. Mary’s. You went there. Your kids went there,” George Geishauser, 54, said. “You would have liked to see that keep going. Their sons won’t get to carry the torch. … It’s hard to see it go because there were so many good memories and thoughts about the building.”

As St. Mary’s students prepare to attend St. Rose of Lima school next fall, the men say it’s good that future generations will still have a Catholic education.

Stein seeks to help those affected by the change remain grounded in their faith.

“Scripture reminds us that there’s a time for everything – a time to hold on, and a time to let go. Our building can no longer adequately serve the purpose of a modern educational facility,” Stein said. ” It’s time to let go.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.