Future Oriented
For 125 years, Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia has been shaping boys into independent young men of character, eager to embrace the challenges ahead
by Bill Donahue

In 2006, when Roman Catholic High School’s crew team won the first of its three Philadelphia Catholic League titles, some unexpected but certainly not unwelcome revelers attended the ensuing celebration: two members of the crew team from 1942.

“These are two guys whose teams never won the title, but they came to visit with the [2006 team] and congratulate them on their victory,” says Father Joseph Bongard, president and rector of Roman Catholic, as well as a member of the Class of 1977. “I think they all really enjoyed that interaction. It shows that there’s a connection across generations. Once you’re part of this, it never leaves you.”

Roman Catholic High School traces its roots to Thomas E. Cahill, a successful businessman and the son of an Irish immigrant whose goal in life was to use his fortune to found a Catholic school for boys. His goal was realized in 1890, and for the past 125 years, the school has been providing motivated young men with all the tools they need to aspire to their dreams. Located at the corner of Broad and Vine streets in Philadelphia, Roman has cultivated a diverse community in which each young man who steps foot onto the hallowed grounds immediately becomes part of “the Roman family.” As evidenced by Father Bongard’s crew example, this bond continues long after the day the mortarboards fly.

Roman students come from approximately 160 different elementary schools, eager to embrace a challenging academic curriculum and an array of extracurricular clubs and organizations, including 17 varsity sports teams, some of which have gained regional and national acclaim. (In 2015, for example, Roman’s powerhouse basketball team won the state championship, while the mock trial team earned its third city title in five years and also placed second in the state championship.) The resulting cultural, racial and religious diversity fosters an environment in which young men learn to respect the uniqueness of others, while growing into self-possessed men of integrity who are focused on building a bright future.

“When we interview students for admission, we ask them, ‘What college are you thinking about going to?’” says Father Bongard. “The kids are usually stunned, because here they are trying to get into high school and we’re asking them about college. We are future oriented, and we want to help our students with their goals and dreams; presently, 96 percent of graduates are matriculating to the next level. We’ve built a program based on the expectation that they are going to college, which is why we expose them to so many different opportunities. We want them to have as many doors open to them as possible.”

Tom Stevens is a fine example of how such diversity can influence a young man. Currently a rising senior, Stevens chose Roman because of its inimitable location, its affordability in comparison to other elite schools and, of course, the strength of its football program. He will serve as the football team’s captain this year, playing linebacker and tight end, but he has gained much more than the lessons he has learned on the football field.

“I have developed so many connections at Roman, and I’ve met people I would not have had the opportunity to meet anywhere else,” says Stevens, an honors student who uses public transportation to commute to Roman from his home in Havertown. “The diversity that Roman has, with kids coming from more than 100 different grade schools, has helped me a lot. I have a lot of different friends—the kids in my classes, my teammates, people from the music department—and everyone gets along really well. It’s a brotherhood. Meeting so many people from so many different backgrounds and being able to find common ground, I think it will help me when I have to start over again in college.”

In addition to football, Stevens suits up for the lacrosse team. Apart from athletics, he’s heavily involved in extracurricular activities such as the music program—he plays the clarinet—and he also participates in a number of enriching student clubs that continually expose him to new experiences.

“Roman is always trying to get people to be active,” he says. “I have one group of friends who were interested in robotics, so they started their own club this past year. That’s another cool thing about Roman; if you have an idea for a club or want to create something new, they will encourage you to do it.

“The school offers a lot of intangibles,” he continues. “It’s such a cool culture and atmosphere, with so many different people you can grow with and become close friends with. And the location in Center City is hard to beat; for lacrosse practice, we’ll be running the Art Museum steps like Rocky.”

‘The Secret Is Out’
The Coffeys are a Roman family in every sense of the word. The Ardmore-based family has two sons who have graduated from Roman, another in his sophomore year and two more sons in grade school who are likely to attend Roman in the years ahead.

“We’ve had a very good experience at Roman so far,” says John Coffey, father of Roman alumni John Jr. (Class of 2013) and Joe (Class of 2015), as well as George, a rising sophomore. “It has everything we were looking for: academics with a classical approach to secondary education; a college-preparatory curriculum with a focus on writing; and exceptional teachers—all in an environment with other motivated kids who have chosen Roman for what it has to offer.

“The city itself adds some dimensions that other good schools can’t,” he continues. “One of our sons has shown some ability in art, and through Roman he was able to take classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Another of our sons, through Roman, was able to take anatomy classes at Hahnemann [an affiliate of Drexel University]. The location is tough to beat—just a bustling urban environment and this incredible campus that is beautiful architecturally.”

Coffey’s two sons who have graduated from Roman are well on their way. His eldest son, John Jr., is studying philosophy at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif.—“he surfs before class,” Coffey says—and his second eldest, Joe, will soon start his freshman year at Furman University in Greeneville, S.C.

“We’ve seen what you want to see in your children, and a lot of that comes from what they learned at Roman,” says Coffey. “Our sons have become decent young men with character who can interact with adults and take responsibility. … Roman is a model of competent, committed, loving, accountable leadership. It wasn’t on a lot of people’s radar for a long time, but now the secret is kind of out.”

Although Roman has a rich tradition, it is hardly stuck in the past. Father Bongard takes great pride in the fact that the school has “continually reinvented itself over the years to make sure students are prepared for the time period in which they find themselves,” he says; Roman embraced a 1:1 iPad initiative in 2012, for example. In fact, the school is embarking on a new, three-phase master plan for the campus, the first phase of which includes the establishment of a fine arts center. He expects the school to begin construction on the center within the year.

Students quickly realize that a year at Roman is a precious thing. Stevens has one more year left at Roman—and he intends to make the most of it. He already feels “very prepared” for the challenges awaiting him, in college and beyond.

“I owe a lot of that to the teachers,” he says. “All the teachers are focused on helping you and making sure you know what is expected of you in college and giving you the best tools you need to succeed.

“My time at Roman has been better than I ever expected,” he continues. “It’s been phenomenal, and each year has gotten better and better. … Roman pushed me, and I don’t think that would have happened elsewhere.”

Roman Catholic High School
301 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107