From 1972: Don Bosco-Pio Nono merger proposed to preserve Catholic education

The story below is an edited version of an article first published in Spring 1972. The article, which appeared in a Marianist newsletter known as the Allatonce, was written by Bro. James Gray, S.M., a member of the Society of Mary’s provincial leadership in St. Louis.

In consultation with the Marianist Province of the United States, St. Thomas More has made minor edits to the original article. To read the full, unedited version, please click here.

Bob Huber (TM ’73) and Joe Quick (DB ’72) display their Don Bosco spirit.

For several years, representatives of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the Society of Mary, and the local leadership at Don Bosco and Pio Nono High School have discussed the possibility of merging the two schools into one, new boys’ high school. After countless hours of negotiation between the parties, an official agreement for the merger appears imminent.

Faced with a bleak financial future if the schools continue to operate independently, Don Bosco and Pio Nono will merge to form a new school, located at the site of the current Pio Nono building. The Society of Mary, which has run Don Bosco since its inception in 1945, will manage this new high school, which would open to students for the 1972-73 school year.

The proposed merger represents a climax of uncertainties in Don Bosco’s recent history. Perhaps the biggest obstacle has been Don Bosco’s aging, outdated facilities. To continue operating into the foreseeable future, Don Bosco requires a new school building. As the cost of education and the school’s operating deficit both increased during the 1960s, however, essential maintenance has been deferred, making the current building on Becher and Windlake unsuitable for high-quality education.

In October 1967, Don Bosco and the Society of Mary first held discussions with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee regarding a possible merger with Pio Nono. At that time, however, both schools were convinced that the Pio Nono building could not accommodate the size of a combined Don Bosco-Pio Nono student body.

In the late fall of 1969, the Archdiocese announced the withdrawal of operating funds from the Catholic secondary schools, further increasing Don Bosco and Pio Nono’s already large operational deficits. School leaders at Bosco immediately formed the Don Bosco Foundation, which raised funds to cover the school’s expenses until June 1973. The school’s underlying fiscal problems remained, however, and leadership continued to project an unsustainable operational deficit in future years that could not be realistically offset through the foundation’s fundraising.

Pio Nono in January 1941, shortly before it became St. Francis Minor Seminary

Separately, the Archdiocese discussed closing Pio Nono because of growing financial concerns. Initially founded in 1870 as Catholic Normal School and Pio Nono College, the school operated as a high school of boys until 1941, when the Archdiocese converted it into St. Francis Minor Seminary. After building DeSales Preparatory Seminary, however, in 1965, the Archdiocese reopened Pio Nono as a boys’ high school. Under the imaginative leadership of Father Ed Olley, Pio Nono developed a reputation for providing an excellent education for its students.

“The Pio Nono facility is the greatest high school campus I’ve ever seen. The science and music departments could desire no more, and the P.E. facility is great. The success of the move will depend a lot on how the two junior classes meld and that is where we’re working the hardest. But we’ve proved that working together as a family can work here.” – Tom Sager, Don Bosco administrator

While some members of the Don Bosco family view Pio Nono as a rival, the school, much like Bosco itself, has developed a strong, collective identity. Both the Don Bosco and Pio Nono families take immense pride in their identities and sacrificing any part of those identities—even to avoid extinction— has been difficult for many Dons and Spartans to face.

“Inside this school building is the Bosco spirit; it’s a ‘Family Spirit,’ and it’s just floating around inside the building. I’m not sure it can exist outside of this building, at least as much as we know it is here.” – Guy Bohlman, junior at Don Bosco

Faced with the certain closing of an insolvent Pio Nono by June 1972, in October 1971, Father John Hanley, the Archdiocese’s newly appointed Superintendent of Schools, encouraged Don Bosco and the Society of Mary to renew their discussions regarding a merger with Pio Nono. While many obstacles existed, leaders from both Pio Nono and Don Bosco, as well as the Archdiocese and the Society of Mary, believed that merging their institutions was the only path that allowed Catholic education to survive for boys on Milwaukee’s south side.

Although an official decision had yet to be made, both schools set December 21—immediately after the dismissal of classes for the Christmas holidays—as the time to meet and share the news of a possible merger with their faculties. Letters to parents followed soon after, reaching homes the Monday after Christmas. This letter, which was also sent to members of the Don Bosco Foundation, invited recipients to a meeting on January 5 to discuss the proposed merger.

“I think the merger is a good idea. The students will have the same great teachers plus some new ones and much better facilities. There is a really close-knit group here at Bosco because of the Bosco spirit of community and unity. I presume the Pio Nono guys have a unifying spirit there too, and it will be a process of getting to know each other’s behavior patterns.” – John Murray, senior at Don Bosco

“I think that the consolidation will be a great experience. The problem will be to use the spirit of community that we know here at Bosco and let it spread over at the new school. The important thing will be to work together, especially through group activities, to build a sense of community that will be truly our own. This will take time and doing things together.” – Rick Weber, senior at Don Bosco

Bro. Daniel Sharpe would become the first principal at the newly merged Thomas More. He was inducted into the Alumni Hall of Fame in 1995.

Given the merger’s many complexities, the long history of consolidation rumors, and the strong emotional attachment that many Dons had for the school in its traditional form, considerable trepidation existed toward the consolidation plan. During the sometimes-tense meeting, Brother Daniel Sharpe, principal of Don Bosco; William Podewils, president of the Don Bosco Foundation; Tom Frohna and Tom Sager, administrators at Don Bosco; and Brother James Gray, administrator for the Society of Mary’s provincial leadership in St. Louis, answered questions and sought feedback from a larger-than-anticipated crowd of parents, alumni, and community members.

During the meeting, a shared set of values gradually emerged. Members of the Don Bosco family wanted to ensure that the Brothers who taught their children at Bosco would follow them to their new school. Attendees also agreed that as much as they cared about Don Bosco’s past, all decisions must be made to first-and-foremost benefit current and future generations of students.

“Since the Brothers will be in control, I believe the new venture can be successful. The effort of both organizations will make it go—to fuse it into a new, merged organization. I believe the contribution being made at Bosco is sound; I only hope we can contribute the same to make the new school a successful operation.” – Mr. Phil Schrempf, Don Bosco business manager (25th year at Bosco)

Some in the Don Bosco community worried that the Pio Nono building did not have the capacity for both the school’s current student body—about 550 for the 1971-72 school year—and the students currently enrolled at Don Bosco—516 in 1971-72. With a total capacity of roughly 1,110 students, Pio Nono would be nearly full if the current Don Bosco and Pio Nono student bodies—a total of about 1,066—were to combine. The 1972 graduating classes at both schools, however, are much larger than the anticipated freshman enrollment for the 1972-73 school year, and, when considering students who will drop out to join the workforce or military, the expected enrollment for a consolidated Don Bosco and Pio Nono is less than 950. Enrollment at many Archdiocesan elementary schools has decreased in recent years as well, which will limit the number of incoming freshmen in future classes at a newly merged high school.

Unsurprisingly, naming the new school has become an emotionally charged issue. Members of both the Don Bosco and Pio Nono administrations believed that for the new school to develop a sense of community within the consolidated student body, the merged school could not simply be named “Don Bosco” or “Pio Nono.” While many in the Bosco community treasured the Don Bosco name, they were more devoted to the substance of a Bosco education and eventually realized that fighting to retain the school’s name could undermine the entire project and leave no future at all for the Don Bosco legacy.

Football was a popular sport at Don Bosco. Click here to learn more about Don Bosco football.

“Some kids are kind of down because we were promised we could graduate from Bosco. We’ve got our class rings and everything that says ‘Bosco.’ But I think a lot of guys are looking forward to the new building and the improved classes and new curriculum.” Kym Ottaviani, junior at Don Bosco

“Both schools have pretty good athletic teams this year, and that means that next year a lot of kids will go out, and Bosco guys that would make it here won’t make the team. But the unity among the guys here at Bosco is great, and I think that will carry over to the new school.” – Bob Sweet, junior at Don Bosco

To govern the newly merged school, the Archdiocese will establish a corporation to act as the school’s fiscal agent. This ecclesiastical corporation will be responsible for underwriting the school’s operating costs and for managing its debts. The corporation will consist of a board of directors comprised of the Archbishop, Vicar, Chancellor, Superintendent of Schools, three priests, six alumni or parents of alumni from Don Bosco and Pio Nono, and a representative from the Society of Mary.

Some issues remain before the consolidation of Don Bosco and Pio Nono can be finalized. Questions of tuition, faculty retention, academic philosophy, and curriculum will require a great deal of grassroots work to solve. The relationship of the Don Bosco Foundation, in its present or expanded form, with the new ecclesiastical corporation is currently being studied by the Foundation representatives and the Archdiocese. The Society of Mary must also sign a formal contract with the diocesan corporation to establish the Marianists’ official role within the newly merged school. This contract will be the outgrowth of a series of contracts worked out in years past for Nolan, Pueblo, Omaha, and East St. Louis. All parties are hopeful that any unresolved issues will be completed before the end of the first semester, allowing the local Pio Nono and Don Bosco leadership to concentrate their second-semester efforts on ensuring an effective consolidation for the 1972-73 school year.

To preserve Catholic education on Milwaukee’s south side, the Don Bosco and Pio Nono communities must come together to form a new collective identity that will be even stronger than the individual ones that existed before. For the sake of our students, both schools must be willing to sacrifice some of their relics and symbols to survive our present reality and provide future generations of Dons and Spartans with the innovative, values-based Catholic education that they deserve.

 

Learn more about St. Thomas More’s 150th Anniversary celebrations at tmore.org/celebrate150.

3 comments

  1. THIs is a great article that filled in many blanks regarding the closure of DB and PN and the creation of TM. By the time of 1972 when the merger happened I was busy studying at the naval nuclear propulsion school so I new little of the details swirling around the DB / PN merger. Thanks

    Gregory Stanosz
  2. i remember when this was going down one of the proposed names for the merged school was United Catholic Lakeside academy (ucla). As an eighth grader i thought that was a “cool” idea. Thankfully those in charge disagreed.

    Stan Lowe TM '77
  3. gREAT ARTICLE AS IT BRINGS BACK MEMORIES. oUR 76 CLASS was the first full four year graduating class. Brother Sharp was the principal. What is Brother sharp’s status?

    Tom Nolan

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