Fishtown nun was driving force behind a miracle

Sister Mary Alan Barszczewski -06042017-0001
Sister Mary Alan Barszczewski, back in 2008.

In 1961, on Berks Street in Fishtown, a 14-year-old girl decided that she wanted to become a nun.

She hoped, she said later, to do something good for people. So her parents sent her to Immaculate Conception High School in Lodi, N.J., a boarding school run by the Felician Sisters, to begin her training. After four years there, she returned home, earning her bachelor's degree at La Salle and her master's degree at Villanova, before getting a teaching job at a private, all-girls high school in Wilmington. It was perfect. She was home, close to her family, able to follow closely the Phillies, the Eagles, and the Big Five. One summer night, her brother and his friends asked her to sneak a six-pack into Veterans Stadium for a Phillies game, and she did it, her eyes twinkling. Go ahead. Find a security guard who thinks to pat down a nun.

Then, in 1979, the Felician community gave her a new assignment - St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, a tiny, amber-brick building at the mouth of the Holland Tunnel - and it didn't matter that Sister Mary Alan Barszczewski had grown up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in one of the toughest cities in America. She saw the poverty and violence of Jersey City, the broken families and decaying housing projects and the kids paying the cost, and she blanched. But the man who had been the boys' basketball coach there since 1971, Bob Hurley, saw something important in Sister Alan: an ally. The following year, 1980, Sister Alan took over as St. Anthony's athletic director, and shortly thereafter, Hurley learned that Hudson County's association of athletic directors called a meeting at a bar, in an attempt to intimidate her. She showed up early. It was all Hurley needed to know about the stout little woman, barely over 5 feet tall, a fire hydrant in a habit.

Improbable dynasty

Sister Alan's predecessors had never quite understood the power of sports to affect a teenager's life. She did. Hurley did. And Sister Felicia Brodowski, Sister Alan's old classmate at Villanova, who became St. Anthony's principal in 1982, did, too. Together, for a quarter-century, the three of them were the foundation of the greatest and most improbable dynasty in American high school basketball, the inspiration for a bestselling book: The Miracle of St. Anthony. St. Anthony had a sign on the door that said "The streets stop here," but it didn't have a gym; the team practiced in a bingo hall across the street. The school's tuition was half of what it cost to educate each student. Yet over Hurley's career, the Friars won 28 state championships, and he had one player, one, who didn't go on to college.

He was the raging disciplinarian. Sister Alan and Sister Felicia were the soft, comforting shoulders.

"It's funny when you think about it," said former St. Joseph's guard Dwayne Lee, a St. Anthony alumnus. "It's two different ends of the spectrum. You go to practice, and you get screamed at. Then you go to school the next day, and they cater to you. I think it's the perfect relationship."

Sister Alan scheduled the games. She rode the bus with the team. She chauffeured kids on college visits. She solicited six-figure donations from Wall Street firms, all in the name of keeping the school open and doing the one thing she had wanted to do all along: help people.

"She would identify all these kids and their potential to be college players, and she made sure they had the necessary classes and the necessary teachers," Hurley said. "If there were two math teachers, the one who would spend extra time with the kid would be the one the basketball player would get. In another school, it might be the teacher would give the kid a B. In our school, it was the one who would do more for the kid."

One day in the mid-1990s, Rashon Burno, a St. Anthony point guard, toted a shoebox full of black, charred money into Sister Alan's office. He had spent the summer working part-time at a shoe store and a hardware store, and he had stuffed his $2,800 in earnings into the box and slid it under his bed. A fire had engulfed his apartment, burning the bills into crisp, black flakes, and there was only one person he trusted enough to ask if the money could be salvaged. That afternoon, he and Sister Alan spread the money out on school desks, spending hours matching serial numbers and taping the bills back together. A few days later, Sister Alan accompanied Burno to a local bank and helped him open an account.

Years later, he called her with good news: He had gotten a job at Morgan Stanley, as an investment banker.

"Growing up in Philadelphia, if you don't like sports, you're out of it," she once said. "My roots are in Philadelphia, and everyone around here knows it. My friends always tease me: 'Yeah, we know. It's not as good as Philadelphia.' But I knew sports was the hook that could keep these kids going. We had kids who came in here and didn't think they could do anything but play basketball. We used that to teach them."

Would not give up

In May 2001, 40 years after first hearing her calling, she made a routine doctor's appointment on a Friday - she had a history of kidney stones - and soon found herself in front of a cancer specialist, who held up an X-ray of her liver. The tumor inside her was the size of a basketball. He told her she had three months to live. Who's going to take care of the kids? she said.

Her sister, Monica Lynam, who lives in South Jersey, took her to dinner one night and asked her, "When you come right down to it, are you willing to give up the fight?" She was not. She remained St. Anthony's athletic director until 2005, finding the time and strength through the surgeries and the chemotherapy to sit in the stands at basketball games, to return to the school from time to time, shuffle down the narrow hallways, and see the looks of surprise and delight on the students' faces.

"It's been a very fulfilling experience, and you know what? We were all young when we started," she once said. "When you're young, you don't even realize the enormity of what you're trying to do and accomplish. . . .

"It's harder nowadays because society is so much different. They've got so many more distractions. Instant messaging, cell phones. It's wonderful, but it's awful. Kids are exposed to so many things. They were much more innocent a long time ago, but they have the same basic needs, and one of the things we've had to do here is teach kids values. A lot of them come from very hardworking families, and they're killing themselves to keep them in this school, and I say to the kids, 'It's because somebody cares about you. Somebody cares that you learn something for life.' "

She died on April 7, 2009, eight years ago Friday. On Wednesday afternoon, there was a news conference in Jersey City, and Bob Hurley announced that St. Anthony would close this year. The Archdiocese of Newark had taken greater control of the region's Catholic schools in late 2013, demanding budget cuts and financial sacrifice.

"If my sister had been alive," Monica Lynam said Thursday morning by phone, "she would have fought tooth and nail against that." Sister Felicia was forced to leave. Hurley became St. Anthony's president. There were public pleas and fund-raising campaigns. Who's going to take care of the kids? None of it was enough.

"Is it extremely sad?" Hurley said to reporters Wednesday. "Yes, it's brutal. It's absolutely brutal. It was a great run."

It was, and a little nun from Berks Street, a Philadelphian through and through, one of the best of us, was at the center of it, and it ended because of one the hardest truths of all to accept: Not every miracle lasts forever.

msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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