The end of an era: Queen of Peace, 1930-2017 … School with rich sports tradition to close in June

File photo — Ed Abromaitis

Ed Abromaitis spent four decades of his life being associated with Queen of Peace High School. Abromaitis attended the school, played sports there and later became a respected coach and athletic director there.

If anyone in the area mentioned Queen of Peace sports, Abromaitis would be the first person that would come to mind. Perhaps the late Ralph Borgess gains similar respect, but Abromaitis is still with us as a living legend of QP.

So when news broke last week that the school was going to close its doors forever after 87 years, after an expansive and extensive fundraising campaign a year ago, Abromaitis didn’t know what to say.

“I feel like someone has kicked me in the stomach,” Abromaitis said. “It stings. It hurts. It’s really a shame. It’s almost like when you know someone is going to pass away, but it still hurts when they do. I knew it was coming. It’s not a shock. But it still stings.”

Abromaitis said that he spent 44 years at QP.

“It’s 44 years of my life there, so this is a tough day,” Abromaitis said last Thursday after he received the news. “Someone immediately texted me and reading it, it was like a death notice. I go way back with the school. It was a great place.”

There was a time when Queen of Peace was the premier Parochial school in south Bergen and west Hudson. Not only for its academics, but the school has a rich and storied athletic tradition.

There were the countless football games with the legendary Borgess and his sons Ralph, Jr. and Richie roaming the sidelines.

For 52 years, Ralph Borgess was a high school football coach in New Jersey, with 26 of it at QP.

The practice field was named after him in 2013. A plaque was erected in his honor.

Borgess was the head football coach on two different occasions, including the last stint that lasted way past his 80th birthday. He was the one who saw the rebirth of QP football, leading the Golden Griffins to the Non-Public Group 3 state title game in 2002.

Borgess was the assistant athletic director when he suffered an untimely stroke and died in 2006.

“Getting to know all the QP people,” Abromaitis said. “That was a thrill. People like Ralph Borgess and Sonny Connors.”

Connors holds a distinction as well. Not only was he the caregiver and groundskeeper at QP for 30 years, but he was also the grandfather to Derek Jeter, who had his No. 2 retired by the New York Yankees on Sunday.

“People who showed me the right way to act and dress and play,” Abromaitis said.

Abromaitis was asked to remember one shining moment of his career at QP.

“I think it had to be in 1990, when we beat St. Joseph’s of Montvale in football,” Abromaitis said. “Ralph and Richie Borgess were the coaches. That game (won by the Golden Griffins, 13-6, in the first round of the NJSIAA Parochial A North playoffs) stands out in my mind.”

Abromaitis had others.

“In 1989, we beat Wayne Hills and Chris Olsen (the legendary coach there, whose son, Greg, now is an All-Pro tight end with the Carolina Panthers),” Abromaitis said. “I think that win put us on the map.”

Abromaitis was also the head baseball coach who guided the Golden Griffins to BCSL championships in 1984, 1992 and 2002.

“Those are some great memories,” Abromaitis said. “I can go on forever. I can see all those championships in my sleep. They are great memories.”

And then there was the 2004 Non-Public Group 2 state championship game at Rip Collins Field against DePaul, when you couldn’t find a parking space in North Arlington for miles. The Golden Griffins won, 35-20.

“It was our first one since 1972,” Abromaitis said. “It was a great game. The NJSIAA wanted me to move the game (because of parking), but it was our reward. I wasn’t moving it. It was a big highlight. We were back on top after all those years.”

In recent years, the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams created some great moments, with the boys playing for the Bergen County Jamboree semifinals in 2008 and the girls getting to the semifinals of the county tournament the last two years and winning the NJSIAA Non-Public B North state sectional title this year.

Christian Boyce was the head coach of the Golden Griffins when they went to the Bergen County Jamboree semis. He also played for the Griffins during his scholastic days.

“I feel really bad for Father Mike (Donovan, the pastor and president of the school),” Boyce said. “But this shouldn’t have happened. It has to do with the ineptitude of the school for getting rid of good people like Gabe Infante (last year’s National Scholastic Football Coach of the Year from St. Joseph’s of Philadelphia) and Andy Cerco (the head coach of the 2004 QP football state champs). It took the alumni this long to get on board. We had no alumni development before the plea came out that the school was going to close. For two years, we had an alumni director who didn’t work in the building.”

Boyce remained critical of his alma mater.

“It took this long for the alumni to get on board and realize we were in trouble,” Boyce said. “Well, it was too late. Now, everyone is going to want to blame Father Mike for this. He’s only been here for a year.”

Boyce, who had two stints as being the head boys’ basketball coach, said that he was angered by the news of the school’s closing.

“Am I upset? Absolutely,” Boyce said. “I have so many memories and experiences from Queen of Peace. I went there. I coached there. But the administration had to see the writing on the wall. So many mistakes were made, but the results were the same. It’s very frustrating to me, because I thought it all could have been prevented. I don’t think I’m saddened. I’m more disappointed. We could have increased enrollment, but the Archdiocese didn’t see it that way.

Added Boyce, “As an athlete, I’ll always remember the smallest details of every game playing sports at Queen of Peace. And we’re never going to have that again. I’ll miss the kids. I’ll miss working with them and mentoring them. Guys I’ve coached still call me ‘Coach.’ That’s a thrill.”

Brian St. Leger is one of the best basketball players in QP history, scoring more than 1,000 points in his career that ended in 1981.

“My initial reaction to QP closing after this school year isn’t really shocking,” St. Leger said. “It’s the suddenness of it that was stunning. As usual, when it comes to the QP pastor and administration, everyone is left in the dark about what they’re up to. QP closes and it doesn’t hit home. It is home.

Added St. Leger, “When I fly into Newark Airport or drive on the New Jersey Turnpike, I always look out the window and spot the mighty QP steeple that sits so elegantly on top of the church. I feel very proud and reminisce about some of the great things that happened to me there. I’m not sure I’ll be doing that anymore.”
St. Leger also will remember the people.

“QP was about the faculty, the brothers and nuns that taught us, the students, the teammates, the coaches,” St. Leger said. “It’s about the friends and experiences we shared and still do. That’s what I’ll hold on to now. That’s all we can do.”

St. Leger’s heart went out to the current student body.

“I truly feel for the students and athletes who won’t be able to share the same love for QP and all the high school life experiences we enjoyed. That’s what really saddens me.”

Attorney Tony Riposta, an excellent three-sport athlete during his heyday, graduating in 1971, is also upset, but for a different reason.

A year ago, the school reached out to its alumni for help to keep the school open and the alumni raised $1.5 million in six weeks to keep the doors open.

“I thought we were over the hump,” Riposta said. “I committed 15 years of giving in one year so the school didn’t run its course. I went out of my way to ask some people for money and they gave. It was all premised that the school would turn around. Now, it’s closing? That’s a total embarrassment to me.”

Riposta wondered if some of the major investors from a year ago (one alum donated more than $250,000 and another kicked in $200,000) were in line to receive a refund.

“If they thought it was only for one year, they never would have donated that kind of money,” Riposta said. “It’s sad and depressing. After the fundraising we did last year, well, they should give it back. It’s really a shock and it’s really sad.”

Riposta credited athletics for his success as a lawyer.

“I don’t know where I would be today without Queen of Peace,” Riposta said. “There are so many great athletes to come from there. Some great legendary coaches. It brings tears to my eyes to think it’s going to end when it shouldn’t be ending. It’s always been such a resilient place, with special thanks to Eddie Abro, who was the kind of person the school generated. Abro didn’t want to see this place die. He would have done anything for QP.”

Some of the alumni believe it’s just a sign of the times.

“In today’s world, it just doesn’t seem right to be closing Catholic schools,” St. Leger said. “But I guess we have to resign ourselves to the fact that this is now the world we live in.”

“In this area, a blue-collar area, who has the money to send their kids to high school and then college?” Abromaitis said. “It was just too hard to maintain after all these years.”

Back in 1930, Msgr. Peter B. O’Connor, the first pastor of Queen of Peace Church, had the vision of starting a high school, provided he received a commitment from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill.

O’Connor had one mission in life that applied to his high school. “We live and work so that all people may be united with God and with one another.

That bond ended last Friday, when the Archdiocese of Newark pulled the plug on yet another Parochial High School. Two weeks ago, it was St. Anthony of Jersey City, the basketball powerhouse. This time, it was Queen of Peace, sending its students and its athletes scattering like field mice at a picnic. Somehow, it’s just not right.

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer