More than just basketball lost with the closing of St. Anthony’s

By Kevin Canessa Jr.


I will never forget the first time I met Robert Matthew Hurley Sr. in person. It was December 1998 and I was a few hours away from becoming the official public-address announcer for one of his basketball games.

“Kevin Canessa, nice to meet you, Mr. Hurley,” I said. “Bob, it’s Bob. Good to meet you, Kev,” he replied.

My hands were clammy. I was trembling. My voice probably cracked. I was standing next to the legend that was Hurley. I was about to become his PA announcer for a four-year run. It was a dream becoming reality.

Bob Hurley

I was already three-and-a-half months into my first year as a teacher at St. Anthony High School, Jersey City. I already had a good sense of just how special the school was. I was fully aware of how vital Hurley was in the lives of so many of the kids.

Which is why now, a week after the school and Archdiocese of Newark announced the school would close its doors in June, it becomes more and more evident just how much the closure hurts. It’s pure doom for many kids who won’t get a chance to benefit from the school. It means there are countless kids who, because the school will no longer exist, will wind up at schools that will do nothing to keep them safe – and provide them with opportunities to succeed.

Hundreds of stories have already been written in the last few weeks about the basketball side of the school. I won’t add to that list. Instead, allow me to share some stories of my four years there – 1998 to 2002 – and how the death of the “Friar Family” is just that … a death whose consequences will be felt for years to come. (The Friar Family is the collective “everyone with an association with the school – past or present.)

‘I was shot over the summer. So was my boyfriend. He died in my arms’

Just 10 minutes into my career at St. Anthony’s, my life changed in an instant. A young girl, who sadly died years later from an illness, was standing outside one of the school’s first-floor offices. She was on crutches. I didn’t know who she was – or her name – but curiously, I walked up to her and asked: “What happened to you?”

Her answer has stuck with me to this very day.

“I was shot over the summer,” she told me, straight-faced. “So was my boyfriend. He died in my arms.”

The girl, a sophomore. Her age at the time of the shooting: 14.

The late Sr. Mary Alan was an integral part of the school’s success — as was Sr. Mary Felicia in the next photo.

At the age of 14, she’d already been through more than what most adults go through in a lifetime. And yet, there she was, Monday, Sept. 14, 1998, preparing to begin her first day of sophomore year. She had a perfect reminder of the murder that took her boyfriend so violently. Her crutches were a reminder that she could have been murdered that day, too, but she got lucky. Very lucky. The bullet only – only – pierced her leg. It missed the femoral artery.

Every time she picked up those crutches, I couldn’t help but think she was forced to recall the murder.

At that moment she shared her story, I thought to myself – “What the hell have you gotten yourself into, Kevin?” This was only my first day. There were 179 left. I wondered if I was suited to handle working at a school where a kid was a shooting victim. But just a few moments later, it hit me hard.

I was exactly where I was supposed to be. These kids needed stability. They needed people who truly loved them. They needed people who believed in them while the world around them said, “Sorry, you will fail at all you do.”

To get respect, ya gotta give it first

Later that day, I was taken aback by a few things. Perhaps the most prominent was that the kids very rarely cared for new teachers. That was because each year, teachers came and left faster than the speed of light. I was one of around a dozen new faculty members that year – and the kids were tired of getting accustomed to teachers who were only using St. Ant’s as a stepping-stone toward working in public schools.

Respect from these kids had to be earned. It was nothing like when I was a high schooler at St. Peter’s Prep, just a mile away from where I now stood as a teacher.

It took me about three months before I fully got that respect from the kids (and there were time, before this, I seriously considered being one of those many teachers who gave up.) There was a fashion show around Dec. 1, 1998. My friend Cathie Downs was in town, visiting me from New Hampshire.

Sr. Mary Felicia was principal for more than two decades.

Going to a fashion show was probably the last thing she wanted to do. But she agreed to go and she probably wound up having a better time than I did.

The following Monday, everything was different.

The kids were in their seats before the second bell rang. They were totally silent when the bell did ring. I finally earned their respect. It was all because they saw me at one of their events. I was there on a weekend night. I brought a friend with me. I wasn’t on the “punch clock.”

Instead, I was there on my own accord.

It was SAHS alum Takeria Clark, class of 2000, who told me things would change if I showed love to the kids by being there for them. “Being there for them” including just showing up to a fashion show, a basketball game, a softball game, a baseball game. The teachers who didn’t show up always failed. The ones who did, generally succeeded. Instability was what these kids knew best. Stability was all they ever craved. Demonstrating stability to the kids was the secret answer.

One parent homes, no parent homes, life on the streets

Clark was a dream student. She was a leader among her class. She was loved by seniors, sophomores and freshmen, despite being a junior at the time. She knew the pulse of the school. She told me so many of the kids came from broken homes. There were one-parent homes, no-parent homes, homes where grandma was the family caretaker, homes where some kids were forced out to the streets to find ways to make money for the family (imagine that?) and so on.

Remember this: These were the good kids. These were the kids who were able to escape Jersey City’s mostly horrifying public schools. Yet they were still faced with the awful reality that was the city’s Greenville section – or, as it’s still called, “The Hill.”

The neighborhood was (and to a degree, still is) very dangerous. It reminds me of one night in early 2000 when I took a group of kids from Greenville to see their first New Jersey Devils hockey game. Kids from the Hill just don’t go to hockey games.

When I was about to drop the last kid off at his home on the Hill, he (his name was Rodney) told me: “Once you drop me off Canessa, get the hell out of here as quick as you can. They’ll think you’re looking for drugs, or they’ll think you’re a narc. When I get out of the car, lock the doors, go, and don’t make no eye contact with anyone on the streets.”

This was the reality that so many of St. Anthony’s kids face.

Yet in their lives, as a documentary on the school says, “The Street Stops Here.” Because once they entered the school doors at 175 Eighth St., in Downtown Jersey City, the street was forgotten about at least until 2:30 p.m. each day. The tiny building that was erected in 1917 and that had some of its original windows hanging by a thread – and that housed the school since its opening in 1952 – was for many the only source of refuge. It was the only place they didn’t have to worry about the threat of guns, drugs, unstable families.

It was the only place they were able to be themselves and not have to worry about whether they’d be shot, propositioned to buy drugs or a plethora of other temptations that could have destroyed their lives in an instant.

The future’s not bright

When the school announced last week, along with the Archdiocese of Newark, that St. Anthony’s would close at the end of this school year, it was the equivalent of a death sentence for some, a sentence to a new, worse life for others.

Indeed, St. Anthony’s was known for its basketball power. Coach Hurley did indeed send kids to college – 150+ – and he gave them a chance to one day make it to the NBA. Several, including his own son, Bobby Hurley Jr., did.

Yet there are countless other stories of kids who weren’t athletes who were also saved, who went to college, who have succeeded in a world where they otherwise would have been told: “You will fail.” When those doors close for the last time in June, there were be rising sophomores, juniors and seniors whose lives will be forever changed. Not for the better.

There will be children who dreamed of a life at St. Anthony’s who will never get that chance.

And no matter where they ultimately wind up – public or private schools – they’ll get nothing in comparison to what they could have gotten at Friar High had the Archdiocese of Newark found a way to keep the place open.

Remember, this is the same archdiocese that justified spending $750,000 so the just-retired archbishop could “fix up” his retirement home in the western part of the state. I can’t help but think that if Joseph Cardinal Tobin, the new archbishop, truly knew the specific, intimate stories of how many lives St. Anthony’s saved, he might have given the school more time to raise the cash needed to keep the place open.

But the reality is this – the doors will close in June.

And come September, lives will change.

It’s such a terrible way for Hurley’s career to come to a close. It’s such a sad ending to a school whose legacy was so much more than basketball.

It’s so sad that kids who otherwise might have found success in life will instead be written off, doomed.

With that said, I can’t help think: “What would Jesus have done?”

And I don’t think his answer would have been to close down a sacred place for so many – forever and ever.


Learn more about the writer ...

Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.