Members of the St. Malachy Blue Bombers basketball team with their trophy following 2013 tournament play in Erie.
“The trophies, plastic as they may be, were a symbolization of what could happen if somebody really cared about something and worked consistently toward getting it. The story in my eyes is what happens to the memory when a building closes.” – J.C. Coccoli
By Jamie Wiggan
Two years after St. Malachy and Holy Trinity Roman Catholic grade schools merged under the new banner of Archangel Gabriel School, some St. Malachy alumni fear the school's history is under threat from plans to auction off its collection of sports memorabilia.
Ever since opening in 1954, the small K-8 Catholic school punched well above its weight in athletics, with the storied Blue Bombers basketball team racking up three state title wins and countless Diocesan titles before the program shuttered with the school in 2019.
Now the namesake blue paint has been stripped from the Jerry Burik Memorial Gymnasium walls through a repurposing of the space to accommodate the merged parish’s youth ministry program. The shelves of trophies and memorabilia are reportedly in storage off-site, with plans in play to auction them off later in the year to raise money for the new school.
Some alumni feel they were left out of the process and fear the proposed silent auction represents a looming endpoint to their cherished history and traditions.
“People are definitely shocked and saddened,” said Reed Baker, a 1991 graduate of St. Malachy now working primarily in Hong Kong and China.
Baker said he’s grateful to the affiliates of the former school who took initiative with safekeeping the memorabilia after the recent gymnasium remodeling, but he also feels disappointed the parish didn’t do more to involve alumni like himself.
No longer a regular church-goer, Baker still feels a sense of acute betrayal from his former spiritual home.
“If you wanted to take away a sense of belonging, start by taking away our history,” he said. “The church is losing thousands of people a day.. and little things like this are contributing to that.”
David Poecking, Archangel Gabriel’s pastor, said when handing over custody of the memorabilia to representatives of the former school, he “made a good faith effort to call on people who were most active in recent years” who he was confident would find a way to appropriately preserve and honor St. Malachy’s legacy.
COVID-19-related delays further muddied the process, said Poecking, who also acknowledged more could have been done to involve alumni in the process.
“If people feel excluded, I’m sorry,” he said. Poecking maintains his hope all along was to let the appointed custodians handle the memorabilia in a way that best honors the former school, and he said it was their idea to hold the auction.
The appointed custodians – a former St. Malachy teacher and the former head of its athletics program – declined to comment or failed to return multiple phone calls requesting details about the auction and the wider process.
Newly-appointed school principal, Brad Swiger, who took over the reins immediately before the current semester, said he was not involved in the process and deferred questions to Poecking.
The 2019 merging of the former St. Malachy and Holy Trinity schools followed closely behind a merger of the associated parishes along with St. John of God in McKees Rocks. Although all three church buildings remain open for now, they’re grouped collectively under the Archangel Gabriel parish.
Poecking said when the schools merged, all former school property – including the memorabilia – was turned over to the parish.
Baker isn’t the only former student to voice concerns over what’s played out since then. Others even said they would have been willing to help preserve the trophies for the sake of the St. Malachy community, if they’d been brought into the conversation.
“We’re here to help them,” said J.C. Coccoli, a St. Malachy alumna and professional comedian, who recently returned to Pittsburgh after a stint in Hollywood.
Coccoli said she plans to contact the volunteer fire department and local baseball league to see if either would be willing to provide a public space to preserve some of the contents.
“The trophies, plastic as they may be, were a symbolization of what could happen if somebody really cared about something and worked consistently toward getting it,” Coccoli said.
“The story in my eyes is what happens to the memory when a building closes.”
Whether in the new school or at another location in the community, Coccoli believes it’s essential to find a public space for them.
David Hughes, a 2001 graduate now living in Chicago, said money shouldn’t be a concern, and suggested he and hundreds of other alumni would be happy to support the new school in preserving the trophies had they been contacted.
“When you’re in McKees Rocks and you want to raise money, you sell stuff and you have spaghetti dinners,” he said. Maybe there’s a better way? There’s a huge alumni network that are successful people – they can tap into that.”
Poecking maintains there could still be a way to display some items in the school, which since the merger has been based at the site of the former Holy Trinity school.
“We want to respect the St. Malachy history,” he said.