Each morning at Cardinal Hayes High School, Father Joseph Tierney, the school president, and principal William Lessa greet each of the 950 boys at the front doors before the day begins.
It’s a tradition that has been carried on for as long as anyone can remember at the Bronx school, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
“You can assess a lot about a boy when you see him entering the building,” Lessa said. “We talk about everything. That line of communication is essential. We have to be a part of their lives.”
Lessa, now in his 45th year at Hayes, has served as principal since 2008; he earlier taught and served in guidance and college advising, and as assistant principal.
The boys’ school, situated on the Grand Concourse within walking distance of Yankee Stadium, was founded by Cardinal Francis Spellman and dedicated in September 1941. Its purpose was to provide a Catholic education to boys from families who could not afford other private schools.
The original faculty at Cardinal Hayes consisted of 42 priests and 47 religious brothers from four orders—Marist, Xaverian, De La Salle and Irish Christian Brothers—and four lay teachers. In the beginning, students were mostly Irish, Italian, Polish, German and Czech.
The student body has changed as the demographics and geography of the surrounding neighborhoods has evolved. Today’s students are primarily Hispanic and African-American.
“What has remained the same is that our students are still from first-generation immigrant families seeking better lives for their children,” said Lessa during a Nov. 2 interview. The school serves the lowest-income congressional district in the United States.
“The success of Cardinal Hayes is imperative to the Bronx and New York City and the Catholic Church as we continue to produce young men of faith who follow our motto of ‘For God and Country,’” Lessa said, commending the school’s adherence to tradition and discipline.
Cardinal Hayes has begun a $20 million capital campaign, “Forever Hayes,” honoring the 75th anniversary.
The school’s emphasis on Catholic identity is primary. “We begin every day with prayer, and every activity begins with prayer,” Father Tierney said. Those activities include classes, sports events, parent-teacher conferences and staff meetings.
Mass is offered every day, rosaries are distributed during October, and Advent and Lent bring special prayer services and retreats.
“Whether the boys are Catholic or not, it’s important to have a sense of God in their life, and to have their spiritual life strengthened as much as their academic, social and athletic life,” Father Tierney said.
“It’s so important for any person, but particularly for these formative years, for a young man between 14 and 18, when they are finding out about themselves and the world and their relationships with others. He really needs to be grounded in his prayer, and in his relationship with God.”
Technology plays a greater role in the classroom. The school is being wired for Wi-Fi. Nearly all classrooms are equipped with SMART boards. Some Advanced Placement and honors classes use the Google Classroom platform along with Chromebooks.
Al Salvatico, class of 1968 and president of Jaral Properties Inc., is chairman of the board of trustees. His donation in 2001 went to the building of the Salvatico Science Wing. A Bronx native, he said his parents emigrated from Italy and worked as tailors. The family didn’t have much money, and his parents wanted better for their son.
“They could not project as to what opportunities existed out there,” Salvatico said. “When I came to Hayes, it opened my eyes to possibilities.”
He credits his alma mater for laying the foundation for his success by emphasizing respect and manners, along with morals, ethics and confidence. “When I went to Fordham, I was prepared for it,” he said. “I have been very fortunate. Where I came from and where I ended up is an extraordinary distance.”
Another alumnus, Maisel Mazier, class of 1993, returned to Hayes last year as director of alumni relations. “As you grow in life and experience life, you really appreciate what Hayes meant to you, particularly during your teen years. The emphasis on Catholic values, service and brotherhood has played and continue to play a part in my life.
“At the time, you may chaff under the rules or find them draconian, but later on you start noticing Hayes really played a part in your development as a man,” he said.
Notable alumni include entertainer Regis Philbin, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, and professional athletes Jamal Mashburn and Willie Colon. The auditorium has been rededicated as the Philbin Auditorium and students now have the state-of-the-art Scorsese Media Center.
Current Hayesmen feel that school pride. Darlyn De La Rosa, senior, attended the 75th Anniversary Gala at The Plaza Hotel in Manhattan on Oct. 21. “It was amazing to see all these successful Hayesmen. They were people who were once in my shoes economically. They were students like me, with the color of my skin, like me in every way, which was really just inspiring,” he said.
Julius Boateng, another senior, said his four years have influenced him academically and with opportunities for growth. He recently traveled with the school to China on a cultural immersion trip.
“When I first came to Cardinal Hayes, I was really immature. I talked a lot. I didn’t pay attention. I came thinking I was ‘the man’ and thought I’d automatically get good grades. But the work was pretty challenging. I realized it’s not so simple,” he said.
“Hayes helped me mature as a person. That will help me in college and beyond.”