In his remarks before blessing and rededicating St. Pius X-St. Matthias High School, Archbishop José H. Gomez observed, “This new academy that we bless today is born from the Catholic Church’s historical ministry of education in Los Angeles. We mark a new chapter today in the historical communities of St. Pius X and St. Matthias, which have been serving this city for more than 60 years. This new coed academy will be a blessing to the City of Downey, and it’s a sign of hope for all children in Los Angeles.”

The Aug. 9 evening celebration, emceed by Principal Erick Rubaclava, highlighted the rich and intertwining histories of the two Catholic high schools with an outdoor assembly. That was followed by Archbishop Gomez blessing the school, which occupies a 19-acre campus having undergone $750,000 in renovations over the summer with the support of the John and Dorothy Shea and Daniel Murphy Foundations.

In September of 1953, Pius X High School opened as a coed secondary institution in what was then called Hollydale with 410 students. The following May 29, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre dedicated the 16-classroom school — the same day its patron, Pope Pius X, was canonized.

Seven years later St. Matthias High School opened in Huntington Park. The Sisters of Notre Dame staffed the all-girls’ parish high school in the former parochial elementary school, which moved to a new site.

But by the mid-’90s, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles had an annual $1 million operating deficit in its urban low-income high schools. So in the fall of 1995, St. Matthias’ campus closed, with the high school moving to Pius X to continue being an all-girls’ high school, but now on the more spacious Downey campus.

Struggling finances and low enrollment didn’t improve, however. So after a study by Loyola Marymount University’s Center for Catholic Education, the archdiocese decided to make the high school once again coed, naming it St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy.

The new-old configuration officially took place July 1, and the school will open Aug. 19 with 28 new freshmen boys and a total of 235 girls. Boys will be added to classes every year until the archdiocesan high school is fully coeducational.

“We have the opportunity of becoming the first graduating class of the new St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy, which is something that many people don’t get to experience,” declared senior and first student body president Gelyan Garcia during the event. “Matthias is filled with so many memories and traditions, but Pius-Matthias will be a chance for us all to start new ones.”

‘Dream come true’

Msgr. Sal Pilato, superintendent of Catholic high schools for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, agreed. He also pointed out that there had been some “hurt feelings” about the closure of Pius X High School. “It was a quiet goal of mine when I became superintendent five years ago to create a process that would bring this day together,” he said. “But it would also be a day of healing and reconciliation. And to see this dream come true, the merger of two schools with very strong powerful traditions, is just very, very exciting. And I don’t know how much more to say than it’s just awesome.”

The St. Matthias Advisory Board and archdiocese weighed the options last year presented by the Center for Catholic Education for St. Matthias High School. The best choice, it was determined, was for the Downey campus to become coed once again. John Smet — a member of that board who now chairs St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy’s own advisory board — said he thought the new school’s mission boiled down to three words: pride, virtue and purpose.

“Our commitment to you is that Pius-Matthias Academy will be a Catholic school, not just by name and appearance, but by the way our students lead their lives in the classrooms, in college and as adults,” he promised. “Let me assure you, you have our commitment to become the powerhouse school we all envision — with exceptional academics, activities, sports, community and faith.”

Concerning faith, Downey Mayor Mario Guerra — a deacon at nearby St. Raymond Church — said the dedication was really about celebrating the goodness of Christ in the daily lives of people. He reported that the city, which is home to both the Apollo space shuttle as well as the oldest McDonalds, has five high schools but only one Christian school that fosters Catholic education.

“We’re a character-counts community,” he said. “That goes with the pride of what this school does and will continue to do: trustworthiness, responsibility, caring, citizenship. And we know that great things cannot be accomplished with just strength. They’re accomplished with passion, dedication and courage. And today I’m able to see that vision, that love, that dedication and the passion that goes on here.

“So welcome back, Pius-Matthias.”

‘Wholly different environment’

After the speeches, blessing, and red ribbon cutting at St. Pius-St. Matthias Academy, three former St. Matthias students were milling about the reception, chatting and giggling as befits many teenage girls. Asked what the dramatic change will mean in their daily Catholic school lives, however, the trio quickly turned reflective.

“Well, at first I was pretty sad about it. I’m not going to lie,” Iliana Gutierrez declared. “I mean, St. Matthias is our home. It was a very supportive environment and very family. And when you bring boys in, it becomes this wholly different environment because girls are acting differently.”

Waiting until her friends stopped laughing, she continued in a more upbeat tone: “But then people started bringing in donations for the new academy, and I started seeing all the benefits we were going to get from it. Definitely a better education, because we have funding for more teachers now. And we’re especially getting better labs because everything is getting remodeled. So it’s becoming much better than it was before.”

Sarah Lazo kept nodding. She agreed that all-girls’ St. Matthias has really been their home. “But I think we have to take into consideration that it also was St. Pius’ home before Matthias got here,” she pointed out. “We have to take into consideration that the alumni of Pius X love their school as well. So we just have to have open minds about this and all the boys coming.”

Then she noted, “I don’t think it will affect the sophomores, juniors, and seniors as much as the freshman girls, because they’re the ones who are actually having classes with the boys this year. We’ll just see them around.”

Rose Trujillo had a dissimilar take. “I think it’s going to be very different, actually,” she mused. “Because freshmen don’t know the whole tradition here, so they’re going to all act differently and be very shy. When we’re singing at Mass or something, we really do sing. And I think the boys are just going to be, like, …”, letting her words fade while she did her best “bored adolescent male” expression.

Iliana said, “We will definitely inspire them,” smiling now. “Boys are always like, ‘Oh, I’m too cool to do that,’ explained Sarah. But then Rose reminded, “We were there at one point, too.” And all three juniors broke up laughing.

Only a few soon-to-be freshmen boys, in fact, were at the blessing and dedication. One of them was Abraham Andrade, who raised the flag with his friend Julian during the dedication. When the girls were finally shoed away, he admitted how he wanted to come to the new coed school. What sealed the deal was when he became an Onward Scholar, which would help pay his $7,000-plus annual tuition for four years.

“I wanted to continue with a Catholic school,” said the graduate of Our Lady of the Rosary School in nearby Paramount. “And when I got into the Onward Scholars program, I thought I would become a better person and leader. How can I say it? Be more spiritual, more religious.”

About being intimidated being surrounded by a legion of mostly older girls, the pioneering male student at St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy shook his head. “I might be,” he admitted with a circumspect grin. “But I think it will be very interesting to see what new things come out this year. It feels great, actually.”