By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
A couple of years ago, there were questions as to whether or not St. Joseph, a proud Catholic school located in Hammonton that started in the early 1940s, would be able to survive financial struggles that were affecting the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden.
Like many other Catholic elementary and high schools throughout the region, St. Joseph eventually did close, but in the past two years it has come back strong under a new moniker — St. Joseph Academy. As recently as 2015, the school had more than 300 students, but now there are a little more than 200. Still, with everything the academy has gone through — from surviving a global pandemic to basically starting a brand new high school from scratch, to finding enough financial support through donors and alumni — this certainly can be deemed a success story.
The school has been thriving lately under the leadership of new Head of School Steve Cappuccio, who spent much of his educational career at rival St. Augustine Prep in Richland. Cappuccio, a Hammonton native, went to St. Joseph from kindergarten until 10th grade before transferring to St. Augustine Prep. He then worked at Prep for 18 years before coming back home to help guide St. Joseph Academy into its promising future.
“The opportunity kind of came out of nowhere. They had some issues with leadership, probably because of everything that has happened the last few years, with the diocese pulling out of the school,” explained Cappuccio, who is heading into his second year of running the academy. “The Board approached me about this last October, and I was attracted to the blank slate. I saw St. Joseph Academy as an opportunity to further my career as the Head of School, but also I just saw this blank canvas where a beautiful picture could be painted. That was ultimately my attraction to the job. It’s a very passionate community about their school and I always respected what a handful of folks did to save and reopen St. Joseph Academy as an independent school.”
Cappuccio said it hasn’t been easy to build the academy coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the Diocese pulling out from its role of providing financial support.
“That wasn’t easy. A lot of the infrastructure was gone, a lot of the physical materials in the school were taken out. It was kind of a scramble — all in the midst of Covid. Some private schools got a boost in enrollment during the pandemic because most private schools switched to full-time learning, where as a lot of public schools went hybrid. St. Joe Academy didn’t get that situation because nobody knew if the school was going to stay open or not. I wasn’t here at that time but it must have been a very difficult situation,” he said. “I’m sure it was tough for the diocese to leave a school that had been part of their system for 80-plus years. And, of course, in this community there are folks who have some deep ties to this school. Their grandparents went there, their parents, now their children and grandchildren.”
St. Joseph certainly has a long tradition of success, both in the classroom and in athletics. The Wildcats have one of the premier football programs in the state, and even with so few kids in the school they have managed to be ranked in the top five in the state heading into the 2022 season by MaxPreps, a website that covers high school sports regionally and nationwide. Much of that success is due to legendary coach Paul Sacco, who has been at the helm for more than 40 years and has won more than 300 games and a host of sectional titles.
The future of St. Joseph Academy seems bright, especially if you talk to some of the students who attend the school and are passionate about how much it has meant in their lives.
“I love this community. I moved away for a little bit, but came back and this is what I’ve known. It’s been really nice (going to high school here). Everybody is friends, you know everybody. I love walking down the hallway and knowing everybody. It’s just a really small community that supports each other really well,” said Tony Cruz, a 2022 graduate. “The people who are here really want to be here. They love this school, and if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have stuck around. I feel like every person who works here loves the school, and I think the students do, too. We just love this place and we want to keep it going for future generations.”
“My parents wanted me to come to a smaller environment because I was a very shy kid. They found out about St. Joseph mostly from softball, and that’s how I found out about it. It’s been a really good experience. I’ve made a lot of friends and there are a lot of things I’ve been involved in that I never thought I would do. I love the close-knit environment. Everyone knows each other,” said Katie Dainton, a Mays Landing resident and one of the stars of the softball team. “I never expected to be going to school with kids from places like Washington Township. It’s cool to meet people from other areas because they have had different experiences than I have, and I get to learn what it’s been like for them growing up.”
Dainton said a lot of students were apprehensive about what would happen to the school when the Catholic Diocese of Camden pulled their support in 2019, but she and Cruz believe the school is set up for success under its current leadership.
“We didn’t know that much as students. A lot of kids were confused,” Dainton explained. “They hoped the school would remain open. It worked out for the best, thankfully. Hopefully this school will be bigger in the future and have more diverse programs. I think this will become a bigger school that is able to do more things.”
“I think a lot more kids are going to be here (in the next five years) and I think that will help a lot of things, including sports. We’re building a turf field and sports complex, and that’s really going to help us,” Cruz said. “I think we’re really going to grow and expand our numbers. You’re coming here for the community, the kids, the teachers — everybody here really cares about you and want you to succeed in life. Everyone here wants you to do the best you can.”
“When I came here, it was awesome, just the kids, the vibe, the small-school setting. Everything is family oriented and everyone is looking out for your kid. That’s one of the positives about being here, everyone is there for each other,” said Anne Marie Mercado, the former athletic director who is moving into a new position as Dean of Student Life. “The feedback I get from teachers and the things we’re trying to strive for, and the things we’re creating and doing in the classroom — we’re revamping our curriculum and overall it’s just been a lot of positive things. The energy, the vibe — I love the staff, we’re all on the same page, and Mr. Cappuccio coming in has been awesome.”
Cappuccio said he believes St. Joseph Academy’s best days are ahead, but like with any big venture, it will take time for some things to come to fruition.
“I learned sometimes what works and what doesn’t work,” he said of his time at St. Augustine Prep. “I learned that you should never be afraid to try something new and different. At St. Augustine, I think we always tried new and different things. I think the biggest thing I learned is to try to know your mission, and live your mission. My best lesson and what I will try to bring to St. Joe is to have a clear understanding of who we are and try to live that every day. We’ll get there. It’s like anything else. I look at this like a start-up, or a new business. You’re going to have areas of growth and you’ll have some bumps along the way.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com. You can also follow South Jersey Impact at facebook.com/sjimpactmagazine or call us at 856-336-2600.