Hall of Fame to induct six who have given selflessly
By Tom Maguire | Associate editor
Sybil (Houser) Preski noticed something about kids from Rome Catholic schools — a respectful, hardworking, go-getter, top-of-the-class aura.
She was inspired to send her own daughters to Rome Catholic School (RCS) and then was further inspired to form the Catholic Schools Association of Rome (CSAR), which raises funds for programming at the school.
CSAR will have its second annual “I Love Catholic Education” Hall of Fame induction Feb. 8 at Teugega Country Club in Rome (see adjoining fact box and bios). Six people who have benefited Catholic education in Rome will be inducted; they will join the six who were inducted last year.
“They exhibit Christian values and they live their Christian values,” said Preski, an art teacher at Rome Free Academy for 30 years.
The honorees, whose names will be added to the plaque that hangs at RCS, were selected by CSAR members based on nominations from the public.
“We wanted to include people from every [Rome Catholic] school and era,” Preski said. Her group sought the kind of person “who gives selflessly to our community, has or had a great impact at the schools, a person who … made a difference not only in Catholic schools but in our community at large.”
The honorees have affected a lot of kids in a positive way, she said. RCS’s enrollment stands at 104, and Preski would like to increase that number.
CSAR is hoping to total at least $6,000 from ads and listings of patrons and sponsors in the Hall of Fame induction booklet, in addition to a 50-50 raffle and a basket raffle.
Last year’s inaugural induction raised money for alum Tom Rahmer’s Vitality Fitness Program at RCS; a vlog program run by alum John George (involving learning how to use technology with a camera and adding sound over it); and a sponsorship of the RCS Festival.
“Our goal,” Preski said, “is to help the students keep growing intellectually, physically, emotionally, and spiritually into compassionate contributing members of our society with an explorative and challenging curriculum.” Some of the funding will be headed to RCS’s STREAM
program: science, technology, robotics, engineering, arts, and math.
The other CSAR members are Michael Adey, Virginia Craiglow, Sister Rosaire Anne DeMare, Laura Mack, Marguerite Maurer, Nancy Reilly, Gretchen Sprock, and Joseph E. Stanton, Sr.
Maurer taught for 42 years, including about 35 in various Rome Catholic schools. The city used to have several such schools; only RCS remains. Maurer said the Feb. 8 induction is a very positive thing to do “to keep interest in our Catholic school alive. … Many, many of the leaders in Rome are graduates of our Catholic schools.”
“I like to help out if I can, if I have the time,” said CSAR member Stanton, a retired line foreman for National Grid. He was in the charter class at Rome Catholic High School, which operated from 1963 to 2013. He thinks the education he got from the religious and the atmosphere there has made him a better person. “I like to give back in thanks for some lessons you learned,” he said. He also is the secretary for the Diocesan Pastoral Council and a trustee at St. Peter’s Church in Rome.
Stanton greatly admired the late John Della Contrada, who was inducted into the CSAR Hall of Fame last year. Della Contrada had served as the principal of St. Peter’s School in Rome, and there is now a scholarship in his name at RCS. “When you were talking to him,” Stanton said, “you knew he was listening to you, he was paying attention to you.”
The school enrollment was always full when Della Contrada was there, Stanton said, because everybody loved his methods. Della Contrada was very good at grant writing, which brought programs such as music into the school, and he found the right people to run the programs.
On rainy days, Della Contrada would bring the kids inside into the gym so that the teachers could have their lunch in peace. He used to have Stanton back up a bucket truck to the school so that Stanton could go onto the roof and shoot back down the 23 tennis balls that the kids had hit up there.
“I’ve never seen a principal like that before,” Stanton said.
SISTER KATIE EIFFE, CSJ
Sister Katie is the third child of seven children, born in Utica to George and Eileen Eiffe. Her early years were spent in Utica before the family moved to Rome in 1960. At that time, she was in sixth grade and there was no room for new students at St. Aloysius Academy so she attended Columbus Elementary and Staley Junior High schools.
In September 1963, Sister Katie became a member of the first freshman class at the new Rome Catholic High School; she graduated in 1967. Attending Rome Catholic was pure joy to Sister Katie. She notes that she probably would not have been able to attend Rome Catholic if not for her brother Dan, a 1965 graduate and Paraclete Award winner. He paid for her tuition until she was old enough to get a part time job herself.
Sister Katie was fortunate to have such wonderful teachers as Father Edmund Morelle, Sister Theresa Michael, and the Sisters of St. Joseph. She went on to attend the State University at Oswego, graduating in 1971.
In 1972, Father Donald Karlen and Sister Serena Thompson, Rome Catholic High School’s principal and vice principal, and Sister Mary Agnes Kehoe, chair of the history faculty, hired her to teach European studies. In addition to teaching at her alma mater, she came to know the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet on a whole new level. Because of the joy she experienced in them, and her friendship with St. Mary Agnes, she opened her heart to the call to be a Sister of St. Joseph.
After teaching for a year at Bishop Scully High School in Amsterdam, she entered the community on Sept. 1, 1977, and took final vows on Aug. 6, 1983. Sister Katie’s extensive service has included teaching at Catholic Central High School in Troy and Notre Dame High School in Utica.
Currently, she serves on the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Province Leadership Team in Latham.
WILLIAM R. FLEET
Bill and his wife, Joan, reside in Rome and are the proud parents of five daughters and fourteen grandchildren. He is a communicant of St. Paul’s Church and is a member of the Rome Elks and Rome Sports Hall of Fame Board of Directors, and also chairman of the Salvation Army Advisory Board and assistant coach for the Rome Free Academy varsity hockey team.
A graduate of SUNY Cortland, he went on to serve as the commissioner of Parks and Recreation for the city of Rome for 32 years and the commissioner of Public Safety for 10 years. After retirement he returned to work for the city of Rome as the project coordinator for the renovation of the J.F. Kennedy Civic Arena, the city’s ice skating arena. The skating surface is now called the Bill Fleet Rink.
His coaching career started in the 1971-72 season when Frank Didio hired him to start the new hockey program at Rome Catholic High School. He served as the head varsity coach for 26 years, 18 of those being at Rome Catholic High where his teams won three league titles, four Section III crowns, and back-to-back state championships in overtime.
Fleet went on to serve as a varsity assistant hockey coach at Hamilton College, 15 seasons as the junior high baseball coach at Rome Catholic, and two seasons as the varsity coach. Under his direction the 1983 Redwing varsity captured an IVL League crown, a Section III crown, and the Central regional title, and also finished as the state Class C runner-up.
HONORABLE JACQUELINE M. IZZO
In November 2015, Jackie was elected as the first female mayor of the city of Rome and the first graduate of Rome Catholic High School (1979) to be elected mayor. After being sworn in at Rome Catholic High School, Mayor Izzo has continued to advocate for Catholic schools in Rome while working hard to position the city for future growth.
A lifelong Rome resident, Jackie began her Catholic education at St. Mary’s School; she later attended Utica College of Syracuse University. She coached modified girls basketball at Rome Catholic High School and moved on to coach junior varsity girls basketball before being appointed head coach of the girls varsity team in 1981. She also served as the head softball coach for two seasons. During her time as a student and a coach at Rome Catholic, she was involved in many committees offering fundraising assistance essential to the continued growth of Rome Catholic High.
Her basketball coaching career spanned 17 years: a record of 230-86, a 43-game home winning streak, a 36-game league winning streak, eight league championships, three undefeated seasons, a Section III championship, a NYS regional championship and a spot in the NYS Final Four in 1993.
Jackie was inducted into the Rome Sports Hall of Fame in 2015, the first female coach from Rome Catholic to be enshrined. She left coaching to establish her business, Upstate New York Professional Services, Inc., 23 years ago.
MARK A. LaGASSE
Mark, a lifelong resident of Rome, graduated from Rome Free Academy in 1980. His involvement with Rome Catholic schools began when he and his wife decided on a Catholic education for their children. Their children attended Transfiguration School and later St. Peter’s School and Rome Catholic High School. Mark has been pleased to work on events such as the Rome Catholic Festival, Breakfast with Santa, Rome Catholic Craft Fair, and Rome Catholic Basket Affair. He also served as a member of the consolidation team working to ensure a smooth transition when St. Peter’s School combined with Rome Catholic High School, becoming Rome Catholic School.
Mark has been employed by the Syracuse Diocese at St. Mary’s Church, Rome Catholic School, and St. Peter’s Church from 1977 to the present. Currently, Mark is the maintenance director at St. Mary’s/St. Peter’s Parish and owns his own business, M. LaGasse Home Improvement. While employed at Rome Catholic School, Mark was part of the set-design team, working with parents and educators for the annual musicals. He also had the pleasure of teaching a set-design class at Rome Catholic. Mark also served as coach of the fifth- and sixth-grade boys basketball team as well as the boys and girls soccer team. Mark served as the class adviser for the Class of 2012 and was honored to present the commencement speech and have the yearbook dedicated to him.
Mark has been married for 32 years to Mary Kay LaGasse. They have two children, Maria LaGasse and Mark LaGasse II, both graduates of Rome Catholic (Class of 2006 and 2012).
FATHER EDMUND J. MORELLE (POSTHUMOUSLY)
Father Morelle was born on March, 16, 1926, to Guy and Margaret Morelle. He graduated in 1942 from Utica Free Academy and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in physics from Fordham University in 1945. During World War II, Father Morelle served in the Navy and the Army Security Service. He then returned to Fordham and Harvard universities for graduate studies in physics.
Father Morelle attended St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries in Rochester. He was ordained a priest by Bishop Walter A. Foery on May 23, 1953, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse. As an assistant, he served at St. John’s in Utica, St. Mary’s in Clinton, and Immaculate Conception in Fulton. In 1952, Father Morelle joined the Air Force; he served as chaplain at three air bases.
During his priestly life, Father Morelle taught at Utica Catholic Academy and ministered to residents at the Oneida County jail. While at St. Mary’s, Clinton, he ministered to students at Hamilton College. In 1963, upon completion of his graduate work in education at Utica College and Syracuse University, Father Morelle taught at Rome Catholic High School. In 1972, Father Morelle was assigned as pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Verona. He served there until his retirement in 2010.
Father Morelle died in 2016. He is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Clinton.
JOSEPH J. SIMONS (POSTHUMOUSLY)
Joe’s Catholic education served as a foundation for his spiritual and professional life. He died in 2017.
Joe was very grateful for his 16 years of Catholic education. He felt a closeness and lifelong bonding with the many priests, sisters, and classmates along his journey in Catholic schools. He served on the altar at St. Peter’s Church from fourth through 12th grades under the tutelage of Father John Burke and Father James Larkin.
As prefect of the Sodality of Mary at St. Aloysius Academy (SAA), Joe worked at the Friday night dances that drew teens from the whole city together every week under the guidance of Father Robert Collins and parents.
Joe continued his appetite for learning during four years at St. Bonaventure University. He loved the Bonnies for he felt the same closeness with the Friars and students as he felt at SAA.
One of his accomplishments for Catholic education was spearheading a building project that created a kindergarten in the basement at St. Peter’s School during the 1970s.
JOHN DELLA CONTRADA
In a 37-year career as an educator, John, who died in 2011, served as a teacher, coach, and principal at five Rome public elementary schools and St. Peter’s Elementary School. As a mentor to teachers, administrators, and staff members, he took pride in developing programs to build morale and promote excellence in teaching at his schools. As principal of St. Peter’s Elementary (1998-2003), he led the school to record enrollments. Upon his retirement, the John Della Contrada Scholarship was established in his honor by parents, students, and staff members. The scholarship continues to be awarded annually to Rome Catholic School students.
FRANK J. DIDIO, (POSTUMOUSLY)
When the doors of Rome Catholic High School opened in 1963, this Auburn native and U.S. Army veteran started his career in education. As a teacher, coach, and administrator, Frank dedicated his life to helping young people grow not only as student-athletes but also as involved citizens of their school and community. Never content to just be a basketball coach, Frank encouraged his players to take full advantage of their high school experience. When Rome Catholic performed its first musical, the boys on his team wanted to be part of the production; so, they took dance lessons to be in the cast. Frank was thrilled when the students dedicated the show to him. On his retirement from Rome Catholic after 21 years of service, he was honored with a day-long celebration of “Didio Day.” This was capped by a dinner and the dedication of the Rome Catholic gym as “The Frank J. Didio Gymnasium.” Frank died in 2009.
FATHER PHILIP A. HEARN
Father Hearn is the pastor of St. Mary–St. Peter Church in Rome. He served as a guidance counselor and religion teacher at Rome Catholic High School. At Rome Catholic he encouraged the parents, faculty, and students to form the “Red and White Musical Players.” The group gave the students a “unifying experience” and the Rome community a long, memorable run of annual musicals that lasted until the school’s closing in 2013.
After a three-year assignment as director of vocations for the Diocese of Syracuse, Father continued his service to Catholic education as principal of Bishop Ludden High School in Syracuse from 1980 to 1985. After a brief assignment to Blessed Sacrament Parish in Syracuse, Father Hearn returned to Rome in 1990 as pastor of St. Peter’s Church. In 2002, he became pastor of the combined parish of St. Mary–St. Peter. On May 21, 2016, he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination.
SISTER CHRISTINA MARIE LUCZYNSKI, CSSF
Sister Christina is a member of the Felician Franciscan Sisters and principal of Holy Family School in Syracuse.
A native Roman and graduate of Transfiguration School, she has taught in Catholic schools in Tonawanda, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Clinton. As an administrator, in addition to her current assignment, she has served at St. Mary’s School in Canton, Blessed Sacrament School in Kenmore, Villa Marie Academy in Buffalo, St. Stephen’s School in Grand Island, St. Joseph’s School in Penfield, and in Rome as principal of both Transfiguration and St. Peter’s schools.
The 2011 Golden Apple Award for Exceptional Leadership in Education from the Rochester school system and the 1991 Elizabeth Ann Seton Award from the Diocese of Buffalo are among her many honors. She credits the influence and insights she gained as a Catholic school student as the reason for her success as an educator.
DEBBIE (MULLIN) PUFFER
A native Roman and proud member of the Rome Catholic High School Class of 1975, Debbie is an outstanding example of the faith-strengthening influence of an education rooted in the Catholic tradition. Debbie’s career as a Rome Memorial Hospital employee was cut short by a diagnosis of brain cancer at age 57. She refused to quit and dedicated herself to helping others. Early in her treatment she volunteered to participate in clinical trials at Duke University Cancer Center.
A volunteer, Debbie serves her St. Mary–St. Peter faith community by regularly visiting homebound and nursing home residents. She also takes a lead role in the preparation of weekly meals for needy members of the Rome community.
In Debbie’s view a Catholic school education produces informed, capable citizens who make an impact in their community.
MICHELE (DUNN) SALISBURY
A native Roman and graduate of Rome Catholic High School, Michele serves as the chief financial officer and economic development and outreach director for the state Technology Enterprise Corporation (NYSTEC).
Michele is the treasurer of the Cyber Research Institute, a member of the Board of Directors of the Rome Chamber of Commerce, and a member of the Finance Committee of the New York State Forum. She served as treasurer of the Rome Area Red Cross and as vice chair for the Fibonacci STEAM Youth Conference.