It was midday on Oct. 5 at Daniel Murphy Catholic High School when a voice on the public address system directed students at the all-boys campus to report to the chapel.
Senior Bryce Vinson, 17, thought it must be something routine; maybe someone had pulled the fire alarm. Gregory George, 18, noticed the principal and several teachers crying and got a strange sensation. James Ward, 17, recalls saying to a friend, “What if they’re closing the school?”
Then the announcement came: After nearly 55 years, from its origins as St. John Vianney High School through its 1966 renaming in honor of a Catholic philanthropist, the Fairfax district campus would close at the end of the school year.
Enrollment had been declining for years as operating costs had increased, officials of the Los Angeles Archdiocese said. Keeping the school open was untenable.
The chapel went silent, the students recalled. It felt like a “slap in the face,” James Ward said.
Lately, Daniel Murphy students have felt as if their school was almost snake-bit.
In April, a 14-year-old freshman died after an apparent seizure during a basketball tournament in Texas. Last summer, a recent graduate was shot and killed while talking with a friend on a Southwest Los Angeles sidewalk. And in 2006, a former dean of students pleaded not guilty in a sexual molestation case.
But amid the hurt, bewilderment and anger because they would also lose their school, a sense of purpose emerged. Greg, Bryce, James and other students found catharsis in something they had taken for granted all year: their film class.
In a project that will be shown at the school’s final graduation ceremony today, the students set out to document Daniel Murphy’s last days. Along the way, they relived its rich history and grew up a little more quickly.
Seated in his well-appointed Sherman Oaks office, Carlos Emilio Morgner, a Daniel Murphy alum, struggles for a moment to be heard over the roar of a motorcycle on Ventura Boulevard, 10 floors below. Then he tells the four students before him that attending the school had “broadened my mind and perspective.”
Greg, James, Bryce and 18-year-old Sean Flowers have come to interview Morgner -- class of 1970 -- for the project.
In teacher Luella Wagner’s television production class, about 20 students determined what they wanted the documentary to be: not just a montage of academic and athletic hits, but a story of a school community coming to grips with its end. They also decided not to sugarcoat events.
In July, the archdiocese announced a $660-million settlement with the victims of hundreds of clergy abuse cases and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said Catholic schools would not suffer from the settlement. But many Daniel Murphy students thought their campus was doing just that.
“I’m upset our school is being closed down because of somebody else’s mistake,” said Bryce, senior class president.
The students have filmed alumni, such as City Councilman and former police chief Bernard C. Parks and television newscaster Patrick Healy, as well as some of the Dominican fathers who first ran the school. They have taken still camera shots and gathered historic photos.
Morgner is president of a construction management firm that worked on one of the deepest tunnels of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Red Line.
At first glance, he and the students in his office seem very different. Morgner is 57, silver-haired, urbane in a tie and crisp white shirt, originally from Ecuador. The four Daniel Murphy students are black teenagers in casual attire, raised in urban and suburban Los Angeles.
But the interview reveals shared experiences. When James mentions that Daniel Murphy students are known for playing practical jokes, Morgner recalls that as a freshman there, he was required to hold a mouthful of goldfish, among other indignities.
He was raised in a rough area near Echo Park, he tells them. “Daniel Murphy was a Catholic school for inner city boys, and we knew we had to work a little harder,” he says.
Soon he and the students are deep in conversation. All still feel angry and betrayed about the school’s demise. “Let’s see if the closing can be a uniting factor,” Morgner says.
Later, the students discuss the interview. “Speaking with the alumni has really helped us understand what Daniel Murphy really is and that we’re a part of a great tradition,” James said.
The school’s legacy includes people such as Father Vincent Lopez, who was at Daniel Murphy from 1958 to 1975 as a teacher and then principal; he provided valuable historical details for the documentary.
“I think they want to be proud they were part of Daniel Murphy, not only for the four years they were there but because they come from a school which has a history of excellence of service,” said Lopez, who has visited campus often to console students and faculty.
“When I’m driving by the place at night I park on the street and say my rosary and when it closes, I’ll do the same. The spirits of all my students, priests and lay teachers will be alive and well there.”
Chuck Vinson, Bryce’s father, was at home when his son called to tell him Daniel Murphy was closing. At first, Vinson thought it might be youthful exaggeration. Then he was incensed.
He tried to set up a meeting with administrators. He joined other parents and alumni in a protest march in front of archdiocese offices. All to no avail.
Now he is helping the film class edit its 14 hours of material down to about 26 minutes. Vinson, a director whose television and film credits include “The Cosby Show” and the reality talent show, “Last Comic Standing,” says he has been almost as consumed by the project as the students, working sometimes until 2 or 3 a.m.
“I’m really pleased at what they got,” Vinson said. “There are a couple of instances with the mike in the shot or the camera is moving, but I told them that’s OK. They’ve learned and done a great job.”
Now, nearing the end of their venture, the students say the project shows that the Daniel Murphy brotherhood will remain unbroken even as the school lurches unhappily to its end.
“I really hope the documentary will accurately tell how people feel about the school closing and inspire sympathy because it’s really a sad situation for a lot of people,” said Frank Hobbs, 18, who shot about 100 photos for the video.
“I feel like I made a mark, at least,” Bryce said. “That I was a part of making the last memory of this school.”
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