Savannah, Ga.- Rex DeLoach, 83, doesn’t attend the St. Pius X Alumni Association meetings much anymore, even with the meetings taking place via Zoom. He has a good reason for that though. “I did attend the meetings [in person] for a while, but now I don’t have the capability to do that anymore,” said DeLoach, who admitted he’s not technologically proficient.
One October morning he met a Southern Cross reporter at St. Benedict the Moor Church, Savannah to show off a picture of the St. Pius X Class of 1955. It was the first class of graduates at the defunct Black Catholic high school, a school with deep-running traditions to this day. DeLoach is very proud of his association with St. Pius X; the retired United States Air Force veteran considers his time there crucial to his career success. “My time at St. Pius X, the skills I learned there, helped prepare me for what was ahead,” he said. About his time as a member of the first graduating class at St. Pius X, DeLoach said, “It was a new beginning, and we happened to be there at that time. I think some of the alumni have within them the ability to remember the past because some of the things we went through are hard to explain.”
On a warm Friday morning, DeLoach stepped out of his white SUV at the corner of East Broad Street and East Taylor Street wearing a gold and maroon St. Pius X t-shirt and matching cap. The back of the t-shirt read “Rex DeLoach, Class of 1955”.
“It’s hard to explain how it is today versus what it was like back then,” said DeLoach. “This town was a lot different then than it is today.” The alumni association keeps alumni like DeLoach in contact with former classmates, something he especially enjoys now that coronavirus has further limited his outside contact with friends and family. His morning meeting with the Southern Cross was scheduled at 8 a.m. to both avoid traffic and people. “I’m still in contact with a classmate that lives in Atlanta,” he said. “We went to school together from [the former] St. Mary’s all the way through high school.”
The ties that bind
Those times bound the people that attended St. Pius X together. The same can be said for some of the people that worked in the school.
The St. Pius X Alumni Association had a reunion in June 2004. The school’s last director Monsignor Fred Nijem, the retired former pastor at Sacred Heart Church, Warner Robins, thinks fondly of the warm feelings in the room that night. Nijem remembers the community around the school being close-knit and familial. “Catholics made up the largest percentage of the families at the school, and the closing of St. Pius X was a very traumatic experience for them,” said Nijem. “St. Pius X provided an opportunity for African American students to matriculate into some top-level colleges around the country, and that was one of the reasons they were going to miss that school. It was a relatively small school, and it drew from all three of the (then) predominantly Black parishes in Savannah- St. Mary’s, St. Benedict’s, and St. Anthony’s. But, the school was kind of a meeting place where all three of those individual communities could come together.”
St. Pius X alumna Rhonda Miller-Williams, 71, Class of 1968, agrees with the community aspect of having attended St. Pius. “We all came from three missionary [elementary] schools, and some of our parents had difficulties paying,” she said by phone. “It was the most important gift I’ve ever received. Attending St. Pius enriched my life.”
Miller-Williams isn’t as active in the alumni association as she once was but understands how important it is to keep in touch with fellow St. Pius alums. She believes it’s much bigger than just occasional text messages and Facebook likes. “We have a responsibility as African Americans to remain in touch,” said Miller-Williams, a retired administrator and Sacred Heart Church, Savannah parishioner. “It is important for us to continue to affiliate and validate the historical aspects of our school.”
The communities that made up St. The Pius X student body, which had over 400 students graduate, have remained close, if not physically, then most certainly spiritually. Having attended St. Pius (1952-1971) is almost a badge of honor for the alumni. “It was a nice little school. We had fun there,” said Willis Shellman, (‘63) the alumni association treasurer. “We had so many good people come out of that school. We are just trying to keep it alive.”
Alumni like Savannah’s first Black mayor Floyd Adams, Jr. (Class of 1963) and author and former Savannah State University professor Dr. Charles Elmore (‘63) and retired Glynn County judge Orion Douglas (‘64) to name a few.
The first alumni meeting of the year took place this summer via Zoom because of the restrictions on public meetings. Under less pandemic-like conditions, the alumni association would meet at Savannah Classical Academy. This K-12 charter school now stands in East Anderson Street, where St. Pius once stood. By all accounts, the leadership at Savannah Classical Academy is proud of its association with St. Pius X. It has been instrumental in helping keep the alumni association, which has well over 125 members, close to where everything began.
“It’s a historic structure,” said Miller-Williams of the former St. Pius X building. “The most exciting thing is that our building is still there.”
“Our school was founded and staffed by Catholics,” says long time educator and alumni association co-founder Ormonde Lewis (‘63). “I see our Catholic legacy continuing today with our alumni association.”
Monthly meetings at Savannah Classical Academy, local philanthropic efforts, fundraisers and good old fashioned check-ins on fellow alumni are all a part of why the St. Pius X Alumni Association works. “Our prayer, our Christian service projects and our concern for each other bolsters my faith,” said Lewis, who was also a former staff reporter at the Southern Cross.
Living in Orange, New Jersey, John Pyous, Jr. 81, (‘57) doesn’t get back to Savannah as much as he used to. Pyous is a property owner in town and would make the trip south every three months to check in on tenants and check in on St. Pius alums. The retired United States Army engineer enjoyed a 40-year career that took him all over the world. Still, he always found time to stay in touch, thanks in part to the alumni association. “I find it very satisfying, personally, because it helps me keep the legacy going,” he said during a recent phone interview. “What the alumni association did for me, instead of just keeping in touch with my folks that I went to school with, it opened up a whole big world for me.
“I wouldn’t have known all of the people I do now without the alumni association.”
Nathaniel Glover (‘71) agrees. Glover is part of the last class of graduates at St. Pius X and holds that distinction close to his heart. He, too, used to attend meetings and believes it is essential to remain in touch. “We stay together, we communicate, it keeps the world balanced,” he said by phone from his home in Pooler.
The St. Pius X alumni association did not get an opportunity to host their annual “Pius Fest” this year due to COVID-19. The annual gathering that takes place on the third weekend of August is held at Savannah Classical Academy and brings alumni into town from all over the country. Shellman knows they missed an excellent chance to meet and greet each other, especially those that live outside of Chatham and Bryan Counties, respectively. He listed Florida, Oregon, New Jersey, Iowa, and Maryland as other states that he could remember alumni currently residing in. “People come from out of town, and we celebrate each class,” he said. “We are looking forward to having it next year; it’s a lot of fun.”
The alumni association has also hosted Christmas parties, with that being a time where people come back home to Savannah to see family, and the St. Pius X alumni is a family. Just ask them. “When I think about the entire St. Pius X experience, I think of family,” said Glover. “When you get older, you lose family members and close friends, so it’s important to stay in contact.”