By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — When Brother Thomas Zoppo left his post as president of Baltimore’s Calvert Hall College High School last June, he cited family considerations. He was coming home to the Boston area, he said, “because of a need to be close to my family.” Yet, he wasn’t planning to be the new principal of Bishop Fenwick High School in Peabody.
Rather, he spotted a notice that Sister Catherine Fleming had left to go to St. Mary’s in Beverly, and he decided to apply. Accepted, he isn’t due to start until next week but couldn’t stay away. Sitting in the principal’s office yesterday, he smiled, recounting the warm welcome he’s gotten.
“And very, very early on, I heard there’s an incredible spirit here,” he said.
A member of De La Salle Christian Brothers, Zoppo is just generally impressed with what he’s found at Bishop Fenwick.
“We have a large freshman class coming in,” he said. “That’s a source of a great deal of encouragement. There are an awful lot of schools struggling with enrollment. So, Bishop Fenwick must be doing something right. And that’s a credit to the faculty and staff.”
He’s taken the school’s success into account when planning his goal for the future: “To take something very strong and make it stronger.”
Expect sports to matter.
“Sports plays a key role in each school,” Zoppo said. “It helps develop the entire child. ... It instills some very, very important life skills. And coaches sometimes have as much of an impact on the kids as teachers do.”
Raising money will be among his duties.
“We have some facility issues,” he said.
He’s impressed with the school plant and its well maintained grounds — he nodded to the football team on the modern turf field out back.
“But this building went up in 1959 and needs to be renovated a little bit,” he said.
Zoppo is up to the job. Growing up in the Norwood/Canton area, he began his higher education with a degree in business from Villanova, graduating in 1978.
“It’s served me very well,” he said of his exposure to practical economics. Yet, it was at Villanova that he also found himself drawn to something more spiritual, the De La Salle Christian Brothers, an international order dedicated to teaching.
While brothers take vows of chastity and poverty, they do not serve Mass.
“We are not ordained,” Zoppo said.
Like the church generally, the order is growing stronger in Third World countries.
“But we’re not doing as well as we would like in the United States and Europe,” Zoppo said.
The status of “brother” has not spared the group from the taint brought on by the priest abuse scandal.
“Each and every one of us has been touched by that, has had to cope with it,” Zoppo said. “All of us have an obligation to ensure this abuse doesn’t happen again.”
An advantage in not being a priest, Zoppo noted, is a lack of priestly duties. “Which gives me,” as he opened his arms to the school, “more time to devote to all this.”
Part of an Italian-American family, he’s one of four siblings. His father, grandfather and brother are all contractors.
“It’s a strong Catholic family. My grandparents, in particular, were very proud to have someone in the family in a religious life,” he said.
That life began at the Christian Brothers School in Manhattan following graduation from Villanova. At this point, Zoppo was delighted to be teaching, coaching track and using New York City and all its attractions as one of his teaching tools. He decided it was truly what he wanted to do.
Zoppo subsequently became a vice principal at the Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse, N.Y. When superiors insisted he get his master’s degree at Manhattan College, he did it over five summers, commuting back and forth. Syracuse is far enough north that half the students were Red Sox fans, he said, smiling. He endeared himself to them, while antagonizing the other half (Yankee fans), when he allowed a day for wearing Sox gear after the 2004 World Series.
With Syracuse one of America’s snowiest locales, Zoppo leapt at the opportunity to move to Concord, Calif., and De La Salle High School. He told friends there that he’d come for the opportunity of seeing the snow on nearby mountains at a distance.
“I really don’t like snow,” he said, which raised eyebrows when he returned to Syracuse two years later to become the head of that school. “They said I must have done something terribly wrong,” he said, laughing. Later, he became president of Baltimore’s Calvert Hall, “The oldest school the Brothers have in the United States,” he said.
While speaking highly of his colleagues there and his experience in one of America’s premier Catholic cities, he was quick to insist it didn’t make him an Oriole fan.
Staff writer Alan Burke can be reached at email@example.com.