Nothing brings a community’s children together like organized youth sports. Gathering to learn sportsmanship, a work ethic and a high moral standard in a safe and fun environment for sports is the mission of the Catholic Youth Organization.
Founded in Chicago in 1930 by Bishop Bernard Sheil, the program was intended to provide young boys with an athletic program. The organization now includes sports ranging from boys’ and girls’ volleyball to track, and children compete against those from other churches for the pride of their parishes. In the fall and winter, CYO basketball reigns supreme, and memories are made in charmingly dusty church gyms across Long Island.
In Wantagh, St. Frances de Chantal runs a highly successful CYO program. The parish has two eighth-grade C-division teams, and the boys’ squad, coached by Tom Piccirillo, got off to a hot start last month with a big 41-23 win over neighboring rival St. William the Abbot. Meanwhile, the fifth-grade boys’ C-division team took its first game of the season by a score of 19-8 over St. Bernard’s of Levittown. Other parish teams have gotten off to slower starts.
Meanwhile, St. Frances de Chantal’s girls’ teams have stood out. Starting their season in October, the seventh-grade girls’ B-division team, coached by John Powers, ran up a record of 3-1, including impressive wins over Christ the King, St. Rose and St. Martin. Their only loss thus far has been to Maria Regina of Seaford, coached by David Brady.
The eighth-grade girls’ C-division team, coached by Peggy Beirne, sits comfortably in first place in their league after a scorching 8-1 start, including wins over the second- and third-place teams in their league.
Parents and parish members volunteer to help make the season run smoothly. A program coordinator or parish CYO president assigns coaches to teams ranging from third grade through high school. Most often, they are parents of current players, but volunteers often stay involved long after their kids age out of competition.
“I’ve been president of the CYO board here for about 15 years,” said Bryan Mackay, 60, of Seaford, who is a fourth-grade girls’ basketball coach at St. William as well. “I’ve had multiple children come through CYO, and I’m still here.”
In 2015, Newsday, News12 and Siena College conducted a joint survey that estimated that Long Island had roughly 1.4 million Catholics. The Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, the sixth-largest in the country, encompassing Nassau and Suffolk counties, has roughly 130 parishes, and most field at least one team.
With four Catholic churches, southeastern Nassau County is well represented. Maria Regina and St. William the Abbot, in Seaford; St. Frances de Chantal, in Wantagh; and St. James the Apostle, in Levittown, on the border with Wantagh, all field CYO teams. This can often create local rivalries, but it can also create unexpected bonds.
“Here in Seaford, we have the Manor School and Harbor School, and kids don’t go to school together every day until middle school,” Mackay explained. “They get to know each other through CYO. St William’s also has a parish grammar school that plays with the public school kids, so we combine the kids in the community. In my own family, my kids made a lot of bonds through CYO. In fact, one of my daughters married someone from Seaford that she met through mutual friends through CYO.”
In its efforts to bring together a community through athletics, CYO doesn’t look to narrow that community to just Catholics.
“Not every one of the kids is Catholic,” Mackay said. “We do try to say a prayer before every game and stress our Catholic identity, but it’s nice when we can get other kids from the neighborhood involved. Some of these kids maybe would never get to know each other if they never played CYO together.”
St. William the Abbot’s pastor, the Rev. Joseph Fitzgerald — a member of the U.S. Olympic handball team that competed in Atlanta in 1996 — supports sports in his parish, according to Mackay. For his part, Mackay coordinates boys’ and girls’ basketball teams every fall and winter.
His youngest daughter, Kim, played basketball and volleyball for St. William, ran track for St. Frances and went on to compete in track at both Princeton and UCLA.
Now, with his children grown, Mackay is looking toward the next generation to keep the CYO tradition going. “Although I’d like to get some younger people in here to take it over eventually, I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s mainly the kids. We want to give them the opportunity to play these sports.”