In 1930, Chicago was filled with tough neighborhoods, where “the outfit,” including the infamous Al Capone, seemed to be in control. Many youngsters were in danger of turning to crime. Something had to be done.
The Catholic Church, particularly an auxiliary Bishop, Bernard J. Sheil, wanted to provide a better choice for at-risk teens. And so, the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) began.
At first, the CYO was known primarily for its intense sports programs: the initials were said to stand for “Crush Your Opponents.” CYO was immediately popular and quickly spread to other dioceses around the country. It reached New Orleans in 1936. Team sports and boxing were offered.
The first CYO boxing event in New Orleans took place in February of 1937, announced with a Times-Picayune story Feb. 17. Under the headline “Program Set Friday Night: Eleven Bouts Scheduled at St. Mary’s Italian Church Hall” the news story proclaimed that “Amateur boxing under the auspices of the parish Catholic Youth Organization will be inaugurated at St. Mary’s Italian Church Hall Friday at 8:15 p.m. with a card of 11 bouts.
“Coach Jack Russo, former prominent local lightweight, has arranged a program featuring some of the organization’s hardest-hitting talent.” The organization planned to sponsor boxing shows to raise funds for equipping the CYO athletic teams.
Father Vincent Liberto, when pastor at St. Mary’s, worked with boxing director Joe Falati. Professionals Willie Pastrano, Ralph Dupas and Tony Licata all came up through the St. Mary’s CYO boxing program.
Ralph Dupas was born in 1935 and died in 2008. In his professional career, ’50 to ’66, he had 104 wins, 23 losses and six draws. He lost a World’s Lightweight Championship match in ’58 in Houston, as Louisiana law prohibited interracial boxing matches, and Dupas was said to have black heritage. By ’63, things changed; he won the Junior Middleweight Championship in New Orleans and was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 2000.
Willie Pastrano began his professional career in 1951 at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans and fought his last fight in ’64 at Madison Square Garden in New York, when he lost the World Light Heavyweight title match to Joe Torres. He died in ’97.
Anthony “Tony” Licata had a 21 year long career as a middleweight boxer, winning 60 fights out of a career total of 71 bouts, with seven losses and four fights called as a draw. He made his professional debut in 1969 in Tampa, Fla., which he won by a knockout. He died in 2008.
St. Mary’s CYO was also well known for its basketball teams. Herb Montalbano, 81, recalls that he began as “a water boy. I was about 8 years old.” He was on two CYO District championship teams: 1945, and again in ’49.
Uptown on Napoleon Avenue, St. Henry’s Church held their CYO basketball games in its gymnasium on Annunciation Street. That is where John Arthurs began his basketball career, which would earn him Biddy Basketball All-American honors. He followed that by becoming a high school All-American at De La Salle, was also named an All-American while playing for Tulane University and played professionally with the Milwaukee Bucks. “The St. Henry’s gym was so small you had to open the front door if you were running to shoot a basket,” Arthurs says.
Besides sports, the CYOs were known for their dances. Herb Montalbano recalls that the St. Louis Cathedral Friday night dances were “really popular with the French Quarter teenagers.” St. Henry’s had dances, as did Sacred Heart on Canal Street, St. Dominic’s and many others.
John Moore, otherwise known as Deacon John, often played for CYO dances. According to him, the dances served a purpose: “to keep the kids out of bars, and give them a clean place to enjoy themselves and just have fun and dance.”
One advantage for musicians who played CYO dances: “They were a good place to play because it was a conduit to other jobs,” Deacon John says. “If their school needed a band for the prom, well, you were standing right there in front of them!”
Harvey Jesus Ancar, now known as Harvey Jesus, played CYO dances with “The Jokers.” He recalled one of the hazards of CYO dances: “The nuns. They had these big long rulers. They’d walk around and check and see if anyone was dancing too close.”
Today the Archdiocese of New Orleans still has a CYO, directed since 2003 by John Smestad Jr. Known today as the CYO/Youth and Young Adult Ministry Office, the organization has undergone changes, most recently in the 1990s. There is still what’s now called the All State Sugar Bowl CYO Basketball Tournament the week after Thanksgiving, but CYO aims now not only to include recreation but also leadership development, service, pastoral care and spiritual outreach.
When Smestad himself was involved in CYO at St. Dominic’s in the 1990s, “I wasn’t really playing ball, but I grew up in it. We had a lot of service projects, summer trips, a lot of Catholic youth conferences” he says. Today, there are service projects, but there are still sports: “cabbage ball, basketball, flag football, volleyball (spring and fall)” according to Smestad. Some sports are even coed, and 15 or 20 churches might be involved.
Obviously, New Orleans Catholic teenagers still appreciate a safe place to go and have fun. Now, however, they can do some good in their community, too.
Uptown on General Pershing Street, St. Henry’s CYO dances were popular events in the 1950s and ’60s. While St. Henry’s teenagers might be attending different high schools, both parochial and public, the dances were a way for neighborhood kids to gather. In recent years, especially when St. Henry’s Parish was being de-activated by the Archdiocese, a “CYO Reunion” dance was a way for the church community to get in touch. “We had raffles and auctions, and people brought pictures from the past,” says Alden Hagardorn, who now serves as president of the Friends of St. Henry, Inc.