Every so often, Father Joseph Tierney will be in his office at Cardinal Hayes High School and look outside to see a mother passing by with her young son about age 10. Invariably, he said, the mother will point at the school building on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.
“This is where you’re going to high school and become a young man,” said Father Tierney, echoing the words mothers have delivered to their sons since 1941, the year Cardinal Francis Spellman founded the boys’ Catholic high school.
Father Tierney is in his 15th year as school president of Cardinal Hayes. During an interview late last week, he recited a list of priest predecessors who played key roles at Hayes. They included Msgr. John Graham, the pastor of St. Frances de Chantal parish, who was principal and teacher over a 24-year-period ending in 2004; the late Msgr. Thomas McCormack, who served 37 years at Hayes, the last 17 as principal; and the late Msgr. Victor Pavis, who was a teacher, guidance counselor and principal during three tenures at Hayes.
When his turn came in 2004, Father Tierney said he wasn’t exactly sure how to approach the position since he had never been a school president before. He did have lots of experience serving on high school faculties at Kennedy Catholic in Somers and Archbishop Stepinac in White Plains and as dean of students at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie and vocations director for the archdiocese.
Leaning on his work as an educator, he learned the job of school president by doing it. Father Tierney, a priest of the archdiocese for 32 years, said a major part of his responsibilities is to serve “as the pastor to all the students, faculty and staff, caring for them spiritually, psychologically and emotionally.”
Father Tierney shared a familiar image that he and the students and staff view when they enter Hayes each day—the statue of the Good Shepherd on the front door. “As you come in and leave Hayes, you are being watched over and cared for by the Good Shepherd,” he said. The message is not lost on Father Tierney, and he readily promotes it to others, he said.
He’s justifiably proud of statistics that show 99 percent of today’s Hayes seniors graduate, and 98 percent go on to college. “It’s a fabulous statistic,” said Father Tierney, especially when compared with the numbers registered by public schools in New York City, and it takes place at a school located in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country.
Each of the 920 boys now attending Hayes will have “the opportunity for success,” but there is a catch, Father Tierney said.
“Nothing is free. The cost is you have to apply yourself. You have to have resiliency. You have to have the drive in your heart to go for something. It’s within your grasp, but you have to go for it. It won’t be given to you.”
Much of his time is devoted to raising funds to help keep Hayes thriving. Later that morning, Father Tierney was to leave for North Carolina. On that trip, he was planning to visit an alumnus being considered for a board position, and he also wanted to catch a game at Davidson College, where Hayes graduate Nathan Ekwu plays for the men’s basketball team.
“I’m the face of Hayes to alumni,” Father Tierney said. Each graduate has his own story, but all agree “they wouldn’t be where they are today without their Hayes education.” Inevitably, they fondly remember their teachers. They want to know whether students still walk on the right side of the hallways. And they want to know how the Turkey Bowl football game, which has been played against Mount St. Michael Academy, the Bronx, for 76 years running, looks this year. All are proud to be known as “Hayesmen.”
“To be a Hayesman, that’s a standard,” Father Tierney said. “You stand out in the way you conduct yourself, the way you live your life, love your family and profess your faith.
“A lot of our kids don’t have a lot. We give them integrity that comes from doing what’s right. You give them something that will last a lifetime.”
Father Tierney is not a Cardinal Hayes alumnus, but he is definitely a “Hayesman” to his core.
“He’s an outstanding priest. He puts God at the center of everything he does,” said William D. Lessa, the principal of Cardinal Hayes since 2008 and a school employee for 47 years.
“He’s an outstanding role model for young men and for people in general.”