Today, the Diocese of Providence's Catholic Athletic League boasts 325 basketball teams in leagues across Rhode Island and even some in Massachusetts. Other sports – like tennis, volleyball, cross-country and track – are also represented in the league.
Marcello Photo courtesy CAL
A very good year: St. Patrick’s of Providence girls’ team were Cadet Basketball Champions in 1959. Recognize anyone? Perhaps even yourself?
But basketball is the sport that the league was built on. In January, 1936, the newly-established Catholic Youth Organization decided to reach out to the state's Catholic youth by establishing a basketball league.
That first season saw 34 teams representing parochial schools from Newport, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket competing in two divisions – grammar school and junior high.
By the end of the inaugural season, the St. Charles school team from Woonsocket was the grammar school champion and the Sacred Heart Academy team from Central Falls was the junior high champion team.
After the success of the first season, the Catholic Athletic League expanded to 42 teams and also created a senior league for young men who were too old to play for junior high. That league was divided into two divisions – lightweight and heavyweight. In the senior level's first season, 38 teams competed for the coveted championship title. St. Augustin of Newport won the heavyweight championship and St. Mary took the lightweight championship.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Catholic basketball in Rhode Island continued to grow. New divisions were added to include young men 19 years old and younger, as well as a new parish league so that boys who did not attend Catholic schools could also compete for the basketball championship.
When the United States entered into World War II, life on the home front was forever altered, and Catholic basketball was no exception. Many players, coaches and referees were drafted, leaving the league all but crippled for several seasons. But, for the most part, play continued. Only two divisions were forced to suspend play for a season or two because of a lack of players.
Fans developed a newsletter to record the standings and statistics of CYO basketball teams in Rhode Island, and distributed it to the players and coaches who were stationed across the world fighting.
Keeping up with the standings of the diocese's basketball teams was such an important part of life in Rhode Island even after the end of World II that the radio station WEAN 790 AM carried a weekly broadcast devoted to the league's standings throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
In 1949, the Diocese of Providence was represented by two teams in the New England CYO basketball tournament. St. Pius V of Providence and St. Joseph of Pawtucket each sent teams to compete against other CYO basketball organizations from New England. Although they did not win that year, it was the beginning of a long history of competition against New England teams.
During the 1950s, the first girls teams were added. Initially, girls only played at the high school level, but by the 1960s and 1970s, there were divisions for girls of all ages. Younger teams were also added. Today, the youngest players are in 4th grade and the oldest are in 11th grade.
During the peak of the diocese's Catholic Athletic League basketball, more than 500 teams competed for the championship. This month Rhode Island Catholic will bring you all of the results as a new generation of Catholic basketball players compete in the 73rd annual championship tournament.
JUMPIN': There’s no identification on the back of this early photo, but style in uniforms have clearly changed. Follow CAL in print and at www.thericatholic.com