By John Hanlon
According to the new documentary All In: Miracle at St. Bernard’s, attendance at Catholic schools has fallen by more than 50% since the 1960s. As attendance has fallen, schools have been forced to close. That’s been the case in Massachusetts where a number of schools in the Worcester diocese alone have been closed over the last few years.
St. Bernard’s, a small Catholic high school in Fitchburg, MA, was nearly one of those schools.
The nearly- 100-year-old school, which my mother attended in the 1970s, faced the grim threat of closure in 2019 and the new documentary All In shows how faith and perseverance helped it remain open.
Directed by Gregg Backer and Evan Kanew, the feature focuses on two seemingly unrelated topics. It focuses on the fortitude of the St. Bernard’s football team and the school’s financial struggles. It opens by focusing in on the football team, which claimed victory in 2018 over a fellow Catholic school in the state championship. Despite facing an undefeated team, St. Bernard’s went on to beat the odds and claim victory.
A few short weeks after the victory, anxiety started to rise at the school as rumors started to fly that the school — which had been struggling for years — faced possible closure by the Worcester Diocese, which had closed a number of schools in the years prior (In fact, St. Bernard's opponent in the 2018 state championship game was forced to close in 2019.)
The feature then changes focus away from the underdog team and turns towards the larger fight to keep the school open. The directors highlight some of the major players involved, including the school’s inspiring thirtysomething principal Linda Anderson (who was appointed right as the school faced possible closure), the passionate football coach Tom Bingham and the unrelenting parents and alums who worked to keep the school open.
Through interviews with the major players involved, the filmmakers shed light on what transpired that fateful year. In discussing some of the events from 2019 though, there are a few scenes where the filmmakers attempt to recreate the atmosphere from past events (a meeting of the football team, a discussion between the parents about saving the school). Those scenes can be a little distracting as they don't seem to mesh with the rest of the story. Those scenes don’t work half as well as the archival footage, which includes clips from a meeting with the diocese and scenes from actual football games.
There are also times when All In feels like two separate films: one about the football team and the other one about the school’s financial struggles. The third act, however, really brings the two elements together in a satisfying conclusion.
The film works best when it focuses on the faith and perseverance of the players and the parents and faculty members who fought to prove themselves on and off the field. The players were attempting to prove that their state championship wasn’t a fluke, recognizing that the team could serve as a rallying point for the school. The parents and faculty were trying to prove that they could keep the student body intact (the diocese informed them that if there weren’t 100 enrolled students in the fall of 2019, the school would close) and that they could raise the money to operate as an independent Catholic school.
In one of the film’s best moments, Anderson recalls speaking to an assembly of students and urging them to hold hands and pray together. It’s those two elements — faith and unity – that helped the school survive some of its most difficult days. Even for those who may not know anything about the school itself, All In is an inspiring and faith-filled documentary about the power of faith and standing together to accomplish great things.