More Than a Dream: The Cristo Rey Story: How One School's Vision Is Changing the World

More Than a Dream: The Cristo Rey Story: How One School's Vision Is Changing the World

by G. R. Kearney, George R. Kearney

“Cristo Rey is magical. What you see there is hope and optimism.”
—Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

They built more than a school—they built a future!
Brick by brick, Chicago-area Jesuits saw their dream of starting a new college prep school for the children of Hispanic working poor come true.


“Cristo Rey is magical. What you see there is hope and optimism.”
—Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

They built more than a school—they built a future!
Brick by brick, Chicago-area Jesuits saw their dream of starting a new college prep school for the children of Hispanic working poor come true. Student by student, they saw a better and brighter future unfold.
You’ll be truly inspired as you read how this Jesuit vision—now a national model for educational success—continues to challenge those who have much and to change the lives of those who have little.

More Than a Dream shines a light into the soul of urban education, illuminating the extraordinary challenges and the breathtaking and transformational results of the Cristo Rey–model schools.”
—Darren Jackson, CFO of Best Buy

“Cristo Rey schools change children’s lives. This is a story that needs to be told.”
—Laura Vanderkam, member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors

“An enticing tale of inspiration, improvisation and innovation . . . A testament to the will and wisdom of a hearty lot who believed in poor kids and who had faith that the impossible is possible in urban education.”
—Jerome T. Murphy, Dean emeritus and Harold Howe II Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

“Cristo Rey is magical.
What you see there is hope and optimism.”
—Melinda French Gates,
co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

They built more than a school—they built a future!
Brick by brick, Chicago-area Jesuits saw their dream of starting a new college prep school for the children of Hispanic working poor come true. Student by student, they saw a better and brighter future unfold.
You’ll be truly inspired as you read how this Jesuit vision—now a national model for educational success—continues to challenge those who have much and to change the lives of those who have little.

More Than a Dream shines a light into the soul of urban education,
illuminating the extraordinary challenges and the breathtaking and transformational results of the Cristo Rey–model schools.”
—Darren Jackson, CFO of Best Buy

“Cristo Rey schools change children’s lives. This is a story that needs to be told.”
—Laura Vanderkam, member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors

“An enticing tale of inspiration, improvisation and innovation . . . A testament to the will and wisdom of a hearty lot who believed in poor kids and who had faith that the impossible is possible in urban education.”
—Jerome T. Murphy, Dean emeritus and Harold Howe II Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Product Details

Loyola Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Story That Needs to Be Told

When I arrived at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in 1999, I had no idea I’d just taken what amounted to a front row seat for one of the most improbable, exciting, and inspiring educational stories in decades. In truth, it was more than that. It was one of the most improbable, exciting, and inspiring stories—period.


Five years earlier, a group of Jesuit priests had proposed opening a private college-preparatory high school in Pilsen, a predominantly Mexican immigrant neighborhood on the Lower West Side of Chicago. The cost per student at the school would be at least $5,500 per year, maybe $6,500. The average family income in the neighborhood barely surpassed $20,000 per year, and the average family size was five. There was little doubt the neighborhood would benefit from a new school, but funding it seemed a virtual impossibility. Families would have to part with more than 25 percent of their annual income to send just one student to the school.

To make the school more affordable, its founders adopted a bold new funding model. It was the kind of model that when proposed in most boardroom brainstorming sessions would elicit a chuckle and a few harrumphs. Someone would probably say, “Yeah, wouldn’t it be nice if we could.” Inevitably, though, it would be dismissed in favor of something more practical, something that had already been done, been tested, and proven successful. The new approach would fall silently from the table, its potential snuffed out by a refusal—or maybe an inability—to think of what could be.

In this case, though, the new model defied the odds and stayed on the table. The Jesuits were determined to start a school for the children of the working poor—and they vowed to make it happen, even though every passing year in Chicago saw a few more small but venerable Catholic schools shuttered in the face of skyrocketing labor costs and falling enrollments.

The model proposed for the new school was untested and certainly unconventional. But the Jesuits decided, after substantial consultation and discernment, to try it anyway. From its genesis to its ultimately overwhelming success, the school they opened has transformed the lives of countless young men and women. It has challenged others to think the unthinkable and to attempt to change what once seemed unchangeable. This one school sparked a revolution in education in urban America.

I stumbled into the middle of this story eight years ago when I agreed, along with two of my classmates from Georgetown University, to volunteer for two years at Cristo Rey. Two years of teaching journalism, English, and computer skills, of grading papers, directing retreats, and chaperoning rainy camping trips. Two years of coaching Cristo Rey’s basketball, baseball, and volleyball teams to four losing seasons and one canceled season. Two years in which the unfolding lives of the young women and men at Cristo Rey—sometimes desperate and sad, sometimes joyous, often precarious—substantially altered my understanding of the world and my place in it.

During my relatively brief time at Cristo Rey, many moments, such as the class of 2000 graduation, led me to fall deeply in love with the school. That year there were only twenty-two seniors. Just about every teacher in the school had taught them. They were all Latino: eight boys and fourteen girls. Almost all the graduates were either children of immigrants to the United States or immigrants themselves. These students had succeeded despite a host of challenges. Many of their neighborhoods were plagued by gang violence. Some of their home lives were, at best, messy. Most of them had come to high school unprepared by their grammar schools for the rigors of a college prep curriculum. But they’d made it. They were, in most cases, the first in their families to graduate from high school and go to college.

Most of the teachers sat in the back row of the gym at the graduation ceremony. This struck me as odd. For anyone who works in a school, graduation is the payoff. Why not sit up front? Then, just before the graduates began their slow recession from the stage, the teachers stood and filed quietly into a cramped classroom with stained carpet at the back of the gym. I followed. Onstage, the music began to play. Through the open door of the classroom, I strained to catch glimpses of maroon gowns filing down the stairs and turning into the aisle. Only then did I realize they were coming into the classroom. The throng of teachers split apart, creating a large open space near the door. When the first student came in, the room exploded with joyous applause. One by one the others filed in. On each of their faces was a look of surprise, then a knowing smile. Soon the room was full. The applause grew louder. Outside the room, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles continued to clap. Inside, many of the teachers cried. They cried because they understood the stories of their students.

During the two years I spent at Cristo Rey—and the three subsequent years I spent as the girls’ basketball coach—I was privileged to witness these stories: the struggles, the heartbreaking failures, and the triumphs. This book is about those stories, and about how a school can sometimes change the trajectory of people’s stories and lives.
This book is not about my experience at the school. When I was at Cristo Rey, I had no idea I’d later decide to write this book. Now, looking back, it’s clear that the countless moments I spent with the students—coaching, playing basketball, disciplining, riding buses, advising, camping, counseling, teaching, struggling to teach, failing to teach, playing catch, watching pro baseball—made this book possible. Cristo Rey, like the sprawling mosaic on the building’s facade, is a collection of stories. The story of the school, and its improbable success, can’t be separated from the stories of its students. They are embedded in the larger story, an integral part of the composition, the sum of its meaning. Without them, the larger story is incomplete, incongruous, and meaningless. Without them, the school is little more than an empty building and an interesting idea.
This book reflects that. It tells the story of the school’s development. But it also tells the stories of four students: their struggles, hopes, and dreams. What they achieved, and, sometimes, what could have been.

I haven’t set out to write a book about my experience at the school, but that experience has informed this story in myriad ways. I’ve returned to Cristo Rey numerous times, not as a former volunteer and teacher, but as a reporter in search of a story. I’ve talked to those who originally dreamed up the idea for the school. I’ve sought out those whose labors launched it. I’ve spoken with many of the first teachers and students, as well as with current students, parents, and the school’s principals, deans, security guards, campus ministers, and volunteers.

The result, I hope, is a factual account of Cristo Rey, its founders, and its students. It’s a big story because it’s about a school built for people with smaller stories, people who are often forgotten and ignored. It’s a big story because the risks taken have reaped enormous rewards. It’s a big story because the seemingly impossible idea worked. And because it’s still working.




Part 1
The Vision Takes Shape

Late 1990–Early 1996
Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them, because they change things. They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who’ll do it.
Apple Computer advertisement
(often mistakenly attributed to Jack Kerouac)




Opening the Envelope

Late in 1990, an envelope was mailed from Chicago to Rome. The envelope contained a terna, Latin for “threefold.” Three names: three Jesuit priests. One of them would be chosen by the Jesuit order’s father general to become the next provincial of the Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus. Only nine people, all of them Jesuits, knew whose names were in the envelope. And none of the nine could begin to fathom how the decision would ultimately affect education for the poor in Chicago and around the United States. The envelope, mailed from the Chicago Province’s headquarters in Lincoln Park, a posh neighborhood on the city’s North Side, was bound for 4 Borgo Santo Spirito, the Jesuit Curia, the worldwide headquarters of the Society of Jesus, a stout fortress-like stone building situated just a few steps from St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican.

The Jesuits have been headquartered in Rome since September 1540. There were only ten Jesuits then. Their leader, Ignatius of Loyola, was a diminutive Spaniard of noble descent who had come to his religious vows late in life, at least for that time. His military career had ended at age thirty, when a cannonball shattered his leg during a battle against the French at Pamplona, Spain. Profoundly bored during his extended recuperation, he requested some popular romance novels to pass the time. None were available, and he ended up reading instead a life of Christ and a book on the lives of the saints. Those stories prompted a conversion in him, a very real change of heart. The once proud soldier known for his bravery and love of women laid down his arms, saying that he wanted to fight not for the kingdom of Spain but for the kingdom of God.

Once healed (as healed as he would ever be—he walked with a limp for the rest of his life), Ignatius set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. En route, on the banks of the Cardoner River in Manresa, Spain, he experienced a profound religious enlightenment, one he eventually recorded and sought to replicate for others in a small booklet. Today, those writings, The Spiritual Exercises, serve as a guide for millions of spiritual seekers around the world. They also contain the essence of Ignatian spirituality, which unites the roughly twenty thousand Jesuits serving in 127 nations on six continents.

After spending ten months on the banks of the river, Ignatius made his way to Rome, where he was granted permission by Pope Adrian VI to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Ignatius wanted to spend his life imitating Christ and figured there was no better place to do it than the Holy Land. But almost as soon as he arrived, he was sent back to Rome by a priest with authority over the region because the situation in Jerusalem—where Turkish vigilantes who controlled the Holy Land regularly kidnapped and killed Christians—was far too dangerous.

By the time he’d made his way back to Europe, Ignatius had decided he wanted to become a priest. Unfortunately, he didn’t know a word of Latin, a prerequisite for university study and church ministry. So in 1524, in his thirties, he enrolled at a school for boys in Barcelona to study Latin grammar. It was the beginning of an eleven-year period of educational formation, during which he studied at two Spanish universities before enrolling at the University of Paris. During his years of study, Ignatius encountered his share of difficulties. He was beaten nearly to death in Spain and saw his closest companion killed. His teaching of the catechism drew the ire of the examiners for the Inquisition, who told him he needed a “license” to teach. He was brought to trial on several occasions, censured, and twice imprisoned. Despite this, he soldiered on, eventually earning a master’s and a licentiate in theology from the University of Paris.

A small group of students in Paris were heavily influenced by Ignatius, who taught them to pray and directed each of them in early versions of some of the spiritual exercises he’d begun to devise in the wake of his riverside experiences in Manresa. In 1534, Ignatius and six of his companions from the university—Peter Faber, Francis Xavier, James Laynez, Alonso Salmerón, Nicolás Bobadilla, and Simón Rodríguez decided together to take vows of chastity and obedience. They vowed, too, to go to the Holy Land in two years, when their studies were complete. There they would attempt to do what Ignatius had tried to do years earlier by modeling their lives completely on the life of Christ. If they couldn’t reach the Holy Land, they would put themselves at the disposal of the pope in Rome.

Repeated efforts to travel to the Holy Land failed, and late in 1537, after all of them had been ordained priests, Ignatius, Faber, and Laynez made their way to Rome to offer themselves to the pope. Ignatius called them La Compañía de Jesus, which translated roughly to the Company of Jesus. Pope Paul III responded positively to the proposal they laid out, in part because they’d opted after much debate to take a vow of obedience to the pope himself. Paul III expressed a desire to send the priests to various parts of the world to work as missionaries, and he invited the rest of the companions to come to Rome to work under his direction. On September 27, 1540, the papal bull formally creating the Society of Jesus was issued. It ­limited the society to sixty members. In April 1541, Ignatius was elected the society’s first superior general. He insisted on a revote and was again elected—his vote being the lone dissenting vote. Ignatius would spend the remainder of his life, fifteen years, working in a small office in Rome and directing the society by writing letters to its members, who were dispersed to every corner of the globe.

The society he founded proved very popular with young men of the day. The sixty spaces allowed by the papal document filled up almost immediately. Two years later, when the limit was lifted, men clamored to join the new society, and its membership swelled. Ignatius opened schools in Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and India to educate the new members. Then, in 1548, he received an odd request from magistrates in the Sicilian town of Messina: they asked him to open a school to educate their sons as well as Jesuits. When he created the society, Ignatius had not intended to include teaching among its ministries. The sole purpose of the schools he had opened was to educate new Jesuits. Despite this, he responded to the need in Messina and dispatched five Jesuits to open a school there. Today, Jesuits operate thousands of primary schools, secondary schools, colleges, and universities throughout the world. It is, perhaps, the ministry for which they are best known.

St. Ignatius College Prep, located on the Near West Side of Chicago, is one of those schools. It was founded in 1869 as St. Ignatius College by Fr. Arnold Damen, SJ, who had come to Chicago roughly a decade earlier at the request of the city’s third bishop, Anthony O’Regan. The plan had been for Damen to serve as pastor of Holy Name Church, the bishop’s parish, but he set out instead to open a new church. Catholics were plentiful in the center of the rapidly growing city, so it came as a surprise when, in 1857, Fr. Damen chose for the site of the new church a seemingly uninhabitable section of land in the vast prairie southwest of the city. He opened the church, Holy Family, in a temporary building that same year. By 1860, he’d raised enough money to erect a permanent church, which still stands today. In 1869, he opened St. Ignatius College. It would later be divided into a college and a high school—Loyola University Chicago and St. Ignatius High School, now known as St. Ignatius College Prep. The high school today occupies the original St. Ignatius College building. Over the past 139 years, it has become one of Chicago’s preeminent educational institutions, educating generations of civic, business, and church leaders.

In hindsight, Damen’s decision to open the church and school southwest of the city was nothing short of brilliant. Chicago continued its rapid growth and before long extended far beyond St. Ignatius in every direction. The once uninhabitable prairie was chewed up by the city’s grid and became home to thousands of Chicago residents.

One of the factors spurring growth to the south of St. Ignatius’s campus was Mayor John Wentworth’s Battle of the Sands. The Sands, a burgeoning red-light district on the Near North Side of the city, had become occupied by a rapidly growing population of Bohemian Czechs. In an effort to strengthen Chicago’s moral fiber, Wentworth—a six-foot-six Dartmouth-­educated newspaper man turned politician (who, according to legend, drank a pint of whiskey a day)—launched a vicious police campaign on the Sands in 1857. Police are reported to have blitzed the neighborhood, burning houses and beating and sometimes killing residents. The Bohemian population fled the neighborhood and settled half a mile south of St. Ignatius in a neglected area of the city they named Little Pilsen.

Later it became simply Pilsen, and Bohemian immigrants to Chicago gravitated toward the neighborhood. Eventually the immigration tide shifted to Scandinavians. They, too, flocked to Pilsen. So did Austrian, Russian, Hungarian, and Polish immigrants, making Pilsen the primary port of entry for Chicago’s immigrants. The neighborhood, stretching from Halsted Street on the east to Western Avenue and from Sixteenth Street south to Twenty-Sixth Street, was a checkerboard of ethnic enclaves, each centered on a church.
Today, the neighborhood is still dotted with spectacular steeples climbing skyward above the small brick apartment buildings that line vaulted sidewalks and narrow streets. It remains a port of entry for Chicago’s immigrants, but the ethnic enclaves are gone. Pilsen is now populated almost entirely by Latino immigrants, many of them from Mexico, who began arriving in the neighborhood en masse in the 1960s, during the fourth major wave of American immigration.

Winter had descended on Chicago in January of 1991. The grass was covered with a thin layer of hard, windblown snow that had already turned gray from city grime and exhaust. Sunlight was scarce. Even in midafternoon, the sky was dark when Fr. Bradley M. Schaeffer, SJ, turned off Halsted Street and onto Roosevelt Road on his way to a meeting at St. Ignatius College Prep. Schaeffer had graduated from St. Ignatius in 1967, just as the wave of Latino immigration to Chicago was beginning to peak. Later that year, he entered the Society of Jesus at the Jesuit novitiate in Milford, Ohio. Looking back on his reasons for becoming a Jesuit, Schaeffer, who was raised in a working-class neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago by parents whose own parents had immigrated to the United States from Germany, Italy, and Ireland, says, “I thought God was calling me to it. I looked at my father and the Jesuits around me. I thought I could be happy as a husband and father. I thought I could be happy as a Jesuit. And it seemed I could be called to be a Jesuit. Over time, I’ve become convinced it was my vocation. But it has deepened and become more sophisticated. At the same time, it’s simple. It seemed right. It still does. This is where God called me and continues to call me.”

Schaeffer made his way down Roosevelt, past the University of Illinois at Chicago and toward St. Ignatius. After his ordination in 1979, he’d served as assistant principal at St. Xavier, a Jesuit high school in Cincinnati, before becoming principal at St. Ignatius, a job he held until 1989, when he was named the provincial assistant for secondary education and pastoral ministry. On this winter day he stopped for a red light at the intersection of Roosevelt and Blue Island Avenue, waiting to turn right into St. Ignatius’s campus. He gazed down Blue Island, a diagonal street that cuts southwest from St. Ignatius six blocks to Eighteenth Street, the epicenter of Pilsen.

When he was principal at St. Ignatius, Schaeffer often gazed out the window of his fourth-floor office toward Pilsen and thought to himself that the Jesuits should be there. The first Jesuits had offered their order to the pope so they could go where the need was greatest. Schaeffer knew that in Pilsen and Little Village the need was enormous. More than a hundred thousand people, many of them undocumented immigrants, lived in the two neighborhoods. Tens of thousands were school-aged, but there were just two underperforming high schools serving them.

Driving south into these two neighborhoods is almost like crossing the border into Mexico. South of the Sixteenth Street viaduct, there are no Laundromats or barber shops, only lavanderías and peluquerías. Restaurants, businesses, and churches all advertise in Spanish. Sprawling murals—many of the Virgin of Guadalupe—painted by local artists adorn the sides of brick apartment buildings. Smells from taquerías and tortillerías sneak into the streets, tempting passersby to stop for a handful of tiny taquitos or a plateful of steaming enchiladas.

From its earliest days, Pilsen was a refuge for immigrants. Schaeffer knew that hadn’t changed. The neighborhood was populated almost entirely by immigrants from Mexico and Central America who had come to the United States in search of a better life. They found the work so often elusive in Mexico. But work in the U.S.—in factories, on landscaping crews, on temporary labor forces, and in building maintenance—was difficult, and the pay wasn’t great.

Like any parents, these new immigrants wished for their children to have even better lives, with more opportunities. But they realized that those opportunties depended on education. They wouldn’t get the education, but it was their hope that their children would.  With a good education, all their dreams for their children could come true.
Schaeffer knew that existing educational options in the neighborhood weren’t giving every child and every family a chance at the better life they sought. The two public high schools serving Pilsen and Little Village were overwhelmed. Dropout rates in the neighborhood were sky-high. Gangs, violence, and drugs pulled far too many students out of school. It happened when a group of students skipped school to roll joints in someone’s basement and get high. It happened when kids from the neighborhood were harassed on their way home by gang members. It happened when their friends convinced them that being in a gang was cool because you could earn money and you always had protection. It happened the first day a student made the decision to wear gang colors to school. And every time it happened, parents’ dreams for their children began to slowly and painfully dissolve.

The Jesuits should be in Pilsen—Schaeffer knew it. Not only was the need great in the neighborhood, but Latinos had also become, in just a few decades, a significant presence in the Catholic Church in the United States. Studies suggested that, in as little as two decades, they could represent more than 30 percent of the church population. These were people the Jesuits needed to serve.

Schaeffer’s hands were tied while he was principal at St. Ignatius. Authority for the direction of the province’s various ministries—and the creation of new ones—fell not to young high school principals, but to the provincial. In 1989, he became the provincial’s assistant for pastoral ministry and secondary education, a job that charged him with overseeing schools and pastoral ministries. A job that put him on the provincial’s staff and afforded him the opportunity to participate in discussions about how the Jesuits could respond to the greatest need. In the winter of 1991, he still sometimes pondered what it would take to get the Jesuits into Pilsen.

A few days later, a document arrived from Rome naming Fr. Schaeffer the thirteenth provincial of the Chicago Province, the youngest in the province’s history.



We Wanted to Be  with the Poor 


Brad Schaeffer was installed as provincial of the Chicago Province of the Jesuits in August 1991. In February 1992, six months into his new job, he began acting on his instinctual belief that the Jesuits should be working in and for Chicago’s Latino community. He penned a letter to Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, leader of the Chicago Archdiocese, asking permission for the Jesuits to assume pastoral care of a parish in a Latino neighborhood.

It is fairly common practice for a religious order to ask—for any number of reasons—to staff a diocesan parish for a certain period of time. Dioceses and archdioceses welcome the assistance and almost always offer up financially strapped or understaffed parishes. Upon receipt of Schaeffer’s letter, Bernardin promptly wrote back, offering two parishes, one in Pilsen and one in Little Village, a Latino neighborhood just west of Pilsen.

The weathered basketball dropped to the pavement with a thud. It was a few minutes after eight on a February morning. Moments earlier the sun had climbed above the roof of Davis Elementary School, a massive brick building near the intersection of Pershing Road and Kedzie Avenue on the southwest side of Chicago, and now it shone on the school’s asphalt basketball court.

Audelio “Leo” Maldonado Jr. blew into his hands and picked up the ball. His breath was visible as he yelled “¿Listo?” to his friends. “Sí. Sí,” they said, nodding. Leo tossed the ball to Juan José, who flipped it back to him, officially starting the game. Leo looked to his left, then to his right. He slung a pass to Eduardo. That morning, he, Eduardo, and Pablo were playing against Juan José, Jorge, and Orlando. They were all classmates in the fifth grade’s lone bilingual classroom. The six of them came to school an hour early every morning to play basketball; they also ate lunch together and played together after school. They had to. As bilingual students, they were shunned by the mainstream English-speaking Mexican American student body at Davis. Most of Davis’s students were second- or third-generation Mexican Americans and fluent English speakers. Leo and his friends were first-generation. Most of their parents had come to the United States from Mexico as undocumented immigrants.

Leo’s dad had come to the United States during the early 1970s. Like the other people with whom he crossed the Rio Grande under the cover of darkness, he came in search of a better life, of opportunities that didn’t exist for a young man in Mexico. Three years after moving to the States, he returned to Mexico and married Leo’s mom, Teresa. They returned to the States, again illegally.

Both were able to find jobs that required them to speak only a little English. Audelio Sr. landed a job in the shipping department at a metal stamping, fabrication, and assembly plant on the northwest side of the city. He spent his days pulling and pushing skids full of metal products off and onto the beds of trucks. Most weeks he worked six days; most days he worked twelve hours, sometimes more. Occasionally, when they weren’t busy, he got off a little early. Teresa took a job at a plant that manufactured workplace and storage furniture.

On September 8, 1981, they had a baby boy, Audelio Jr. Growing up, Leo didn’t speak English at home. Spanish was the language of family parties, trips to the store, the breakfast table, the TV, and the radio. When he began kindergarten in 1986, Leo was assigned, not surprisingly, to a bilingual classroom. By the time he’d reached fifth grade, he’d rarely been called upon to speak English at school and was still assigned to the bilingual class. But the classes, he recalls, were hardly bilingual. His fifth-grade teacher was a Puerto Rican who himself had very limited English skills.

“Even though it was a bilingual class,” Leo says, “they focused on Spanish, not English, so I didn’t really learn English well until I got to high school. It’s supposed to be a classroom with the teacher teaching in both languages. But that’s not how it worked at Davis in those years. I don’t know how it works now, but in those years it was basically just all the Mexicans who only knew Spanish in one little spot where the teacher spoke Spanish.”

The fact that limited English skills generally inhibit success was lost on Leo, who says the Spanish-heavy education “didn’t really bother me. Back then I didn’t know. I wasn’t really aware.”

On the basketball court, Leo flashed across the lane. “Lalo, Lalo, aquí,” he said, clapping his hands. Eduardo fed him the ball and he turned to the basket, looking for a shot. Orlando slid over, his arms high in the air. Like everyone else in the class, Orlando was taller than Leo. Leo turned, faked a pass, and then sneaked past Orlando for a layup. He missed, but Pablo, who was under the basket, collected it and scored. Leo’s team erupted into loud chatter, in Spanish. They played “make it, take it,” so they got the ball back. Leo blew into his hands again. Snow still ringed the pavement, but with a couple more sunny days it would be gone. Leo checked the ball with Juan José to start the game. He passed to Pablo, and the gym shoes once again began to slide across the pavement. The chatter continued as the six boys competed in the sacred dance of playground basketball. When the bell rang at 8:55, Leo and his friends would once again enter a world where they were ostracized for being “retards,” or just for being different.
Inside school, Leo didn’t distinguish himself as a particularly fastidious student. Early on, he figured out how much he’d have to do to get by, and that’s exactly what he did—nothing more. He wasn’t particularly interested in learning; he just wanted to keep from flunking. He came to school to see his friends, to play basketball with them in the morning, and to talk about the games at lunch. When the bell rang in the afternoon, they left school together. There were more games to be played, mostly football and basketball in the alleys surrounding Leo’s house.

To get from school to those alleys, Leo and his friends walked down Pershing, then up Kedzie to Thirty-eighth. Every day they walked past a handful of gang members, all of whom were easily recognizable by the black and beige clothes they wore, the close-cropped hair, the hooded sweatshirts. The gangbangers lingered around street corners, slouched in doorways, or leaned against light posts. Occasionally they sold some drugs, but really they were watchmen, guarding their turf against rivals. And they were always on the lookout for new members, younger boys who would eventually be able to replace them on the corners so that they could move into the houses. There they would become more involved in the dealing of drugs. They would make more money and have more power.

Leo and his buddies walked past them every day. The gang members knew them; they were the ESL kids—the ones who couldn’t speak English. The losers. The gang members, like the kids at school, weren’t interested in the outcasts. They wanted nothing to do with Leo and his friends. Being left alone by the gangs was the one advantage to being left out at school. They didn’t have to explain why they didn’t want to be in the gang. They could play games in the streets and just be kids.
But they couldn’t be kids forever. Unfortunately, the free pass from gang life they now enjoyed would eventually expire.

In the spring of 1992, Brad Schaeffer made unannounced and unofficial visits to the two parishes in Pilsen/Little Village that Cardinal Bernardin had offered. He attended Sunday Mass at both. The first parish, in Little Village, was made up mostly of first- and second-generation immigrants. Many of them had worked themselves into the middle class, and the parish’s relatively healthy balance sheet reflected this. The Pilsen parish was much poorer, many of the parishioners having just arrived in the United States. The Spanish Mass Schaeffer attended was a free-for-all. “The place was jammed,” he recalls. “There were kids everywhere, running around, screaming and crying.” The parish, which offered mostly Spanish Masses on Saturday evenings and practically every hour on Sunday, received a hefty annual subsidy from the archdiocese.

It may have been wishful thinking on the archdiocese’s part to offer the Jesuits the second parish, knowing well that they would do their homework and dissect the financials for both. The first parish seemed the logical choice, but Schaeffer never seriously considered it, settling instead on St. Procopius, the poorer of the two. “There were a variety of reasons,” he explains. “St. Procopius had lots of young families, intact families. I saw what appeared to me to be husbands and wives with kids. There were kids running all over the place. On the day I visited, I just had a feel that the Eucharist was really engaging.” Ultimately, Schaeffer chose St. Procopius because, he says, “we knew we had to be with the poor in some way. We wanted to be with the poor.”

The poorest of the poor are the modern equivalent of biblical lepers—people shunned and easily forgotten. Why then do the Jesuits desire to be with the poor? “It’s the gospel, for one,” Schaeffer says matter-of-factly. “And our General Congregations, the documents that determine who we are as a religious order, have asked us to be with the poor.” He pauses for a moment before adding, “It just makes sense.”

But it might not make so much sense to an outsider, who might also wonder why a remarkably talented young man like Schaeffer would choose to forgo married life, family, and a career in corporate America to pursue a vowed life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In the modern world—as in St. Ignatius’s time—the decision to become a Jesuit doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. But for a handful of men, a life of prayer and service, a life without sex, without a diversified investment portfolio, without a house in the suburbs, and without children does in fact make perfect sense.

Every Jesuit would answer the question “Why this life?” in his own way. Most would probably say, though, that they feel called. For some it’s a leap of faith. For others it’s a commitment to faith. For each and every Jesuit, it’s a decision to live in a way that is radically countercultural.

More than 450 years ago, St. Ignatius literally gave away all his worldly goods. Today’s Jesuits make the same—sometimes subtler—decision. They turn their backs on the values espoused by the ­predominant culture and aim instead for lives of love and service.

Yet the Jesuits have, since their founding in 1540, been committed to working in the world. The Society of Jesus is not a cloistered order—Jesuits don’t lock themselves in monasteries. They work with and for other people in the world. A central tenet of Jesuit spirituality is that God is present in all things. In cities. In jobs. In churches. In hospitals and schools. Jesuits try to work in many of these places.

The only way to understand the radical decisions Jesuits make, such as choosing St. Procopius over a wealthier and stronger parish, is to understand that their values are, quite simply, different from the values that dominate our culture. Schaeffer’s radical values, though, weren’t the only thing influencing his decision to go with the poorer parish. “I wanted a parish with a grade school,” he says, and the other parish didn’t have one. “A parish without a grade school seems unnatural in a place like Chicago.”
But there was more to it than that. The acquisition of a grade school was the first part of a much larger and surprisingly ambitious plan.

Meet the Author

G.R. Kearney studied English and writing at Georgetown University and recently completed work on his MBA at the University of Chicago. He spent two years as a volunteer, teacher, coach, and bus driver at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. He is the author of The Small Things.

For more from G.R. Kearney, visit

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